Gender beyond the binary: visualisation, language and conceptual frameworks
Friday 19 February 2021 / articles
The first half of this article is not a critique of the people whose tweets or images I embed, nor the many, many more people whose words and images I could have referenced. Travis is awesome, I don't know Sascha but he seems awesome from Twitter, and most of the people taking on the difficult task of explaining gender beyond the binary are awesome. My critique is squarely aimed at the tools we've been handed down, not the people who make the most of them!
Capturing gender: existing visual tools and conceptual understandings
When I first started really actively thinking more introspectively about gender, I found that while many of the common visual methods and heuristic tools available to help people understand and situate their own gender were to an extent useful, they were conceptually quite limited and limiting.
One approach is to use scales, the simplest version of which has female on one end, male on the other. People often say 'gender is a spectrum', and this is arguably the most classic and common way of representing this idea. Another version turns the one-dimensional scale (or line) into a two-dimensional triangle, with female and male top left and right, agender at the bottom - essentially the same scale but with an extra axis for strength of alignment toward different genders (or to gender as a whole).
The Gender Unicorn and others use separate scales for femaleness, maleness and 'other'-ness, which allows for capturing the multiplicity represented by bigender or multigender experiences. The Gender Unicorn puts these scales alongside scales for 'gender expression', sex assigned at birth and emotional and physical attraction - whether the implication is that these are (co-)constitutive of or simply adjacent to gender, I'm not sure.
Relations and between-ness
While I recognise the value of these tools - their simplicity arguably a contributing factor - one of the biggest issues I have with them is how they at best uncritically reflect and at worst influence the most basic mainstream understandings of gender (as a spectrum).
Scales with female and male on either end, the triangle that adds an axis for capturing agender experiences but retains the polarity of femaleness and maleness, and announcements like "ladies, gentlemen and everyone in between" all represent the same limited understanding of the diversity of non-binary experiences.
What does it mean to be 'between'? Well, green is between blue and yellow (in the 'visible spectrum' and theories of colour, though interestingly not in the image above!). You can think of it as not quite either, or a little of both. Mainland USA is between Mexico and Canada - it's not quite as south as Mexico but not quite as north as Canada. 1 is between 0 and 2 - more than 0 and less than 2. What do all these have in common? They can be described in terms of their relation to their neighbours - they're the middle ground2. You can also think of between-ness as an average - add the numbers, the latitude of the countries or the RGB values of the colours together, divide by two and you'll get the midpoint.
The problem that arises here is not so much in thinking about things relationally, but in the relations that the existing gender visualisation tools allow to exist, or more importantly the gender(ed) experiences they preclude.
For some people, their non-binary identity is indeed a little female, a little male, or 50/50, or the average of 'the' two options. The middle of the scale could represent bigender people, perhaps even agender people if you take it as not an average but a neutral space. If the middle were bigender, the left might equal 1 and the right 2, with the middle equal to 1.5. If the middle represented agender, perhaps it would equal 0 while the end points would be -1 and 1. But how do you distinguish the two - bigender and agender, and perhaps other interpretations - using the scale alone?
For many, being non-binary is not occupying a middle ground at all so much as another ground altogether - if female and male were Canada and Mexico or vice versa, non-binary might be Botswana, Belarus or Burkina Faso. It might not be that far away from female and male - Bolivia, for instance. For yet others, their non-binary identity may be constituted by dual citizenship. They may or may not view that dual citizenship as half one thing, half the other - they may view it as fully both, or an imbalanced mixture of the two that doesn't necessarily add up to 100%.
An alternative gender triangle exists in which agender is replaced by non-binary, but again I find this fairly limiting - it assumes a regularity both in terms of how different genders work and in terms of the space between them. Without its labels, the triangle looks the same every 120 degrees it's rotated (it has a 'rotational symmetry of order three') with each gender the same distance away from every other gender. This is limiting not only to the extent that it assumes female, male and non-binary are three equally spaced out entities with everything else - again - in between, but also in that it takes non-binary (and female and male) to be a singular point in a three-point representation of gender. Recognising non-binary experiences is not about shifting from a binary system of gender to a ternary one - it's about moving to a much more boundless, limitless and thereby liberating understanding of the diversity of gender and gendered life. Sure, you could occupy the space in the middle of the triangle, but everything is confined within or between the space created by three equal extremes. An equilateral triangle goes beyond a one-dimensional scale of female to male, but for me it just doesn't go far enough in capturing and enabling the true variety of lived experiences and understandings of gender that exist within different people.
