Beyond the Binary: The Third Gender

One of the really common misconceptions I see about nonbinary people is that we are a ‘third’ gender.

There are several problems with this way of viewing nonbinary gender identities, and I would like to examine and expand upon some of them, because I think that many of you may find them helpful to understand, especially if you are binary gendered and you are trying to think beyond the binary, so to speak.

There are a lot of ways to view gender; I personally think of it as a spectrum or continuum. Gender is not a series of discrete points. There can be considerable bleed between genders, and for some people, gender is highly fluid. ‘Man’ and ‘woman’ are two points on that spectrum, but the third is not ‘nonbinary.’

‘Nonbinary’ is a vast label. People who identify as nonbinary may consider themselves genderqueer[1. We all understand the ‘genderqueer’ and ‘nonbinary’ are not interchangeable, yes? People who are genderqueer are nonbinary, people who are nonbinary are not necessarily genderqueer.], as I do, but they may also be androgyne. Bois. Bigender. Genderfuck. Trigender. And so forth.

It’s important to be aware that ‘nonbinary’ is a broad umbrella label, and that it’s also not a ‘third gender.’ Aside from the fact that ‘third gender’ is a specific term that some people identify with, aside from the fact that ‘nonbinary’ is more like a series of points on the spectrum instead of just one, treating nonbinary people as an amorphous ‘third’ gender also leaves out two very important groups of people:

People who are agender, neuter, nongender, etc. Some of these individuals consider themselves to be nonbinary because they sit outside the binary. Others do not, because they do not have a gender. Saying that they have a ‘nonbinary gender’ or any gender identity at all is offensive, because, as they’ve already told you, they do not have a gender. To say that the gender spectrum has three points, male, female, and nonbinary, completely ignores the fact that there are people who sit outside the gender spectrum altogether.

Intersex people are the second group. Being intersex does not necessarily mean that you are nonbinary, and it is not advisable to apply this label to intersex people without their consent.

Negotiating gender is hard. Understanding your own gender identity is hard, even when you are a cis person, because of the very normative structures that surround gender. You, gentle reader, might be, for example, a cis man, but that doesn’t mean your gender is simple, or easy.

Often, as people start exploring the myriad ways gender presents, it can seem overwhelming. There’s a tendency to try and fit things into categories in order to understand them because otherwise, it all feels too big. This is understandable, but you must remember that those categories are created from within the framework of a binary view of gender. Saying that there’s a ‘third gender’ indicates that there are two ‘main’ genders and a bunch of offshoots. It says that gender is something with three points, perhaps a Venn diagram with some overlap if you are feeling generous, it says things about gender that make me, frankly, uncomfortable.

Many discussions about gender identity and the gender spectrum leave out intersex people[1. No, they aren’t a ‘third gender’ either, with the exception of specific intersex people who identify as third gender.]. Some intersex people are transgender, and may identify with a binary gender identity later in life. Others are transgender and nonbinary. Some are intersex and nonbinary. Others don’t identify with any of these categories.

The persistent erasure of intersex people from discussions about gender is harmful, but it’s also dangerous. Intersex people have historically been erased; through norming, through surgery, through hormones, through nonconsensual practices designed to ‘bring them into alignment’ with a gender chosen by parents. Ignoring intersex people, and intersex issues, in discussions about gender results in situations where medical experiments performed on intersex people are not recognized for what they are.

Such studies are often performed as an act of erasure—they involve mutilating the genitals of intersex children or forcing other unwanted medical procedures on them, but they are treated as a travesty against cis binary children. This has a double effect, of both erasing the existence of intersex people, and erasing the history of experimentation on them.

Take the recent study criticised in the Hastings Center Bioethics Forum that involved performing genital surgery on children to ‘normalise’ their clitorisis and then performing ‘stimulation’ tests to see how sensitive the children in the study were after the surgery. This surgery was treated as abuse of little girls who had their genitals altered because they didn’t look normal. Not very many people pointed out that in fact, it wasn’t little girls involved in the study. It was intersex children, and the study was performed as part of a systematic erasure of their intersex identities, with the goal of making them ‘normal’ before they grew up.

Improving access to society for intersex people is dependent on recognising that they exist in the first place, and the same holds true for people who do not have a gender identity. Every time people structure gender as a trinary, with male, female, and nonbinary, they reinforce gender norms that leave a lot of people out of the discussion. That actively erase people. Treating gender also as something that needs to be ‘fixed’ and ‘normed’ instead of being part of someone’s identity is inherently harmful.

Organisations like the Intersex Society of North America are working to educate the public about intersex people, to break down stereotypes and misconceptions, to lobby for better medical care for intersex people. It would behoove us to avoid undermining their work by erasing it. It’s fine to not be well-versed on intersex issues[2. I, for example, am not as well read as I would like to be.] just like it’s fine to not be aware of every single thing going on in every corner of the world. But some measure of awareness is needed so that you can, if not work in solidarity with intersex activists, at least avoid throwing them under the bus or kicking them out of the party.