Misgendering in a Culture with Only Two Boxes

When a guy nudges me with his elbow and says, “You’re such a guy!” my natural tendency is to roll my eyes or agree in a sarcastic tone. It seems I can do fifty-three feminine things vs one masculine thing and one of my non-close male friends or acquaintances will decide I’m a typical guy the moment I do one masculine thing.

The scenario above is much closer to how things were in high school and I didn’t yet know how gender worked or my location on the map/spectrum/collage.

In my recent life, these attempts to toss me in a standardized gender box are much more subtle. I believe that my acceptance of my non-binaryness has led me to be less of a target. I allow myself to act more the way I feel and less the way society expects me to.

I know that no amount of projecting ambiguity on my part will derail the deep-seated need of people steeped in our western gender-deterministic culture to fit every person they meet into one of two boxes. I know that I cannot expect the average joe on the street to look at me and go,”Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t assume this person is like all the other people with this body shape.”

But, I can and do challenge people’s white-knuckled grip on a binary deterministic sense of gender.

(GBI = Gender Binary Initiate)

GBI: Men like body building.

Me:  My best friend doesn’t, he dropped out of basketball because he hated lifting weights so much.

GBI: Women like getting their hair done.

Me:  My wife avoids going to a hair salon at all costs, she even gave herself a bowl cut for a few years.

Doubt is our ever-present ally when culture prescribes truths that everyone’s supposed to believe in. There is no individual that perfectly fits the ideals of man and woman. Even in our own culture. All you need to do to prove this is to ask two friends who is the most perfect example of a man/woman?

This is a great way to start a fight between friends that is distracting enough that you can incorporate it into your next escape plan. There is no answer to that question that everyone can agree on.

I have a friend who believes that stubble is more manly than a beard because it is rougher. So, his ultimate man would be a guy who replaced his cheeks with sheets of coarse silicon carbide sandpaper. (silicon carbide is sharper and harder and therefore more manly according to American cultural presets)

Even if they were able to reach a consensus, the entire rest of the world would have counterarguments about what different genders look and act like. Some cultures even have a third gender, like kathoeys in Thailand. In China and Taiwan, the most desired men are sensitive and compassionate. Mandopop, the leading form of pop music, features male artists that exhibit something called wenrou. Marc L. Moskowitz characterizes wenrou as “a tender androgyny.”

Trying to fit humans into two gender boxes isn’t just wrong, it is objectively wrong. If humans can be in different boxes in different cultures and there is no one person that fits any stereotype perfectly, gender cannot be attached to one’s genitals, their sports preferences, or their relationship with hair salons. The only way to know what gender someone is is to ask them.

I know that anyone reading this is likely already in agreement. Perhaps, what I have above can be used as talking points one can use with people that are not seeing outside their culturally-enforced categories.

What about me? What do I do in my everyday life?

Well, I have long conversations with people when I can and let people have their two-color world when I don’t have time. When I correct misconceptions, I try very hard to own the role of an educator and the patience that comes with that role.

The majority of people call me “him” and I don’t challenge it. What I challenge are the assumptions that people make about what someone you call “him” is or should be like. It is possible that I will make more of a use of gender-neutral pronouns in the future, but I don’t think I will correct people who I pass in the supermarket.

I don’t have the energy that is required to be assertive repeatedly about something like that throughout my entire day. Repetition can cause me to feel very agitated.

I do have the energy to:

  1. Put my hair up in a bun,
  2. Wear women’s jeans even though they have… VERY SMALL POCKETS! AAAAAH! SO FRUSTRATING!
  3. Wear colors and cuts that are less typical for the gender that people think I am.
  4. Get a kilt! I know I could rock a kilt and there are some designs from Utilikilt that look a bit like a pleated skirt.
  5. Let my mannerisms and movements flow the way that feels right regardless of the gender people would associate them with.
  6. Express my emotions honestly regardless of their gender association

I prefer to dissolve the presets people have in their heads subtly. Writing stories about characters that do straddle male/female divide, owning my own gender expression, asking questions that get people thinking about the arbitrariness of culture, and being a likable social deviant.

Yes, I feel annoyed when someone is actively trying to put me in a gendered box, but I have started to see it as an opportunity to teach people about their mental templates and where those templates go wrong.

Have thoughts/comments/book suggestions to share? Put them in the comments!


Who is this Marc L. Moskowitz guy? He wrote the book on Mandopop that I quoted. It is pretty interesting if you’re curious about Chinese pop music. Be warned that my book’s binding was not done right and you may have to be careful with your copy. Might be better to get the ebook.

Moskowitz, Marc L. Cries of joy, songs of sorrow: Chinese pop music and its cultural connotations. University of Hawaii Press, 2010.