Another similar two-dimensional visual method of representing gender is a square or a plot with axes for femaleness and maleness, ranging from no alignment to full alignment. In this representation, female is 100% female and 0% male, male is the opposite, agender is 0% female and male and non-binary and other 'other' categories are 100% female and male, or - again - everything in between, everything in the middle ground. To me this makes little sense beyond representing bigender female/male people, and suffers from the same issues of relational prescriptiveness as the one-dimensional scale and two-dimensional triangles. Non-binary people - for the most part - are not defined by dimensions of femaleness or maleness.
there are a lot more identities than the ones I’ve just named! here is a simplified visualisation of the gender spectrum that I made. remember that this isn’t perfect and it’s not possible to accurately visualise this, but I hope it helps anyway. pic.twitter.com/SMKwYiSugD— Sascha Viktor 📌 (@confusedophan) July 14, 2019
Transcendence and beyond-ness: what are we talking about again?
Another common way of describing non-binary people is as those who have transcended gender. While this sounds great and uplifting and may rouse audiences at queer cabaret nights, have we really?
Petition to get David Hoyle to do his iconic line “ladies and gentlemen and those lucky enough to transcend gender” at all theatre announcements now. Then *everyone* is included.— Travis (@travisalabanza) November 5, 2019
Transcendence is essentially going beyond something - transcending gender is going beyond gender. Now, the idea of a world without gender - or gender categorisation at least - in which everything that we think of as gendered or gender-related is not associated with specific groups but instead fluid and accessible to all may quite reasonably sound utopian for many people. But that's not really the discussion we're having here. In our current cultural and historical situations, gender (or gender categorisation) is very real - it affects the opportunities and experiences available to us, including those for which we may have no agency to accept or reject.
Further, transcending something means you are no longer that thing, or no longer have that thing - you are beyond it. If we transcend gender, the implication is therefore that we no longer have a gender, or we are somehow outside of gender. This might make sense if you're agender or reject gender categories on political grounds, but an immediate implication of this way of thinking is that female and male are genders, non-binary is not - not a gender, not real, not valid.
Obviously when the idea of 'transcendence' comes from within the community, this invalidation is not intentionally implied - it's most definitely not meant to harm - but impact is often more important than intention. The impact may be that those whose experiences haven't (yet) led to them to non-binary identification, and arguably those who are in the embryonic stages of understanding their own gender, infer that non-binary is - and only is - beyond-ness, transcendence, not gender. If that doesn't resonate with them - if they don't feel quite transcendent, for whatever reason - then what are they left with?
A similar phrase replaces "those who have transcended gender" with "those who are too fabulous to decide". Again, this may sound great when you first hear it in a cabaret bar - and yes, non-binary people are of course fabulous - but the implication is us non-binary people are simply indecisive and struggling to pick between the two options. Nope.
Siloed genders: what are we talking about again?
The alternative to having female and male on opposite ends of a scale proposed by tools like The Gender Unicorn is to separate them out into completely independent scales, with non-binary/other genders forming a third scale. At first, this seems great - it removes the polarity and avoids treating non-binary experiences as some kind of middle ground between two extremes. It allows for a variety of bigender identification by aligning with more than one gender. It allows for agender identification by aligning with no gender. It allows for demigender identification by allowing for differing degrees of identification with (multiple) genders. That's three ticks!
What is misses, however, is any kind of representation of what those genders actually mean. It sanitises gender to the extent that it's just a collection of unrelated scales, and the scales look - from the outside - the same for everyone. The same in that they say nothing at all beyond what the category is and how much an individual feels aligned to it. They say nothing of how similar or different categories are from each other, let alone why. In order to understand this, it's vital to first understand what actually constitutes particular genders and by extension where to draw the line between one category and another. Separate scales don't say whether there even are any fixed lines - perhaps there are contested borders, unclaimed territories and international waters?
