Dear Allie: Gender Spectrum Defined

by Sarah Rutledge Fischer 


Dear Allie,
The other day, I overheard my son describe his new boyfriend as non-binary. I looked it up and understand that it refers to gender, but I got completely overwhelmed by all of the YouTube articles and BuzzFeed videos.
So, help a Gen-Xer out. What does this millennial speak mean?

Momming in the Twenty-First

Dear M-21,

Kids these days—always coming up with new slang, right? But unlike “cray-cray” and “bae,” the phrase you noticed, “non- binary,” actually underlines an evolving understanding of gender as a social construct. So, good job reaching out, Mom. And, don’t worry—as a child of the seventies and eighties, you are already primed to adapt to the ever-evolving social constructs we are about to discuss. Here we go.

As you probably already know, when we talk about gender, we are not talking about biological sex. Gender is a set of characteristics and behaviors expected of people based on their biological sex. These expectations are formed by society, so they tend to change and evolve as society does.

It is easy enough to point out how specific expectations have changed over time, but your question draws our attention to the bigger picture. Our understanding of gender itself has been evolving for the past several decades—from binary to spectrum to fluid to non-binary. Let’s break down what that means.

Binary Gender In a binary system, there are only two possible values: black or white, on or off, masculine or feminine. As a gender system, this creates distinctly separate expectations for men and women—imagine the Ozzy and Harriet-style gender expectations of the 1950s. The rigidity of this model means that any middle ground is socially unacceptable, and a boy or girl who adopts characteristics associated with the opposite gender is quickly corrected or shamed back into their gender norm.

Gender Spectrum The gender spectrum model evolves from the acknowledgement that the black/white rigidity of the binary is artificial and that there are a range of masculine and feminine grays between the extremes. Since the 1970s, this understanding of gender has slowly become part of our cultural mainstream and may be the system that feels most normal to you.

This model allows more self-determination than a binary model—individuals are allowed to choose the position along the spectrum that feels most comfortable—but it does have flaws. As practiced in our society, there is still substantial pressure for men and women to remain on their half of the spectrum. People who fail to do so tend to be categorized as anomalies, e.g. butches and queens, and only tolerated to varying degrees within mainstream society.

Gender Fluidity Gender fluidity evolves from the idea that a person need not choose just one spot on the spectrum of gender-oriented behavior. In a gender fluid model, an individual can move along the spectrum, choosing hyper-masculinity one day and moderate femininity the next. This isn’t a large departure from the spectrum model, but it allows even more self-determination.

Non-Binary Gender The non-binary concept of gender takes the revolutionary step of rejecting, not only the binary, but the entire spectrum. Unlike the previous models which relied on opposing extremes of masculinity and femininity, the non-binary model points out that even this opposition is an artificial social construct. In the non-binary model, masculine and feminine are not opposed. Behaviors are not innately gendered. Characteristics are neither male nor feminine.

Someone who ascribes to this model may refer to their gender as “non-binary” or “genderqueer” instead of “male” or “female” and chooses societally gendered behaviors à la carte, mixing and matching without regard to a spectrum. From this perspective, behaviors and characteristics are not determined by gender, but rather express aspects of who a person is regardless of gender associations.

Got all that? Feel free to go back through it a couple of times. Gender concepts are learned very early in our development, so you may find thinking about these ideas unsettling, but keep at it. No matter what, if you get the chance to meet your son’s new boyfriend, I know you will welcome him with love and acceptance no matter his gender identity.

That should get you started.

Your friend,

To submit your own question, email Allie at Focus Mid-South reserves the right to edit letters for length and clarity.