The Evolution of Queerness: A Short Lexical History (Final)

November 22, 2017 in inQueery

Coming out of the binary trope?

Western culture has long stated that there are “men” and “women” and that the two are opposite sides of the coin of humanity: different and complementary.

Still, the traditional gender binary paradigm -in which there are two genders (female & male) which are paired with two sexes (woman & man) and in which people of one sex & gender are invariably attracted to people from the opposite sex & gender- that we are trying to break free from these days is actually a pretty recent invention.

In A queer History of the United States -a book I have enjoyed mentioning in this series- Michael Bronski acknowledges the recent materialization of this model and identifies a possible cause for it: “The emergence of the new, strange, ambiguous, intermediate third sex -the invert- led American culture to clearly define the physical, social, and cultural parameters of the first and second sexes.” In other words, as soon as people took more liberties with gender roles, a stricter definition of these roles was in order.

Concurrently, a contributor to the website Queer Grace wrote: “prior to [the late 19th century], people did not think to identify ‘what they were,’ in terms of to whom they were sexually attracted. The specific ways in which we now think of sexual identity or even sexual practices have changed dramatically over time.” So, in the past, who you liked to have sex with did not necessarily say anything about your gender identity. So much for the idea of steady historical progress.

Nowadays, the gender binary is everywhere. That’s a reality you are  probably even more aware of if you don’t fit within its confines. Thus, a contributor to the educational website Teaching Tolerance writes: “A significant barrier to creating fully inclusive schools is the presumption that sex, gender and sexual orientation fit neatly into a binary model.  This binary world is populated by boys and girls who are viewed as polar opposites. This world conflates biology, gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation, relegating people to rigid categories: male or female, gay or straight.”

There are two major takeaways from this: people think that male is the opposite, the contrary, the negative to the idea of female (think of the yin and yang trope) and, in their mind, biology, gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation, all come in a neat, color-coded package.

This is of course not true, and now is the time for another helpful illustration by blogger Sam Killermann:

This chart shines a light on truths that have become evident to the LGBTQ community: gender identity is not the same a biological sex, which does not determine sexual orientation, which is not necessarily connected to gender expression, etc. So one can identify as a woman (gender identity) and not be feminine (gender expression). Seems simple enough. Yet, these ideas go against so many preconceptions on sex and gender that they are having a hard time sinking into the collective mind.

Attesting to those tenacious assumptions is what I perceive as Killermann’s imperfect reasoning. Here’s the issue: when you consider gender identity, gender expression and biological sex, you tend to always see the same thing: it all comes back to the two traditional genders/sexes; anyone who doesn’t conform is casually placed somewhere in the middle. That’s not really what I’d call a semantic revolution. (Killermann concedes that “many people consider their identity to fall outside of the traditional (and limited) woman to man spectrum,” but still inexplicably sticks with his linear visual).

So here we have an LGBTQ blogger, who specializes on gender issues but still somehow falls into classic binary thinking. It is no wonder then, that the average Joe keeps thinking in terms of boy vs. girl (think of those kitschy “Its a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” visuals that inevitably accompany the birth of a new baby).

So the persistence of binary thinking complicates the task even of people who do not think in binary terms. The existence of a dominant paradigm means that anyone who departs from it has to offer not only criticism of that paradigm, but also an alternative worldview. For instance, when defining yourself as non-binary you can still uphold the binary model by seeing yourself as being located somewhere in between “woman” and “man,” or you can incite a revolution against this model by claiming that there weren’t really any “women” or “men” to speak of in the first place.

Ironically though, the emergence of new gender identities might somehow have invigorated the traditional ones. Indeed, it may be that the existence of new identities has reinforced and narrowed the definitions of “woman” and “man” in the same way that the materialization of the “invert” as a third gender did in the past according to Bronski.

In the end, can we ever get away from the female/male binary? Maybe the only way to escape it would be to imitate G.L.O.W’s Sheila the She Wolf and declare ourselves to be wolves.

Wait, scrap that, a “wolf” is already a gay slang.


Conclusion: The limits of language

To quote Bronski one last time: “While language informs identity, the elaborate emotional, psychological and political intricacies of lives exceed identity and even language itself. There is never a perfect word or set of words to fully understand oneself.”

So, language is both an open door and, eventually, a dead end.

Yet, the deficiency of language doesn’t mean that we should deprive the queer community from “useful labels” that help describe identities that have long been shunned and allow more people to express their individuality.

But, in the end, can we really count on language to provide all the answers right here and right now? My high school philosophy teacher told me that if I couldn’t think of the right words to say something, it probably meant that whatever I was trying to convey wasn’t clearly formed in my own head. My high school philosophy teacher was also a homophobic tool who “taught” us that condoms perverted mankind.

So, if you’re confused, that’s fine. If you feel upset by people constantly asking you to “explain” yourself to them, remember this: language has limits, the complexity of your being doesn’t. Take advantage of the wonderful freedom linguistics offer, embrace new concepts, open new doors. The goal is to give everyone more freedom, not to summon rigid categories meant to categorize and sideline.

There will always be disagreement. Look at the term “transgender” for instance. To some, transgender people tend to “simply” identify with the gender opposite to the sex they were assigned at birth, while others insists that many transgender people see themselves as non-binary. But disagreements of this sort are fine as long as they foster productive and respectful debate. Ah, having a meaningful public conversation on identity politics, there’s another elusive goal to set for ourselves.





Anne Errelis is a Staff Contributor at Inqueery.