Gender Is Between Your Ears, Not Between Your Legs (Notes on Deconstructing The Binary)

I love “queer.” I see “queer” as meaning that which deviates from the script. Political resistance is “queer.” You live the best way you can, with the biggest awareness that you can, and try to mitigate suffering if you can. That’s what it means to be human. There’s no purity to one position.

— Joan Nestle


A little history on this piece.

I posted the original essay on my blog. It was a bit long for an Out In SA piece (and just became longer, but screw the man. Or in this case, Elaine, our esteemed editor). It was also personal in a way that may not be of much interest to Out In SA readers (as much as I think EVERYONE SHOULD PAY ATTENTION TO ME AT ALL TIMES, DAMMIT! [this is why I’m a public speaker and trainer… ME ME ME]. But then something awesome happened. When I posted it on Facebook, the thread got hijacked in the best possible way. Because I have brilliant and reflexive friends. The resulting discussion was way more brilliant than the original blog post. So I showed it to the long-suffering Elaine and asked if we could turn it into a piece for Out In SA. And she said yes. So the original blog post, with the concomitant commentary is now available for everyone’s edification and amusement.

My parents were good hippies.

They were determined to not steep their first daughter in gender norms by putting me in frilly dresses, pink, hair bows, and polka dots. I grew up in overalls and onesies until one fateful day at the mall. It can be rainy and cold for days on end in the Pacific Northwest, as you know. My mother brought her bouncing off the wall toddler to the mall to work off some energy.

And The (future) Intimacy Dr discovered dresses.

My mother says I was wired from the get-go to be a “frou-frou” (her words). I still have a lot of dresses. And more skirts than tops to go with them. And to be completely honest? Even if I am wearing a “Free Leonard Peltier” tshirt, jeans, shit-kicking rez boots, and ballcap, I am still the girliest looking thing in the room. I ooze female-presenting, matching my birth assignment, no matter what I put on.

Frou-frou indeed.

I also dig men. Like, a lot. Men are yummy, and just smell right to me. By birth assignment, that makes me heterosexual.

So all of this means that I must identify, gender-wise, as female, right?

Not a chance.

Gender has nothing to do with who you have sex with, what sexual organs you were born with, or how you present on the outside. Sometimes we express ourselves through those means, but gender is more complex and way more an internal state of being than you may have realized.

Here are the definitions related to the gender concepts that I use, the one I teach with/present with. These come from a glossary I created with Beck Munsey, and recently updated with assistance from C.G. Jones and Jennifer Linden. Anything problematic with these definitions are entirely my fault, anything great they get credit for. These terms are soon to be published by TALGBTIC as part of an entire LGBTQQIAAP Glossary. And you wanna buy that shit when it comes out. It’s good.


GENDER: A social construct used to classify a person as a man, woman, or some other identity. Fundamentally different from the sex one is assigned at birth, and may or may not be congruent with that assignment. While the historical argument is that gender is purely a social construct, newer research demonstrates that gender behavior does not vary significantly between cultures, therefore there may be neuro-biological roots to gender expression.  See also: Gender Identity

GENDER BINARY: The classification of gender as two separate and distinct opposites, disconnected from each other (male/female, man/woman, girl/boy, masculine/feminine). Also known as gender binarism or binarism.

GENDER DYSPHORIA: an intense continuous discomfort resulting from an individual’s belief in the inappropriateness of their assigned gender at birth and resulting gender role (recognized as the actual medical condition being treated in the DSM-V.)

GENDER EXPRESSION/PRESENTATION: How one expresses oneself, in terms of dress and/or behaviors that society characterizes as “masculine” or “feminine.” May also be androgynous or something else altogether. Some people differentiate between the two terms.

GENDERFLUID: Being fluid in motion between two or more genders; shifting naturally in gender identity and/or gender expression/presentation. May be a gender identity itself. Refers to the fluidity of identity.

GENDERFUCK: A form of gender identity or expression, genderfuck is an intentional attempt to present a confusing gender identity that contributes to dismantling the perception of a gender binary.

