Vural Özdemir / Toronto
Binary-essentialism out, non-binary in
Over the past decade, the binary and essentialist conceptions of gender (female/male) and sexual identity (heterosexual/homosexual) have been challenged. There is growing worldwide acceptance and evidence for the idea that gender and sexual identities are not fixed but fluid and open-ended.
A survey in a sample of 1632 British adults conducted in 2015 by YouGov, an online research and analytics group, asked the respondents to place themselves on a sexuality scale from 0 (labeled exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual). Of the total sample, 72% placed themselves as completely heterosexual, 4% completely homosexual, and 19% were in the non-binary area from 1 to 5. The remaining few responded as ‘no sexuality’ or ‘don’t know’. Using a sliding scale, instead of asking people a categorical question (yes/no), seems to offer more nuanced insights on human sexuality.
The results were more striking among the 18-24 year olds: 43% reported being in the non-binary area and only 46% said they were completely heterosexual. In other words, half of the young adults reported being not 100% heterosexual.
Among those who identified as heterosexual in all age groups, when they were asked “If the right person came along at the right time, do you think it is conceivable that you could be attracted to a person of the same sex?”, 44% of the respondents did not completely reject the possibility:
· “Very unlikely, but not impossible” = 25%
· “Maybe, if I really liked them” = 10%
· “Definitely” = 3%
· “Don't know” = 6%
A highly cited study by feminist scientist Lisa M. Diamond studied changes in identity over time, and is therefore noteworthy (1). In New York State, 79 non-heterosexual women were interviewed on sexual identity every two years for 10 years. The study participants originally identified as lesbian, bisexual or preferred not to label their sexuality (‘unlabelled’). Over 10 years, two-thirds of the participants changed their identity labels they had claimed at the beginning of the study. One-third changed labels 2 or more times. The “unlabelled” was the most commonly adopted sexual identity.
These findings challenge the rigid binary conception of human sexual identity, suggest the possibility of flows in both directions over time along the continuum of human sexual identities, and legitimately recognize bisexual and non-binary identities.
New narratives are emerging around the world on the public policy front as well. Statistics Canada in the 2021 census asked a person's sex at birth, and their gender now. Statistics Canada recognizes that a person's gender may change over time. Canadian citizens and residents who do not identify exclusively as female or male can choose “X” on their passport, travel document, citizenship certificate or permanent resident card.
This is not to say that Canada has completely solved entrenched social ills such as homophobia and sexism in quotidian life. But the above public policies and non-binary narratives reflect a welcome progress in the right direction for LGBTQ+ representation and freedoms.
In summary, gender and sexual identity
(1) range on a continuum between persons,
(2) can change within a person over time and context, and
(3) non-binary and bisexual identities are common, and represent large communities of diverse people around the globe.
Born this way? – No
Gender essentialism is the assumption that “women” and “men” have allegedly distinct, inborn and unchangeable characteristics. Hormones, psychological characteristics, genetics, ‘born this way’, are among the assortment of arguments used as enablers of essentialism.
Interestingly, essentialism is common within the LGBTQ+ community. Historically, essentialist identity politics such as “sexuality is not a preference or choice, it is determined at birth” had been deployed instrumentally to consolidate a united front to resist LGBTQ+ oppression and demand equal rights.
But the essentialist binary approach to sexual identity is wrong for three reasons. It is scientifically incorrect; socially unjust; and has huge costs to LGBTQ+ persons and society at large.
Research has shown that genetics play only a small role in sexual identity. Once in a while, we come across articles claiming a gene for homosexuality is discovered. But these claims fail to mention a scientific concept known as the statistical ‘effect size’, which is a proxy for the size of difference between two groups with or without a certain gene variant. Genetic contributions (effect sizes) are quite small when it comes to traits such as sexual attraction and identities. Genes do not have the final word or the largest influence on our sexual identity.
Gender binary and essentialism are socially unjust for they erase the polyvalence of human sexuality, delegitimize and silence the highly diverse sexual identities that fall outside the heterosexual/homosexual binary. Non-heterosexual identity is not monolithic, nor fixed in stone. Tightening of membership criteria results in exclusion of bisexuals and non-binary persons. This has paved the way for new resistance movements against the binary logic to gain acceptance for bisexual rights and resist biphobia. Yet, other gender-fluid persons railed against labels altogether. The current pansexual movement is noteworthy in this context for readers interested in LGBTQ+ history and social movements (2, 3).
Non-binary, bisexual and gender non-conforming persons are not confused, nor are they in a transient state; they have unique and legitimate identities to be celebrated and recognized, and as supported by data discussed earlier as well. References to bisexual, pansexual or gender non-conforming persons as confused and so on, are false, and reflect plain and ugly biphobia and homophobia. Bisexual and gender non-conforming persons are no more or less committal than exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual persons. Love is love!