This naturally leads to the question of - if we want our genders to look a little more Texas BBQ and paprika than all 'original' - what should they look like? Well, in reality they look different to different people. To some people, female and/or male may indeed be 'original', and perhaps that's what leads them to feel aligned or unaligned with those categories. To others, female may look like cheddar cheese and male may look like smoky bacon, with non-binary more closely resembling salt and vinegar.
This variation in how people view genders is not just okay, it's natural. Our cultural, historical and personal backgrounds all factor into how we understand and view different gender categories. Two people may share very many characteristics - personality, behaviours, aesthetics and so on - but identify in two different ways (so what is sexuality!?3). A common example - and sometimes a source of transphobia4 - is butch cis lesbians and (butch) trans men. Thinking more transculturally, 'non-binary' might not mean much to some cultures outside the 'Anglosphere', or to people who lived before the 20th century, but that doesn't mean that some of the experiences and feelings aren't the same or very similar despite differences in categorisation (or lack thereof)5.
Ultimately we all conceptualise gender in unique ways, so how do we then deal with visualising something that's so individual (before even thinking about our own positionality)?
Mapping gender: an inherently imperfect pursuit
So the issues that need addressing in building better gender visualisation tools include:
- not polarising femaleness and maleness with non-binary occupying the middle ground
- treating non-binary experiences as real, valid gender experiences, not experiences that necessarily transcend gender entirely
- representing relationality - how similar or different/close or far are different genders?
- allowing for individual variation in our understandings of gender categories
I've been intending to write this article for at least four years, maybe more. Back then, I had the idea that maybe we could represent gender not as points on singular or multiple one-to-two-dimensional lines, triangles or squares, but rather as some kind of space with irregular shapes and varying relationships between the shapes. The structure of this space should not be predetermined, but rather informed by an individual's own understanding of different gender categories and their relationship to them.
It's these principles that brought me to thinking about maps. Maps are not only cool and interesting, but also allow for all of the above and more.
Mapping as a visual representation of gender
Below is an example map I created a long time ago. In it, we see representations - via the green shapes - of eight different genders. They vary in size, shape and space between each other. Most are islands in this map, while two overlap - perhaps a contested border, or perhaps there are no borders? I'll discuss what might inform the landscape of the map shortly, but first I'll explain what the people on the map may represent.
On the map are six people icons or avatars of four different colours, one colour (and number) representing one person. Person one may be genderfluid: they occupy two positions - one near female and one near male - and, as indicated by the arrows, they move between these spaces. Person two may be genderqueer or demi-genderqueer - they're closest to the genderqueer island or shape, but at the moment they're just a little off the coast. Person three is on island or hypothetical gender 'L' - compared with person two, their alignment with a particular gender is stronger, so they probably wouldn't refer to themself as 'demi'. Like person one, person four also occupies two positions, however they don't move between these positions - they're most likely bigender with a strong alignment with hypothetical gender 'R' and a secondary (but fairly strong) alignment with hypothetical gender 'C'.
This example doesn't show how each of these people's maps are likely to have a different landscape, but it does show how differing gender categories and our relationships with and experiences of them can be represented. You could also add an icon representing gender/sex assigned at birth, and the similarity or difference between that and your current positionality or understanding of your own gender may inform how much the category 'trans' feels like an accurate description (versus 'cis').
The underlying system of gender
Below is an attempt at capturing all of this in a system or model of gender.
I provided a short description of this and how it relates to mapping in my article 'Sexuality in a non-binary world: redefining and expanding the linguistic repertoire'.
In essence, shapes are the categories we use to describe our gender, as represented by the shapes on the map (or mostly islands in the example above). Shapes might include female, male, non-binary, neutrois, genderqueer and so on.
