“Gender is not a binary, it’s a spectrum”: some problems

An oft-repeated mantra among proponents of the notion of gender identity is that “gender is not a binary, it’s a spectrum”. The basic idea is that what makes gender oppressive is not, as the radical feminist analysis would have it, that it is an externally imposed set of norms prescribing and proscribing behaviour to individuals in accordance with morally arbitrary biological characteristics, and coercively placing them in one of two positions in a hierarchy. Rather, the problem is that we recognise only two possible genders. Thus humans of both sexes could be liberated if we recognised that while gender is indeed an internal, essential facet of our identity, there are more genders than just “man” or “woman” to choose from. And the next step on the path towards liberation is the recognition of a range of new gender identities, so we now have people referring to themselves as “genderqueer” or “non-binary” or “pangender” or “agender” or “demiboy” or “demigirl” or “aliagender” or “genderfuck” or “trigender” or “neutrois” or “aporagender” or “ectogender” or “veloxigender”…I could go on.

genderbread-638x444There are numerous problems with the logic of this view, that render it both internally inconsistent, and politically unattractive.

1. If gender is a spectrum, not a binary, then everyone is “non-binary”.

This basic logical point should be obvious, and yet is denied by most of the proponents of the spectrum model of gender – indeed, it is often met with angry objections from those who label themselves non-binary. But it’s hard to see how this point can be refuted. If gender is a spectrum, not a binary, then every individual alive is non-binary, by definition. There are not just two points. There is a range of points, and we all of us fall somewhere along the spectrum. And then the label “non-binary” becomes redundant, as it fails to pick out a special category of people.

I would be happy with this implication, because despite knowing that I am female and calling myself a woman, I do not consider myself a one-dimensional gender stereotype. I am not some ideal manifestation of femininity, and so I am non-binary, just like everybody else is. Those who identify as non-binary are unlikely to be happy with this conclusion, however, as their identity as a non-binary person depends upon the existence of a much larger group of binary cisgender people, against whom they can define themselves as more interesting and complex, and by whom they can claim to be misunderstood and politically oppressed.

And here we get to a rather amusing irony about people insisting that they and a select handful of their fellow revolutionaries are “non-binary” – it creates a false binary between those who conform to gender norms, and those who don’t. In reality, everybody is non-binary. Nobody is a one-dimensional gender stereotype. We all of us actively participate in some gender norms, passively acquiesce with others, and positively rail against others. So to call oneself non-binary is in fact to create a false binary, and to position oneself on the superior side of that binary.

2. If gender is a spectrum, that means it’s a continuum between two extremes, and everyone is located somewhere along that continuum.

I assume the two ends of the spectrum are masculinity and femininity. Is there anything else they could be? Once we realise this, it becomes even clearer that everybody is non-binary, since absolutely nobody is “pure masculinity” or “pure femininity”. Of course some people will be closer to one end of the spectrum, while others will be more ambiguous and float around the centre. But even the most conventionally masculine person will demonstrate some characteristics we associate with femininity, and vice versa.

Where do gender identities like “pangender” and “agender” fit into this schema? If you identify as pangender, is the claim that you represent every possible point on that spectrum? All at the same time? How might that be possible, since the extremes represent opposites of one another? Pure femininity is passivity, weakness and submission, while pure masculinity is aggression, strength and dominance. It is simply impossible to be all of these things at the same time. (If you don’t agree with me – if you’re angry right now about my “femmephobia”, because I’ve defined femininity as weakness and submission – feel free to give me alternative definitions of masculinity and femininity. Whatever you come up with, they’re going to represent opposites of one another.)

Similarly, some special people apparently get to opt out of the spectrum altogether by declaring themselves “agender”, saying that they feel neither masculine nor feminine, and don’t have any internal experience of gender. When I wrote this post, I got a few responses telling me that it sounds like I am agender. But this is a solution I reject, for the following reasons: it assumes that gender is an essential internal property, rather than an externally imposed hierarchy; and it implies that the gender monolith has to stay in place, that the vast majority of people must define themselves by reference to it, but that a few special revolutionary gender pioneers to get to opt out. If I want to opt out of gender, I may declare myself “agender”, but presumably that requires that most other people do not, or once again, the label would become redundant.

My response to this suggestion is to say ok, yes, I am agender. I do not have an innate, essential gender. I’m a person. Just like everybody else. We’re all agender. So let’s abolish gender altogether, and say that people can wear what they like and behave however they choose, without the need for restrictive boxes or labels.

3. If gender is a spectrum, what possible meaning can the word “cisgender” have?

The label “cisgender” cannot pick out one specific location on this spectrum between masculinity and femininity, because it is a word that is applied to both masculine and feminine people: there are apparently cis men and cis women. In fact, “cis man”, “cis woman”, “trans man”, and “trans woman” are binary concepts, suggesting that there are only two options, man and woman, which runs counter to the spectrum theory. The prefixes “cis” and “trans” are qualifiers, referring to different classes of people having the gender identity “man” or “woman”, but they are not gender identities in themselves.

For this reason, it doesn’t look like we can coherently believe both that gender is a spectrum, and that cisgender people exist. And correlatively, we can’t coherently believe both that gender is a spectrum, and that trans people exist. This is one of the crucial tensions at the heart of gender identity politics, and one that most of its proponents either haven’t noticed, or choose to ignore because it can only be resolved by rejecting the key tenets of the ideology. The idea that gender is a spectrum, not a binary, negates the experiences of transsexual people who choose to move from one gender role to another, and renders their efforts at transition unintelligible. If gender is a spectrum, and your gender identity can be anywhere along that spectrum, why modify your body to make it more closely resemble that of the opposite sex?

4. If gender is a spectrum, how many possible gender identities do we need to recognise in order not to be oppressive?

Once we assert that the problem with gender is that we currently only recognise two of them, the obvious question to ask is: how many genders would we have to recognise in order not to be oppressive? Just how many possible gender identities are there?


The only consistent answer to this is: 7 billion, give or take. There are as many possible gender identities as there are humans on the planet. Your gender can be frost or the Sun or music or the sea or Jupiter or pure darkness. Your gender can be pizza.

But if this is so, it’s not clear how it makes sense, or adds anything to our understanding, to call any of this stuff “gender”, as opposed to just “human personality” or “stuff I like”. The word “gender” is not just a fancy word for your personality or your tastes and preferences, and it is not just a label to adopt so that you now have a way to convey just how large and multitudinous and interesting and misunderstood you are. Gender is the value system that ties certain desirable behaviours and characteristics to reproductive function. Once we’ve decoupled those behaviours and characteristics from reproductive function (which we should), and once we’ve rejected the idea that there are just two types of personality and that one is superior to the other (which we should), what can it possibly mean to continue to call this stuff “gender”? What meaning does the word “gender” have here, that the word “personality” cannot capture?

According to that last link, your gender can be

(name)gender: “A gender that is best described by one’s name, good for those who aren’t sure what they identify as yet but definitely know that they aren’t cis… it can be used as a catch-all term or a specific identifier, e.g. johngender, janegender, (your name here)gender, etc.”

The example of “(name)gender” is absolutely perfect for demonstrating how non-binary gender identities operate, and the function they perform. They are for people who aren’t sure what they identify as, but they know they aren’t cis. Presumably because cis people are just so rubbish and boring and conventional and conservative. This desire not to identify as cis is rational and makes perfect sense, especially if you’re female. I too believe I’m far too interesting, well-rounded and complex to simply be a “cis woman”. I too would like to transcend the stereotypes about my female body and the assumptions others make about me as a result of it. I too would like to be seen as more than just a mother/domestic servant/object of sexual gratification. I too would like to be viewed as a human being, a person with a rich inner life of my own, with the potential to be more than what our society views as possible for women.

