Rethinking the Gender Spectrum in an Increasingly Politicized USA

Since joining Columbia’s campus, I have increasingly heard reference to “the gender spectrum” as a model for better organizing gender practices than the binary model to which I was accustomed. Many contemporary scholars have discussed gender as a “constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived difference between the sexes, but also as a “primary way of signifying relationships of power.”[1] The binary model recognizes only two genders --woman and man,-- and places them in complete opposition. The recent election campaign has underscored how political this model that many, like me, assumed natural, truly is. Is the gender spectrum a politically more fruitful model in post-election USA, or will it reproduce problems?

The gender binary both implies and enforces that any male attributes cannot also be female attributes  simply because they are are ‘opposites.’ Accordingly, gender can become oppressive for people whose thoughts and actions do not fall near one of the two extremes. Moverover, this model distributes traits "convergently" -- a soft voice (feminine) versus rough voice (masculine), should coincide with small body (not a big body), emotionality (not rationality), and so on. Men should have all those traits that aren't feminine, and vice versa; a person's having one trait on the feminine side would presuppose their having all the other traits, too. But in truth, not only do some men have many "feminine" traits, but also some "men" have some feminine traits and some masculine traits. People tend to have a bit from both sides, unless they work really hard to purge themselves of traits associated with the "opposite" gender. The many traits by which we conventionally identify (and discipline) gender just don't actually line up convergently; they diverge.   

While gender is experienced as personal, it is also inherently political -- predominantly concerning the distribution of power -- and sometimes that comes to the fore, such as during the recent election campaign. Gender politicians are calling into question the ways in which politics constructs gender and gender constructs politics. They note that gender allows us access to certain resources, and resources allow us to pursue gender practices. For example, in the US public bathrooms, unlike private ones, impose gender segregation and require binary gender identification. Sports competitions do the same thing on the playing field. How can the gender spectrum relate to these structures?

As a politicizing concept, the gender spectrum counters the dominant binary model, but how successful is it? The gender spectrum “perceives gender as having many options; it is a linear model, ranging from 100% man to 100% woman, with various states of androgyny in between.”[2] An individual can fall anywhere along the spectrum. In 2014, the US Department of Education reaffirmed that “Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”[3] This claim was made largely because of the more frequent use and introduction of the gender spectrum into popular culture. Still, with its two defining ends being man and woman, is this linear model really a valid solution to the conundrum of complete opposition?

Consider the political implications: in 2016 the Supreme Court took on the highest profile case since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, that of a trans male denied access to the male bathroom at his high school. North Carolina’s state legislature, like several others, has passed a law requiring individuals to use the public bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificates. Here the remainder of one trait (even if it is just the inscription on the birth certificate) cancels out all other traits and makes the defendant female, though imperfectly so. The gender spectrum does not move understanding of this transmale beyond the binary; it only renders him vulnerable to argument about which side he should go to.

Theoretically, many problems arise with the setup of the gender spectrum. First, is the fact that to be ‘non-binary’ is contingent upon the existence of the binary. The binary system does not disappear with the conception of the spectrum but in fact it enforces it as well as the idea that masculine and feminine must exist in opposition to one another. Additionally, the spectrum does not dismantle the socially constructed norms set up for each gender; all it allows one to do is create different proportions of these norms. Still traits are always tagged back to “masculine” or “feminine,” enforcing the fundamental existence of these ‘opposites.’ This makes the resulting entity another socially constructed, corporeal, norm, rather a vibrant new way of being.

Because the gender spectrum was created with the intentions of liberating individuals from the aforementioned societal structure, it behooves us to analyze it and question whether its structure is able to accomplish the task. The problem that the spectrum is attempting to solve is that gender can be oppressive. Gender is frequently reified and constructed into this sort of material entity that does not afford fluidity and change; it is coercively and forcefully enforced.

Secondly, the constitution of one gender in relation to another creates firm, and strict and oppressive norms: this holds whether those norms are on opposite ends or merely opposite ideas.  A problem emerges when this identification only works with the existence of another (its opposite) because it renders identification with one dis-identification from the other.

But then what is the solution? To formulate a new model? A circle perhaps without opposite ends, or even a matrix? Do we need pre-determined molds that people can extract their identity from? Perhaps we should even work to get rid of gender altogether? But what about the individuals who like to identify with a certain pre-existing gender, who feel that it fits helpfully with their gender performativity? The solution may not be to get rid of gender completely just yet, and while the Gender Spectrum model is a helpful step in recognizing the variation and complexity of gender, it should not be the final step. Gender is not corporeal; it is not a material and tangible object, and the reification of gender into a spectrum with very real ends may only intensify the problem.