GENDER IDENTITY: A person’s internal sense or self-conceptualization of their own gender. Used to call attention to the self-identification inherent in gender. Cisgender, transgender, man, woman, genderqueer, etc. are all gender identities.

GENDER IDENTITY DISORDER (GID): An older controversial DSM-IV diagnosis still used outside the US given to transgender and other gender-variant people. Because it labels people as “disordered,” Gender Identity Disorder is often considered offensive. The diagnosis is frequently given to children who don’t conform to expected gender norms in terms of dress, play or behavior. Such children are often subjected to intense psychotherapy, behavior modification and/or institutionalization.

GENDERISM: The belief that there are, and should be, only two genders and that one’s gender or most aspects of it are inevitably tied to the assigned sex.

GENDER NON-CONFORMING (GNC): A person who does not subscribe to gender expressions or roles expected of them by society.

GENDER NORMATIVE: Conforming to the cultural rules regarding gender expression, either explicit or implicit.

GENDER OUTLAW: A person who refuses to be defined by conventional definitions of men and women. A term popularized by Kate Bornstein in her book of the same name, not seen in current vernacular as often.

GENDERQUEER: A person whose gender identity and/or gender expression falls outside of the dominant societal norm for their assigned sex, is beyond genders, or is some combination thereof.

GENDER ROLES- The socially constructed and culturally specific behavior and appearance expectations imposed on women (femininity) and men (masculinity).


I share these terms here (and the larger glossary when I teach) because so many of us, myself included, don’t even have the right words to express ourselves or honor those around us. And language, like gender identity, is fluid and constantly changing.

Which is why, for myself, I don’t accept the concept of the gender binary at all. It doesn’t fit me. No matter how girlie I look, anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes in a room with me knows that there is nothing girlie in how I navigate the world.

I have always worked in mental health, and during my early years doing case management, I was well known for my “balls of steel” (Just ask my friend Q, ze will tell you they are clearly huge and steel because they drag and subsequently gouge the ground beneath me when I walk.) My reputation was made when I convinced a local pimp to give up his girl (my client) so she could take the spot I got her in substance abuse recovery.

Because really, what else are you going to do when a mini-van driving mom pulls up and demands you hand over your meal ticket? Besides pee yourself laughing?

I navigated caring for a dying husband while completing a doctoral program. I’ve parenting two special needs kiddos as a widow. You better believe I have a set of balls that drags the ground when I walk. I had shit to take care of.

Gender is between the ears, not between the legs. It also may have everything to do with how you present yourself to the world, nor nothing at all. So other than the fact that I can rock a short skirt like Tina Turner, there is not much girlie about me.

But I am not traditionally male in any sense either. I am warm, and empathic, and unaffectedly care about people. My job is to create a sense of safety in my office, and I think I do that well, it’s what people comment on about me time and again. That I accept them, just not their bullshit. I genuinely like people, quite nearly all of them. I don’t chew tobacco and spit in public, I don’t manspread my legs on the bus. I talk about my feelings and cry whenever the fuck I feel like it. I’m may not be girlie, but I’m not very guyie either.

The gender binary (definitions above, in case you forgot) have really fucked us up, as a culture. Why do we have to choose a set of rules and ascribe to them? We lose so much of what makes us the unique, excellent individuals that we are.

When I present with my dear friend Beck Munsey, we ask the room which one of us is gender queer. Only once, in one presentation, did someone say that I was too, not just Beck. I’m in a skirt, ze is in a tie. We are both queer. Beck digs chicks, I dig guys. We are both queer. Ze is the one that gets shit for using the Women’s bathroom, I’m the one there next to hir, ready to pull out a can of whoop-ass out of my Kate Spade carry-all. We are both queer.

Beck and myself, like many other people decided as some point in our lives that we didn’t fit into a neat category and we were allowed to stop trying. We were allowed to be who we were without question, owning all of the excellent qualities that we culturally ascribe to maleness AND femaleness in our same personhood.