The solution to that is not to call myself agender, to try to slip through the bars of the cage while leaving the cage intact, and the rest of womankind trapped within it. This is especially so given that you can’t slip through the bars. No amount of calling myself “agender” will stop the world seeing me as a woman, and treating me accordingly.

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The logical conclusion of all this is: if gender is a spectrum, not a binary, then there are no trans people. Or, alternatively, everyone is trans. Either way, this is a profoundly unsatisfactory conclusion, and one that serves both to obscure the reality of female oppression, as well as to erase the experiences of transsexual people.

The way to avoid this conclusion is to realise that gender is not a spectrum. It’s not a spectrum, because it’s not an internal essence or property. It’s not a fact about persons that we must take as fixed, and then build our social institutions around that fact. It’s a socially constructed and externally imposed hierarchy, with two classes occupying two value positions: male over female, man over woman, masculinity over femininity. The truth of the spectrum analogy lies in the fact that conformity to one’s place in that hierarchy, and to the roles it assigns to people, will vary from person to person. Some people will find it relatively easier and more painless to conform to the gender norms associated with their sex, while others find the gender roles associated with their sex so oppressive and limiting that they cannot tolerably live under them, and choose to transition to live in accordance with the opposite gender role.

Fortunately, what is a spectrum is human personality, in all its variety and complexity. (Actually that’s not a spectrum either, because it is not simply one continuum between two extremes. It’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, humany-wumany stuff.) Gender is the value system that says there are two types of personality, determined by the reproductive organs you were born with. The first step to liberating people from the cage that is gender is to challenge established gender norms, and to play with and explore your gender expression and presentation. Nobody, and certainly no radical feminist, wants to stop any person from defining themselves in accordance with the labels and identities that make sense to them, or from expressing their personality in ways they find enjoyable and liberating. So if you want to call yourself a genderqueer femme presenting demigirl, you go for it. Express that identity however you like. Have fun with it. A problem only emerges when you start making political claims on the basis of that label – when you start demanding that others call themselves cis, because you require there to be a bunch of boring binary cis people for you to define yourself in reference to; and when you insist that these cis women have structural advantage and political privilege over you, because they are socially read as the women they know themselves to be, while nobody really understands just how complex and interesting your gender identity is.

Call yourself whatever you like, and express that identity however you like, but don’t expect anyone else to care, let alone to afford you special political privileges on the basis of it. Female people are an oppressed class by virtue of the material reality of living in their female bodies, and the discrimination, marginalisation and exploitation that comes from being read by others as a person who inhabits such a body. You are not oppressed by women because they call themselves women and get on with their lives, while your gender identity is so vast and complex and multifaceted and luminous that nobody quite grasps the significance and uniqueness of it. To call yourself non-binary or genderfluid while demanding that others call themselves cisgender is to insist that the vast majority of humans must stay in their boxes, because you identify as boxless.

And if you really want to play with gender, particularly if you’re male, then the best way to do that – the most radical, revolutionary, genuinely non-masculine conforming thing you can do – has nothing to do with your dress or your hair or your makeup or your choice of pronouns. As a male person, the most gender non-conforming thing you can do is to stop making demands of women – of their time, of their resources, of their domestic, emotional and sexual labour. You can stop calling your mother cis scum, and start helping her with the domestic chores. You can stop asking what feminism can do for you, and start asking what you can do to make the world a little more amenable to women.

99 thoughts on ““Gender is not a binary, it’s a spectrum”: some problems

  1. At last, I found some article that did not make me feel bad about how I saw this new gender nominations. If I had asked myself in the 80’s “What gender am I?” and based my answer on gender stereotypes, I would have opted for non-binary. Because I am 48 yrs old, I am just a woman sometimes displaying more masculine traits in terms of attitudes and decisions or whatever. I claim the right to female and male complexity for all individuals!

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