Alyssa Leyba, a student in the Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) program in Vancouver, is a winner of the 2019 Adler University Social Justice Essay Contest. The Office of Student Affairs asked students to write about what they see as the most pressing issues relating to sexuality and gender identity, and how these issues intersect with social justice.
Read Leyba’s essay:
Labeling Ice Cream: A Call for True Gender Identity Liberation
The terms androgynous and pangender are only two of many that can describe individuals who feel that they do not neatly fit within either of the dichotomous male and female binaries. Over the years, as society has become more understanding and open minded, there has been a shift in gender terminology with the goal of empowering and providing clarity for those who do not feel purely male or female. True, these new-age classifications can be helpful for some individuals whose self-identity is not captured by traditional labels; for others, however, the thought of having to categorize their gender using any type of label can cause discomfort. Although identity is a deeply personal and complicated matter, society seems to feel that continuing to place others in distinctive groups based on gender is entirely necessary to make sense of one another.
The dictionary defines gender as “the physical and/or social condition of being male or female” (Gender, n.d.). Indeed, gender is not merely the sex assigned at birth but the social assumptions and judgments that accompany. Traditionally, western society has touted two acceptable gender options: male and female. In other cultures, however, this practice is not the norm. In class, my peers and I have discussed how Aboriginal groups have used and continue to use the term “two spirit” to refer to those who would frequently or occasionally behave in ways that parallel that of the opposite gender (Jacobs, Thomas, & Lang, 1997) to which they were assigned. Similarly, Somoans have used the word “Fa’afafine” to describe those who present with both male and female traits (Vasey & Bartlett, 2007). The notion that an individual must choose whether they are a man or a woman is, therefore, culture-specific.
Today, in western society, there are still many miscellaneous forms and documents that force people to check off one of the two gender boxes. Society demands that people check off one of the boxes. Nevertheless, the reason for these demands is no mystery. People are inclined to classify others and objects so that they can mentally organize data and assign meaning to things. Failing to categorize can lead to an inability to understand concepts which may birth confusion and disorientation, feelings that are difficult to withstand.
However, it does not seem that all non-binary folks feel the need to make sense of their gender identity with one distinctive word. Take, for example, one’s ice cream flavour preference. Some people are hardwired to appreciate chocolate while others naturally opt for vanilla. There may also be people who cannot help but feel that a mixture of chocolate and vanilla better suits their needs. If an individual feels a pull toward a specific recipe of chocolate and vanilla and only they know how much of each makes the perfect frozen dessert, would it then be necessary for them to come up with some unique name with a clear and easily-accessible description so that others are afforded a better understanding of the ice cream flavour to which that individual is drawn? Chances are, the answer is ‘no.’ The individual knows which flavour meets their personal needs. It should not be their responsibility to appease the discomfort of others by providing a label. In fact, how one wants to identify or experience their own ice cream does not really appear to be any one else’s business.
Of course, a person is not an object just as much as their gender is not a flavour of ice cream. Each person is a sentient being who is born with basic human rights. These rights include the freedom of expression, even if one’s self-expression does not come with a label or check box. Luckily, society is starting to accept that gender identity can be viewed as a broad continuum. Such a conceptualization can help people to understand that gender is so complex and multifaceted to the point where even trying to label all individuals who do not identify as male or female would be futile, if not impossible.
Pragmatism aside, creating space for those who do not wish to categorize their gender identity also speaks to social justice. Historically, women have been denied various rights that were granted to men, for example, the right to vote. Women were oppressed and forced to abide by man-made laws, even if that meant tarnishing their dignity. Many modern-day feminists now believe that women should be afforded the same rights as men. They also uphold that women should be able to make decisions and choose for themselves (Thwaites, 2017) sans patriarchal constraints. Like women, non-binary individuals who do not wish to categorize themselves have been expected to play by public rules; they have been expected to label themselves for social convenience. However, oppression will only begin to lift once society lets go of the need to classify gender and understands that owning a social label should be a personal choice rather than a societal requirement.
It is easy to see why society loves labels and boxes; they make concepts simple to grasp and the world easy to understand. Nevertheless, not everyone shares the same values. For some, labelling themselves may seem impossible, unnecessary, or even extremely uncomfortable. In the end, one’s identity and expression of their gender is a personal experience that should be liberated from the reigns of social expectations. Empowering those who feel they cannot make the choice to refrain from labeling their own gender means not only respecting the autonomy of individuals but fighting for justice.
Gender. (n.d.) In Cambridge dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/gender
Jacobs, S. E., Thomas, W., & Lang, S. (1997). Two spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Thwaites, R. (2017). Making a choice or taking a stand? Choice feminism, political engagement and the contemporary feminist movement. Feminist Theory, 18(1), 55-68. doi:10.1177/1464700116683657
Vasey, P. L. & Bartlett, N. H. (2007). What can the Samoan “fa’afafine” teach us about the western concept of gender identity disorder in childhood? Perspective in Biology and Medicine, 50(4), 481-490. doi:10.1353/pbm.2007.0056