Dimensions are what constitute those shapes - they inform our understanding of what it means for us to be particular gender categories. Dimensions, depending on your cultural and historical background, might include:
- femininity and masculinity
- expression (or presentation, 'embodiment' or 'semiotic enactment')
- social roles and positioning (power)
- romantic and sexual orientation (in some cultures)
The not so serious Reddit comment above is a response to someone sharing a version of the gender triangle (in an equally not so serious post!). I like the idea of "10 planes of reality". This is similar to my idea of the dimensions of particular gender categories, or in other words the attributes that come together to constitute the whole. The dimensions that are important and how important they are will vary from culture to culture, person to person, but it's important to recognise these in order to understand the landscape of our individual gender maps. Dimensions are what determine the shape of specific categories, and therefore the relations between them - or how similar or different/close or far they are to each other.
There may also be subdimensions below these dimensions. What do femininity, masculinity and particular queer or non-queer sexualities3 mean to you? What informs how you conceptualise and relate to them? Subdimensions are the dimensions beneath the dimensions of shapes/gender categories. There may be yet further layers beneath the subdimensions - gender and other sociocultural phenomena are complex!
Your positioning on the map, the shapes, your assigned gender/sex and the relationship between them are what constitute metadata. As I stated in the article cited above, "if you have two positions on the map, you might categorise yourself as bigender, or if you are close to male perhaps demiguy, or if you shift between two positions then genderfluid". These kinds of categories are not shapes in and of themselves, but rather they provide us with a more detailed picture of our relationships with different shapes. The kinds of metadata the map might cover include:
- number, e.g. bigender
- fluidity/stasis, e.g. genderfluid
- proximity/strength of alignment, e.g. agender or demigender
Number and fluidity/stasis arguably both fall under representation of multiple alignment, however the former may be synchronous or simultaneous (two or more categories at once - bigender), while the latter may be asynchronous (moving between categories - genderfluid).
Imperfections and uplifting closing thoughts
Simple maps are still ultimately two dimensional - even globes are only three dimensional. If we take only the high-level dimensions mentioned above - which might actually need breaking down further in order to be particularly meaningful - we're already at seven dimensions: femininity, masculinity, expression, behaviour, social roles and positioning (power), romantic orientation and sexual orientation. One way of representing more gender dimensions is combining spatial dimensions with other visual characteristics: curviness of borders, size/area, colour(s), patterns (dotted/striped/plain) and so on.
Another issue is that it takes time, and potentially some level of artistic ability or support in order to flesh out. Further, a static image can only go so far in representing fluidity within the categories themselves - what if our understandings of particular gender categories shift over time or are like icebergs floating around as they break off from each other or changing by season? Travis Alabanza in 'When your body doesn’t meet society’s expectations, dressing for the heat can be dangerous' wrote about how "[a]s a queer, gender nonconforming trans person the heat brings challenges as often clothing (or the lack of it) increases the danger and proximity to abuse on the street"6. Could these concerns affect our relationships with gender categories between seasons, even between days and weeks?
The truth is gender is far too complex to fully represent using any visual method (and all maps are varying degrees of a lie7 - inherently imperfect), but regardless of the constraints we can make attempts to develop visual methods that provide greater potential for more accurate representations of the diversity of gender. Even if it may be difficult and time-consuming to create a highly accurate map of your own, thinking about and mentally visualising what your map might look like - as well as what dimensions and subdimensions may inform the shapes of the map - may prove to be a productive and insightful process in and of itself.
1 I believe the source is Mermaids and it looks like they got hate from transphobes for this. While I don't love this representation of gender, Mermaids are great, so donate if you can to counter the vitriol
2 At least in terms of the dimensions of the scale in discussion - it would be a massive oversimplification to call the USA a cultural middle ground between Mexico and Canada!
3 I discuss these questions and more in my article 'Sexuality in a non-binary world: redefining and expanding the linguistic repertoire'
4 Jay Hulme discusses this in 'Transphobes and Trans Men'
5 My friend Dr Kit Heyam (who prompted me to finally write this article after years of shelving it!) discusses the historical dimensions of categorisation with regard to trans experiences and gender nonconformity in 'Gender nonconformity and military internment: curating the Knockaloe slides' and 'Gendering Objects at the V&A and Vasa Museums'
6 I wrote about this and other concerns in 'From skinnies to skirts and crop-top shirts: traversing transfemme troubles', a chapter in 'Non-Binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities'
7 See 'How to Lie with Maps'!
This is my gender, in case you wanted to know: