Reprogramming the Gender Binary

Now that the increasingly misnamed Fall Semester is starting to wind down at last, I’ve finally got a little time to address some ideas I’ve had on the back burner. One of these is something that came up during a program on gender here at RRC this fall. We had been discussing the gender binary as a rigid structure that causes problems for people who don’t fit within its either/or classification. Someone spoke up at this point and voiced their confusion about what to do with the fact that many of the people who don’t fit into the binary still tend to describe different aspects of their gendered experience in terms of male/female. Wouldn’t getting rid of the binary entirely invalidate those people’s identities to some extent?

This discussion quickly turned to the question of what to do with non binary gender within a religious framework like Judaism, which relies heavily on oppositions to do a lot of its conceptual heavy lifting:

“Blessed are you, Ha Shem, ruler of the universe, who separates between the holy and the ordinary, between light and darkness, between the seventh day and the six days of work. Blessed are you Ha Shem, who separates the holy from the ordinary.” (Havdalah blessing)

It was at this point that a faculty member (go, go Vivi Mayer!) brought up the passage in the Mishnah (in the oddly tacked on fourth chapter of Bikkurim) that deals with the halachic status of the androgynos (אנדרוגינוס), i.e. a person born with ambiguous genetailia. According to the Mishnah, when it comes to the the androgynos, “there are ways in which he (sic) is equivalent to men, and there are ways in which he is equivalent to women, and there are ways he is equivalent to both men and women, and there are ways in which he is not equivalent to men or to women.”

What is fascinating about this passage is the way in which it uses a binary distinction (man/woman) as a tool with which to define a more complex and ambiguous identity (the androgynos) by means of a carefully articulated set of similarities and differences. As it turns out, this framework (like X in some ways, like Y in some ways, like both X and Y in some ways, like neither X nor Y in some ways) is used more than once in the Mishnah to work out how an ambiguous edge case fits into the overwhelmingly binary structure of halachah. In adopting this framework, the ancient rabbis were able to acknowledge the existence of subjects that don’t fit into that binary structure without thereby expelling them to some undefined space “outside” the boundaries of the halachah (which for them would have been basically indistinguishable from erasing them altogether).

And what occurs to me in this context is that there’s another area in which an apparently simple binary is used in increasingly complex combinations to create something more subtle and interesting, and that’s the binary code that underlies the functioning of computers. When you drill down to the most elemental level, all computer code is ultimately made up of ones and zeroes. A single bit, a single position, can only ever be either/or: 1 or 0, this or that.* But at that level of simplicity, very little can be accomplished. One bit doesn’t give you very much information at all. But once you start stringing positions together, more complexity can be achieved. With two bits, you now have four possibilities rather than two: 00, 01, 10 and 11. String together four bits and you have enough for the numbers 0-9 and you can now do math with decimal numbers. Once you string seven bits together you’ve got enough for the full range of alphanumeric characters and you can write a book, all with nothing but ones and zeroes.

But here’s the thing: Just because a long string of ones and zeroes is a useful tool for encoding a text file of, say, Moby Dick, doesn’t mean that Moby Dick is itself a one or a zero. The ones and zeroes are the material it is made up of, but the book transcends these materials to do something new, something much more complex and interesting. If I were to decide that the ones and zeroes were the most important part of Moby Dick and go around dividing it, and other books, into two big piles based on whether there were more ones or more zeroes in each one, as if that actually said anything significant about the book, you’d call me crazy. The same might be said about gender.

When we say that we want to challenge the gender binary, we aren’t necessarily saying we want to (or even feel like we can) live in a world where we have to make do without reference to gendered language. What we’re saying is that our culture is heavily invested in the idea that all books are either ones or zeroes, and that this creates serious problems for books that feel like they’ve been miscategorized, or that the category into which they’ve been assigned doesn’t say everything (or even anything) important about them. We’re saying that using the gender binary as a set of rigid categories in the first place is possibly the least useful and least interesting thing we could do with it, like fixating on the ones and zeroes stored in a computer instead of combining them in interesting ways to do math, or write books, or create software that allows us to launch a simulated bird at a tower of evil pigs.

With this in mind, I think the helpful answer to the person who spoke up in the discussion would be that we need to get to the point where we think of the binary as a language for programming in and not a set of rigid and sterile containers. As an exercise, I invite you (if you aren’t the kind of person who’s in the habit of thinking this way), to look at the following list of things that we habitually lump into the single, all-encompassing container of “gender” and consider them as individual, discrete “bits” in a string of gendered information, with regard to each of which individually a person might be “equivalent to male, equivalent to female, equivalent to male and female, or equivalent to neither male nor female.”**

Gendered bits:

  • Biological sex
  • Genetic sex (chromosomes)
  • Anatomic sex (genetailia)
  • Physiological sex (reproductive function)
  • Assigned gender (what the doctors put on your birth certificate)
  • Legal gender
  • Gender expectations (how others expect me to behave, present and identify)
  • Pronouns people call me by
  • Pronouns I prefer to be called by
  • Behavior patterns of others toward me (personal space, language, communication style, assumptions about preferred social groups, etc.)
  • Gender identity (how I think of myself)
  • Gender presentation
    • Clothing
    • Appearance
    • Behavior

* At some level the analogy doesn’t hold, because beyond “1” and “0” the rabbinical formulation from the midrash has access to the additional (and very useful) positions of “both 1 and 0” and “neither 1 or 0.” This makes the system even more flexible, and I hope the general similarity is apparent.

** It’s important to note that this list is in no way comprehensive, and that each item on the list is itself a complex construction possibly made up of a network of other, more subtle “bits.”

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