Gender is really weird.
If you’re cisgender — that is, you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth — you probably know this. Discourse around gender as a social construct that is distinct from biological sex, which has its own litany of socially-constructed quirks, is often convoluted with carefully-crafted falsehoods and red herrings to mock transgender and gender non-conforming people. You may recall the “31 genders” controversy circulated by the right-wing, billionaire-funded online publication The Daily Caller in 2016.
The Caller article falsely stated that New Yorkers were then able to “choose from a minimum of 31 different gender identities” officially sanctioned by the government of New York City under former Mayor Bill DeBlasio. The article, penned by Peter Hasson, makes no mention of whether any of these 31 gender identities can be included on official documentation such as drivers licenses or birth certificates, removing any credence from the idea that this list has any authentic weight to it — especially knowing New York didn’t even allow a non-binary gender marker on drivers licenses until 2021. The ultimate goal of articles such as these is to misrepresent attempts at inclusivity, even performative ones, to a malleable right-wing readership, which can then malform and prepare them to be injected into the public discourse in a way that ridicules trans people.
The “31 genders” myth, which mutated into 67 and soon over 100 genders like a game of transphobe telephone, originates from a graphic proliferated by the New York Commission for Human Rights describing the protections that New Yorkers have against gender-based discrimination, as well as formal definitions of gender identity and gender expression. On the final page, surrounded by no labels or definitions, is a block-justified list of 31 common gender identities and forms of gender expression.
They include lesser-known identities from non-White cultures such as Hijra, a term describing the historical third gender in South Asian cultures, and Two-Spirited, a separate gender identity in many indigenous North American nations. It also, however, includes redundancies such as “Female to male” and “FTM,” the latter being an abbreviation of the former, and both being specific ways to describe a binary trans person.
The included genders in no way constitute an official list of gender identities. To try to make one wouldn’t just be silly and unnecessary, but downright impossible — speaking as someone who would benefit from the ability to identify as something other than male or female. Without sounding too much like a 1000-level sociology professor, gender is demonstrably a spectrum. Just like there are infinite decimal values that fit between one and two, gender can be expressed in limitless ways between our socially established ideas of “man” and “woman.”
What does it mean for you and I that gender is an artificial creation made to consign people with different secondary sex characteristics to separate social roles? Essentially, it means that we are free to explore exactly what makes us feel quintessentially masculine, feminine or neither. My exploration into gender began when I realized I felt no innate connection to masculinity — in other words, I realized that being born with certain biological characteristics and being assigned a certain gender at birth weren’t an immutable part of my existence. You and I have the power to alter both how we see ourselves and how we want the world to perceive us; the struggle, however, comes with uprooting long-held misconceptions about male and female being the exclusive ways of existing that were exported around the world with the advent of Western colonialism.
Instead of an object of ridicule, the complexity of gender is something that should be celebrated and explored by all. Gender is so much more than what pronouns you use or how masculine or feminine you dress and present. A cisgender man who wears makeup, Hot Topic jewelry and pleated skirts experiences their gender in a very different way than a cisgender woman or a nonbinary person who presents the same way. Someone who uses they/them pronouns may still call themselves a man or a woman, and someone who uses he/him or she/her pronouns may still identify as non-binary.
This is legitimate because so many of the orthodoxies we have about gender originate from pointless social conventions. Even if cisgender men and women have different secondary sex characteristics, what is the point in differentiating between “he” and “she” if we are referring to the same members of a species? It’s not as though it helps with specificity when the human population is hovering below eight billion, and it’s certainly not as though memorizing pronouns is any more difficult than learning the name of a new person. We could phase out these distinctions altogether, which I don’t see as a bad option, or we could explore the intricacies of the human condition by jerry-rigging them — augmenting our human potential by rejecting, transcending and playing with the categories produced by our ancestors who sought simplicity in sexually-divided hunter-gatherer societies that placed a greater emphasis on biological reproduction.
Let gender be weird, let gender be diverse and let it be something unique to you. I will always recommend finding a quiet, calm space and meditating to try to identify exactly what feelings connect you to the gender you were assigned at birth. You might find that you are proud to be considered a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister; you might find that you detest being referred to as a man or a woman when you feel like you belong to an ineffably separate category; you might find nothing at all. All of these outcomes are okay, and the only threat they pose is to the social hegemony of patriarchal lawmakers and political actors.