Episode 120: Robin Dembroff on going beyond the gender binary

This month, I talk to Robin Dembroff (Yale University) about the gender binary: what it is, what people mean when they say they’re outside of it, and what political motivation there may be for resisting it. Click on this link to download Episode 120 of Elucidations.

‘Gender binary’ is a funny term. It sounds like academic jargon, but in recent years we’ve been hearing it more and more in popular conversations as well. Our guest offers the following helpful characterization: the gender binary is the view that there are exactly two gender categories—man and woman—and for any given person, that person falls into exactly one of those categories. (In other words, you can’t be both, and you can’t be neither.) So when someone says they’re opposed to the gender binary, they must be contesting at least one of these points (though you don’t necessarily know which one, right off the bat). Maybe they think there are more than two genders, or maybe they think there are fewer than two genders, or maybe they think the same person can fall into more than one simultaneously, maybe they having a gender is optional, or maybe they think all of the above. Since there’s a fair amount of content in the idea of the gender binary, there are lots of different ways to disagree with it.

We then go on to discuss some of the ways that various people have been trying to resist the gender binary, and observes that resisting the gender binary isn’t always about affirming your identity. A common narrative that’s out there these days is that whenever a person says they’re something other than a man or a woman, it’s because they have the subjective experience of not being either of those things and are trying to get other people to recognize that subjective experience. There are, of course, a lot of people to whom that applies, and arriving at an account of what it means to have a subjective experience of a different gender in their case is important.

But in a number of other cases, the subtext is different. Our guest argues that in those cases, the motivation for identifying with a gender other than man or woman is that you’d rather not disclose whether you have a gender, and if you do, what that gender is. Instead, you think it’s best to keep such information private, and offer it to other people on an opt-in basis only. So it’s not like you’re offering yourself up as a counterexample to the view that there are only these two ways to feel (the man way and the woman way), and the way you feel is different, saying that therefore, we need to expand our assumptions about how it’s possible to feel. Rather, you’re trying to question this social practice of figuring out what gender a person is immediately, pretty much before you figure out anything else about them. That immediately gets us to some pretty interesting ethical questions. For example, do we have a moral right to gender confidentiality? Our guest says yes!

Other exciting highlights of the episode include a new definition of patriarchy that you’ve probably never heard before. I hope you enjoy it!

Matt Teichman

Further Reading

Why Be Nonbinary?‘, Robin Dembroff
Beyond Binary‘, Robin Dembroff
One is Not Born a Woman‘, Monique Wittig






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