New Worlds: Beyond the Binary

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Contrary to what some people believe, non-binary gender isn’t a new idea. It’s just relatively new in the West: in other parts of the world, it’s been around for a long time.

And actually, the narrow end of the wedge has been plenty present in the West. Transvestitism doesn’t always imply anything about the gender identity of the wearer; some people just like the aesthetics or sensory experience of the other side’s clothing. But even when that’s true, it’s a transgression of the binary boundary, and can invite retaliation from society.

We have no way of knowing how many of history’s cross-dressers were what we’d nowadays term transgender or transsexual. (The usage of those two terms is in flux these days, with some individuals preferring one or the other.) Especially when it comes to women passing as men — the Catalina de Erausos and Hannah Snells of the world — they may have been more interested in gaining the freedoms and privileges of the male sex than desirous of being male. But the Chevalier d’Éon spent forty-nine years living as a man, then thirty-three as a woman; examination of the body after death suggests the chevalier may have been intersex, but formed more as male than female. So why choose the more restricted status of a woman? A contemporary theorized it was because certain political missteps would be forgiven of a woman but not of a man. Short of time travel or speaking with the ghosts of the departed, we’ll never really know.

Trans individuals these days sometimes — money and other circumstances permitting — have the option of hormone treatments and surgery to reshape their bodies, if they wish it. (Not all do.) That obviously wasn’t much of an option in the past, though some procedures have always possible: castration, full emasculation (loss of the penis as well as testicles), and mastectomy. Risky, given the likelihood of infection, but some people still pursued those paths. In a magical or high-tech setting, such changes might be not only feasible but far easier than they are today.

Speaking of castration, where do eunuchs fit into this picture? That depends on who you ask. In some places where a concept of a gender other than male and female exists, eunuchs are included in that category. Even when there’s no formal box to put them in, though, castrated or emasculated individuals have often been seen as slipping out of the binary — not women, but not quite men, either.

Having brought up the phrase “third gender,” it’s time to take a look at the variety of terms and practices that get grouped under that label. Don’t take the number too literally: it’s just a shorthand for any culturally-recognized practice that steps outside the binary. Some societies have more than one additional option, and the form that option takes varies wildly from culture to culture.

I can’t possibly do full justice to all the nuances of Polynesian fa’afafine and māhū, Indian hijras, Thai kathoey, Arabian mukhannathun, Incan quariwarmi, Inuit sipiniq, the variety of Native North American traditions grouped under the umbrella term “two-spirit,” or any of the other non-binary gender concepts found around the world. I’m not going to try: this is very much an area where interested parties should go read works by specialists in the field.

What I can do is give a quick overview of the different types of identity and behavior in different combinations under those labels. Sometimes they refer to particular sexual orientations, i.e. what we would term homosexuality. Sometimes they refer to people with intersex conditions, or to eunuchs. Sometimes they refer to individuals we’d call trans, who identify as or at least take on the social role of the opposite sex; Balkan sworn virgins, one of the few groups I do have deeper knowledge of, sometimes take on their masculine identity for pragmatic reasons of obligation or freedom. Sometimes it’s just people who exhibit the stereotypical personality and behaviors of the opposite sex. Sometimes there’s a spiritual calling involved.

Whatever form it takes, many of these categories still involve certain markers and behaviors. Like I said in a previous essay, this isn’t simply about not conforming to binary gender: if “gender” is a role that people are expected to perform, then a third (or fourth, or fifth) such group just gets a different script. If the category includes male-bodied individuals taking on female traits, for example, they might become wives — a sharp contrast with the aforementioned sworn virgins, who are required to remain celibate or lose their status. Third-gender groups may have special roles to play in religious festivals, or have their own patron deities to worship.

The modern situation in the West is somewhat different. While we’ve definitely got transgender individuals who prefer the male or female script, we’ve also got a wide variety of other options forming as people explore — or perhaps I should say explode — the entire concept of gender. As with the third genders mentioned above, I can’t possibly do full justice to the range here, especially since many of these terms are in flux, and people use them in different senses. The list includes genderqueer, genderfluid, bigender, trigender, pangender, demigender, demiflux, agender, neutrois, androgyne, femme, butch, and more, with subtle nuances encompassing facets like how stable someone feels in a particular gender identity, versus it shifting on a frequent basis. Meanwhile, the term “cisgender” has been coined to specifically mark those whose gender identity matches the sex assigned to them at birth.

The reason I say “explode” is that as I mentioned before, this is notably different from more traditional gender categories. What script goes along with being bigender, or genderfluid? Insofar as one exists, we’re kind of in the middle of drafting it. And in fact, for some non-binary people, the entire point is to escape the idea of scripts. They seek the freedom to simply be themselves, without expectations assigned to them on the basis of how they dress or what shapes their bodies take. For others, meanwhile, the performance of specific gender markers is exactly what they enjoy.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the linguistic aspect to all of this. Along with the burst of gender exploration, we’ve also had a burst of neopronouns: Kelsey Pacha, the board president of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves estimated in a 2021 Rolling Stone article that there have been more than 200 gender-neutral pronouns created — and not all of them in the last few decades! Several can be traced back to the 1800s, and he says the conversation on this front goes all the way back to the 1300s. (I’d love to know more about that, but alas, the article is more interested in present-day matters than medieval linguistic history.) The most widespread is the venerable “singular they,” which has been in use since the fifteenth century as a way of constructing a sentence without restricting it to a particular gender: “Somebody left their book here.” The backlash against that started in the mid-eighteenth century and got traction in the nineteenth.

From that we come to the rising practice of specifying pronouns, which honestly would have been a useful thing for the Internet to develop decades ago. When you’re dealing with just words on the screen, how can you know the gender of who you’re talking to? They may not want you to know, in which case that lovely singular “they” is a useful fallback. But for those who do want to advertise it, slipping a note into an email signature or Twitter bio helps everyone else sort their sentences out.

I have no idea what gender will look like in our society ten, fifty, or a hundred years from now. Maybe it will have settled down into a new set of terms whose definitions are well-accepted; maybe we’ll have chucked gender out the window entirely. I am, however, certain that we’ll continue to have approaches that step beyond the binary — and so will our fiction.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


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