Jill Solloway, the creator of the brilliant Amazon series, Transparent, spoke to her own gender identity in the February 2015 issue of Elle Magazine. She stated:

I’ve always been straight identified and always slept with men, but politically I feel like a lesbian – I see male privilege everywhere. She goes on: “I identify as queer. Is that weird? I feel like I am in an ever-evolving state of becoming, and I definitely feel like when my father came out [as MTF transgender], it gave me a comforting feeling that I came from a queer family. And in terms of whether I identify as bi or queer, I feel like there would be a totally different answer a year from now.

Queerness is like an algorithm that can’t compute. Hell, queerness IS an algorithm that can’t compute. Facebook is always trying to figure me out. I’ve gotten ads meant for gay men, and ads meant for lesbians. Social media is always having an “Um, how about this?” conversation with me. Just shut up and show me my feed, yo.

When you break the binary, you break the algorithm. Both online and in real life. That’s the true source of discomfort for people. They want the neat category. If you were born with a vagina, you should act like it. It’s a safer, smaller existence. At least for those around you. In The Cathedral of Computation,  Ian Bogost calls bullshit on the deification of an algoristic social system.

 If algorithms aren’t gods, what are they instead? Like metaphors, algorithms are simplifications, or distortions. They are caricatures. They take a complex system from the world and abstract it into processes that capture some of that system’s logic and discard others. And they couple to other processes, machines, and materials that carry out the extra-computational part of their work. Unfortunately, most computing systems don’t want to admit that they are burlesques. They want to be innovators, disruptors, world-changers, and such zeal requires sectarian blindness.

But even in my queerness, and likely even in Jill Solloway’s there is an awareness of privilege that other gender queer individuals, such as Beck, are not afforded. Because it doesn’t (often) present in how I dress, I can navigate the aisles of HEB without the side glances. I’ve never been harassed in the bathroom like Beck is (and I use whichever one is empty, no matter what is marked on the door).

I can’t wait for the day where “not my circus, not my monkey” because everyone’s operative phraseology. And no one gives a damn if the person reaching for the last bag of baked Cheetos is male, female, or other. As long as they put that shit down, because you saw them first.

I love that the term two-spirit, which had fallen out of use in native communities for many decades now is being reclaimed. It is being used to honor all of the facets of identity that can exist within someone. It’s a pre-colonial term, older than America. As my indigenous sisters reclaim it, I hope others do as well.

My fiancé admits that he was confused by my use of the term gender queer at first. I can rock a tiny dress, after all. But I explained to him that all the things he loves about me are the things that have scared off many other men. My education, my propensity to say what I think and back it up with both research and action, my determination in going after what I want. And are not what we culturally ascribe to femaleness in our culture. He’s proud of that shit. Not just in theory but in the day to day reality of our lives.

Now he just laughs when he finds a stray hair on my chin and announces that my maleness is coming out.

My kids? Pretty damn queer, even if they don’t necessarily use that term. My son pulled off his size 12 smelly-ass sneakers the other day to reveal a pink pair of socks. MY pink pair of warm, warm boot socks. That I had spent 20 minutes looking for that morning.

“Mother FUCKER! You know those are mine!”

“No, I didn’t, thought they were mine.”

“Bitch! They’re PINK!”

“Yeah, like THAT’S a qualifier in this house.”

Oooooh, well played.

No matter what your birth assignment, no matter what your gender identity, no matter what you look like on the outside? Rock your gender identity. If it’s male or female, get on with your bad self. If it is somewhere in between? I’ve always got a place for you at my table. But first? Could you help me pluck this chin hair, real quick?

The Convo

Jenn: I both LOVE and am confused as SHIT by your use of gender queer. I don’t need an explanation or nothing. Just saying. The disconnect is half the story. Also: 3 year old Warrior Panda [the chosen pseudonym of the now 14 year old son referred to above] is still one of my favorite gender ninjas. I won’t embarrass the kid, but he was busy showing everyone how it’s done before he was putting together sentences with proper syntax.

Faith: He is still a total gender ninja. He don’t give a shit. And I LOVE that the piece was a mindfuck, Jenn! I think gender is, too!!

