Embracing the Spectrum

How binary categories erase queer identities

The Feminist Closet

“OK, but if you had to choose one?”

Last year, one of my classmates asked me this after I had repeatedly stated that I find people of many different genders attractive. I was a bit taken aback by the question, which was dismissive of everything I’d just explained and also relied on the assumption that sexuality is a choice. How am I supposed to choose?

We live in a culture that’s obsessed with binaries and categorizing people into neat little boxes. We’re fed the false narrative that you’re either gay or straight, a man or a woman, this or that. And this forced categorization is more insidious than just a desire for order. There’s a pervasive desperation to pin people down and make them more palatable to other people so that those in the majority can stay comfortable. When you can box someone up, it’s easier to set them aside and ignore them. It’s much harder to ignore the person who’s spilling outside the lines and existing beyond rigid boxes.

As we’ve come to better understand gender, gender expression, and romantic and sexual orientation, it’s become clearer that these identities exist on a spectrum, not two distinct categories. Continuing to perpetuate binaries leads to erasure of identities that exist on the spectrum.

Assuming that everyone is either a man or a woman completely erases the existence of anyone who doesn’t fit either one, such as non-binary or gender nonconforming people. This erasure occurs every time someone says “he or she” or “ladies and gentlemen” instead of the gender-neutral “they” or “people.” Bathrooms, clothing, children’s toys, and gender options on forms are all among the infinite list of things usually divided into two genders, which forces non-binary and gender nonconforming people to choose one or the other.

Bi and pan identities are also often erased. It’s common to refer to a relationship between people of the same gender as “gay,” even when there’s an infinite number of sexualities that the partners could be. On the other hand, many will see a relationship between two people of different genders and assume that it’s a “straight” relationship. We tend to look at people in a particular situation and use that to make guesses about their identities, but that’s ignorant at best and dangerous at worst.

Ace erasure occurs when we assume that everyone is attracted to either the same gender or a different one, which removes the possibility of lack of attraction. The idea of sexuality being a spectrum between gay and straight is slightly more accurate than the two-category approach, but it still doesn’t take asexuality into account.

The gender binary encourages a complementary relationship structure, traditionally of one man and one woman in a monogamous marriage. The idea is that exactly two people, one from each binary gender category, partner up to make a relationship. But that erases polyamorous people who may have multiple partners.

Binaries assume that everyone is in one category or the other, and that will never change. There’s no space in that worldview for identities that are fluid and change over time, which can lead to erasure of genderfluid people and people with fluid sexualities. There’s also the erasure of people who don’t identify with any of those groups, who may refer to themselves as queer, a different label, or no label at all. We need to constantly reaffirm that all these identities are valid, powerful, and important. We won’t be silenced into quiet acceptance of the status quo.

Shattering binary structures isn’t just beneficial for people who live outside of them—although that should be reason enough, as an issue shouldn’t have to benefit the majority in order for it to be deemed worthwhile. But if we’re looking to benefit greater society, breaking down faulty binaries still makes sense. Binary thinking reinforces stereotypes about gender and sexuality, and doesn’t accurately portray those that it claims to represent. The same binary that insists that everyone is either a man or a woman also says that girls should like pink and boys should like blue, that women should be homemakers and men should be breadwinners. Breaking this binary down gives everyone a little more freedom to explore their identity, express themselves as they wish, and be more honest and open about who they are and what they want in life. There is no stereotypical man or woman, so why should we pretend like there is?

I want to clarify that it’s completely fine for people to identify strongly with a binary identity, but the key is that can’t be the only option presented. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a woman, or with being gay, but we can’t stop there. There are an infinite number of possible identities, and we ought to recognize and affirm everyone of any identity.

In order to dismantle the binaries all around us, we’ll need to be more mindful of our language and how the words we use can create a prescriptive reality. Don’t make assumptions about the gender or sexuality of other people, even if you think you have enough evidence to make a guess. Wait for them to tell you, and if they don’t clarify, be neutral in your language. Listen to people when they tell you about their identity, and don’t dismiss their experiences if they don’t fit a binary mold. Finally, don’t pressure anyone to “choose” a binary identity.

Becina J. Ganther ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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