In Medio Stat Virtus – Thoughts on gender fluidity

My very exciting plan for the past weekend was to finish the third season of Orange is the New Black and guess what? This post hijacked my attention instead! The show can certainly be praised for its compelling plot and comedic repartees, but entangled in a lighthearted level of entertainment lays a much deeper and arousing conversation topic: gender identity. (FYI, this post is spoilers free!).

After showing us a glimpse of life as a transgender with Laverne Cox, the show welcomes androgynous beauty Ruby Rose over whom the internet has been flipping out for the past couple months. In real life, Ruby Rose defines herself as being gender fluid, meaning instead of feeling female or male, she fluctuates between the two according to the days. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of gender fluidity, or bigenderism. The episode “The Power of Categories” from the podcast Invisibilia relates the story of Paige, who transitioned to female afterRuby.001 being assigned male at birth. But unlike most common transgenders’ stories, whereby their sex assigned at birth doesn’t match their gender identity, Paige has a much more complex relationship with her gender. She feels and identifies as a woman for hours, days if not months and unpredictably snaps into feeling man, and vice versa. Everything from her voice, posture and expression changes accordingly without her having any control over the switches of her gender identity.

My initial reaction to their story perhaps baffled me more than the story itself. From a rational standpoint, I was skeptical about how the tension of two genders could be reconciled in one identity, but from an emotional standpoint it surprisingly made perfect sense. In a way, gender fluidity was saying something incredibly honest about what it means to be a human, and after days of writing this post I think I finally found out why.

A basic principle of cognitive psychology pushes us to make things fall into categories. Categories are a helpful if not necessary tool to understand an input and distinguish it from other similar yet different inputs. From categories we form knowledge, and from knowledge we develop points of view (ideally, in that order).

BUT not everything fits in categories. Or better, not everything fits in categories in a mutually exclusive way.

Being an adult won’t prevent you from sometime feeling like a child. Being highly educated won’t shield you from feeling or sounding ignorant. Wearing a size 0 doesn’t mean you see yourself as skinny. And to the question “do you feel like a woman or a man”, Ruby Rose and Paige gave a very similar answer: it depends. That answer is badass for two reasons: it not only acknowledges that as humans, we’re often at the mercy of feelings unwearyingly bouncing around our heads, but it also invites to shift the focus from evaluating people according to how they fit in categories to evaluating categories for their (in)ability to fit people.

In Ruby Rose’s case, it certainly helped her to grow in an industry that perfectly understands that the clothes don’t make the man. In fact, if fashion can be blamed for historically knowing only one (skinny skinny) size, it should be praised for uncovering and championing the broader spectrum of gender identities through androgynous looks and provocative makeovers. But don’t despair, stranger whose everyday life doesn’t involve voguing on runways, there are other ways to explore gender identity than fashion. Parents are increasingly choosing gender free names for their children, making it the #1 trend name this year. And after receiving many complaints from angry parents, Target is moving towards a more gender neutral  approach for certain departments, including bedding and toys.

So what does this all say about categories? Well, that more often than not, what we try to paint in black or white ends up looking more like grey. Because if categories depict objective truths about ourselves, they don’t quite capture the extent to which these truths actually define us.

No one puts baby in a category!