CG: Gender is the foundation for the definitions of hetero and homo-sexual. This is where the issues of the genderblur confuses and offends those who prefer straight bright lines. If we redefine gender by allowing the one living the dream to be self-defined, we offend the purists and steal their sexuality definitions. Therefore I propose that we create a single label for sexuality and allow any and all self-defined genders to flourish. This happens by defining sexuality as human sexuality and gender as a personal label only the user can select. Then on dating websites you won’t have MfM or MfT or TfM Or FtF or MtF you end up with have penis will fuck! LOL HPWF

Jenn: I read the first line and I was like “hold up now…” and then I read the rest and I was like Im pretty sure “Penis Haver. DTF?” is something that shows up on Craigslist adult personals a lot. Soooooo…. spot on!

Benjamin: CG? I aim to, well not exactly offend, but at least to smash those straight bright lines with a 15-ton wrecking ball: After all I’m bigender, which means that, roughly half the time, I identify as male (which is what I was assigned at birth) and the other half I identify as female, yet regardless of which gender I identify as, I’m only attracted to women. Therefore, does that mean I’m a straight guy? A lesbian? Both? Neither? One of the reasons I prefer the terms gynophillia & androphillia to describe orientations other than bi/pan-sexual, since my being outside the usual gender binary, but having a definite preference makes me (and those like me) very hard to define under the more traditional definitions of sexuality….

CG: Then the question really becomes what definition we assign to gender right? You say you are only attracted to women? Women who look female regardless of genitalia or are you essentially attracted to the vagina? This is the issue with definitions. And I like the gyno and andro definitions. They are certainly more accurate. I am averse to sex but not sexual interactions. I am a voyeuristic control freak who is more turned on by watching and directing than performing any of the acts myself. I have an attraction to the penis and vagina for different reasons and when I am in certain moods. Unfortunately, sometimes physical restrictions have a greater role than I wish they did, but given my personal attractions, I am not certain there is a true definition out there for my brand of sexuality. The greatest difficulty with being bisexual is that you are presumed straight if you happen to be dating the opposite genitals and gay if you happen to be dating the same genitals. Creates a conundrum where the only way a bisexual can be recognized as such is for he or she to say so. However, as we both recognize, the trouble with defining sexuality stems directly from the definition of male and female. Not certain there is truly a solution that would be satisfactory other than people labeling themselves and others not trying to redefine them if they don’t understand the definition. I am the master of my own labels and I get to choose. No one else gets that power to label me. Thus definitions for whatever they are worth in this context are always going to be complicated and fraught with problematic usage and interpretation.

Faith: Sexually queer works. Or make a new word, hell.

Jenn: The entire notion of sexual preference as it relates to gender identity or the physical structures attached to our bodies seems increasingly disjointed to me. The difficulty with labels is that they both simplify things into neat one or two word packages, and that they simplify things into neat one or two word packages.

CG: And sexuality is anything BUT simple.  And there is no definition that really allows for the sexual fluidity that most human beings experience in a lifetime either.

Benjamin: CG, to answer your previous comment, I’m more attracted to the overall female form, regardless of what “hardware” they might have down below…. Don’t ask me why, but I just am.

CG: And that is why labels are so problematic.  it gets complicated when we try to box in something that has so many personal definitions.

Faith: Remember that we are hard wired to categorize, that’s a difficult thing for humans to overcome.

Jenn: And yet that need to categorize creates a dynamic where we define things as “Column A” and “Column B” without considering the possibility of “Diagonal Blue” and “Helix Alpha” as it relates to everything else. This results, of course, in much tumblring and gnashing of teeth.

CG: Human beings are super complicated creature who over simplify life because the challenge of existence is too much work. We want easy not right.

Jenn: The most complicated known species in our capacity for scientific awareness and the idea that women can have penises and not all men are men 100% of the time and that our attractions to others can be explored on more levels than “do you have an innie or an outie” still confounds us. Even my (admittedly glib) comment earlier about “penis haver.” essentially means nothing beyond the existence of loose skin in a specific physical area. From intersex variations to the effects of HRT, the notion that being in possession of a penis has any real value is… silly. A woman who has been on HRT for an extended period may in fact have a penis, but it can be so feminized as to be only technically similar to a mans penis. In the trans community it is a VERY common thing for cis men to approach trans women, lavish them with praise over how feminine they are, and then expect them to top when in bed, assuming porn is a reasonable facsimile of real life. Alas, even the idea that one is in possession of a certain anatomy is a qualifier for anything other the simple act of being “in possession” is… unfounded.

CG: Porn a reasonable facsimile? LMFAO!

Jenn: And that’s just riffing on things from the trans feminine angle. From the masculine angle? I… don’t even know where to start.

Biology, birth assignments, physical structures, identities, sexual preferences, etc etc etc.

Its sooooo complex and we want to break it down into “man/woman” and “gay/straight” like we can just be categorized in a rolodex (yup. Im old.)

Selina Kyle: I never gave gender that much thought until I got a Tumblr, where this is a constant topic of conversation. Just the vocabulary is overwhelming. I identify as a straight female, but on the other hand, I don’t date because it feels so problematic, like I’m playing a role the whole time. In ‘real life’ I am sometimes girlie but more often dress boyishly because it’s comfortable; I’m difficult and often prickly and I swear a lot; no I’m not growing my hair long I hate dealing with hair; makeup is a sometimes thing; I hate giving up the tv remote; I can’t imagine ever living with a man again because where would I put him with all my stuff?? I can’t sell it, I’m too weird. But it annoys me that this could put my gender into question because the female box is too small. Why should I have to climb into another box?

Jenn: “Why should I have to climb into another box?” On the one hand, Im like “FUCK THE BOX! DOWN WITH BOXES! On the other hand… I really really really like my box. It is warm and fuzzy and has Mountain Dew on tap. I’ve never been the type to be like “gender is just a social construct maaaaaannnnnn”, I think attempts to shame someone for not falling into a neat binary package is fucking stupid. And cruel. And not very well considered.

Selina: As long as it’s a box you made and not one you’re being shoved into, or pried out of. And binaries are just … why be so small?? I went on a couple dull dates with this guy once who was oddly fascinated by my hair. Not the actual hair, my haircut — because I kept it really short. He kept complimenting it, but as some sort of supreme act of bravery and confidence on my part, like, “most women wouldn’t be able to pull off hair that short” and “most women aren’t brave enough to cut their hair that short,” etc. And it was amusing at first and then I was like OMFG IT’S A HAIRCUT. It’s not some sort of transgressive act FFS, I just like having really easy to deal with hair. How small is your binary that it’s so thrillingly challenged by a haircut??

Jenn: I think that MOST people (90%+) merely accept their gender for what it is because, “Meh. It fits. Whatever. I look like I should have the body parts I do and I dont mind them”. They fall into line with their gender expectations because those expectations really arent good or bad and can be enjoyable no matter “what” you are. They dont really care which box they end up in, they just dont want to spend too much time thinking about it. When you step outside the norms they have spent a lifetime NOT thinking about, it forces their brains to do some exercises they may have literally NEVER done before. Synapsis sizzle and hamsters die of exhaustion. Sometimes people are able to accept things outside their norms pretty easily, but I think most people spend a lot of time struggling, especially when it comes to something so immutable AND ephemeral as the relationship between sex and gender. “But but but you have a certain configuration of skin between your legs, you’re supposed to do the things our culture say you have to do!” and anything that doesn’t toe the line gives the hamster an aneurysm.

Selina: Hamsters. *snortlaugh*

CG: Selina, are you free next weekend?


About the guest authors:

Benjamin Bonebrake is a ninja. If we told you anything else we would have to kill you.

Chase G. Jones, Esq. is an attorney and activist located in Houston, Texas.

Selina Kyle is a pseudonym for a friend of The Intimacy Dr who does not want you up in her business or asking her out on a date. She already turned Chase down cold.

Jennifer Linden is a trans rights advocate living in the shadows of the great Rocky Mountains, alongside her long-suffering wife and a menagerie of fuzzy and not so fuzzy critters. When not calling out trans-misogyny whenever it rears its ugly head, in 2015 you can find her gracefully crashing her mountain bike all over Colorado, or getting tackled like a chump on the Rugby pitch.


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