Gender binary has dramatic consequences for society and human potential. Gender stereotypes and false cultural messages such as “math is for boys”, despite evidence that girls do as well at math as boys, restrict children’s educational achievement and future careers. These lost opportunities are entirely avoidable by challenging the binary logic and gender stereotypes.
In sum, essentialist arguments such as “born this way” do not advance LGBTQ+ rights and gender equality – check out Dr. Diamond’s excellent TEDx talk. The transcript is available in 5 languages.
Not from Mars, and not from Venus either!
Daphna Joel, a feminist scholar and neuroscientist at Tel Aviv University, further contests essentialism and the popular dogma that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. She underlines that there are multiple ways to be male and female with no sharp divisions between, for example, male and female brains. She dethrones myths and biological essentialism in this excellent and fun to watch TEDx talk.
‘Coming in’ – expanding the LGBTQ+ lexicon
There is more LGBTQ+ zeitgeist broadening and enriching how we think about sexual identity these days. Since the mid-20th century, the allegedly binary homosexual/heterosexual identity development was seen through a linear lens that postulated a stepwise progression from repression to self-acceptance, and finally, social disclosure (‘coming out’).
This linear and rather deterministic narrative has been in need of expansion in theory and practice because it is not able to explain the actual experiences of many sexual minorities, heterosexuals included, in quotidian life. This one-directional linear narrative on identity development does not bode well with the large body of data showing that sexual self-discovery and identity development are open-ended lifelong processes and can flow both ways between being heterosexual, non-binary and homosexual at different times and contexts in life. Also, sexual identity development does not ‘come to an end’ with coming out.
A concept that enriches and broadens the coming out narrative is ‘coming in’. Scholar and researcher Shoshana Rosenberg refers to coming in as “arriving at a place of self acceptance of one’s sexuality, regardless of its fluidity or how it is viewed by society”, and adds that coming in offers “considerable analytic leverage for understanding the journeys of sexual self-discovery of queer identified people” (4).
While it remains crucial to create safe spaces where LGBTQ+ persons can come out if they wish and decide to do so, coming in is a noteworthy and empowering narrative, especially for gender non-conforming persons. In celebration of Pride Month, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has “a series of films that resist a “coming out” narrative and instead focus on the process of “coming into” queer identity, community, and family.” – you can view the selection here.
Invention of heterosexuality
There has been an omission of social construction and cultural production of heterosexuality. For example, in 1901, Dorland’s Medical Dictionary referred to heterosexuality as an “abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex.”. Heterosexuality, which is assumed as a universal norm, has largely escaped critical scrutiny. An informative read on “invention of heterosexuality” is here.
It is noteworthy in this context that sex and sexuality are not the same. Sex and related instincts refer to bodily functions and physiology, are hardwired in most species, and have existed since time memorial. On the other hand, as human beings, we attach to these instincts social and cultural codes and meanings. Sexuality relates to cultural production of those meanings and social codes attached to sexual attraction and instincts. It should not be a surprise, then, that sexuality can change remarkably over time.
As the late David Graeber (1961-2020), anthropologist and activist, once said: “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it‘s something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
Where to from here?
What do futures hold for gender and sexual identity?
For starters, dear reader, no one is asking you to change gender or sexual identity, or break up with the love of your life. But we can support LGBTQ+ rights and democracy wholeheartedly. In the 21st century, people should be able to choose partners based on what they truly enjoy about another person regardless of that person’s gender. Ultimately, this is about democracy. See this well-argued article in Scientific American.
A new generation is coming, actually already is here, that is progressive for LGBTQ+ freedoms. That is a cause for celebration.
LGBTQ+ rights are also important for liberation of heterosexuals, and particularly, of men, from narrow and monolithic narratives.
“Doing gender” and “gender performativity” are concepts related to social construction of gender, for example, through cultural messages and social arrangements regarding clothing, grooming, accessories and so on. Yet, another concept, “being gender” is also noteworthy (e.g., “I am a woman”, “I am a man”), gender self-labeling. Analytical models that consider “being gender” and “doing gender” together, and their interactions, offer exciting new intellectual vistas in critical gender studies in the 21st century. I leave an article on this here for interested readers.
I would like to alert against ‘false equivalence’ that has become pervasive in our age of populism and post-truth. False equivalence is a type of flawed reasoning where equal weight is given to arguments with concrete material evidence, and those that are conjecture, untrue, or unjust. In making public policy, leaders cannot simply treat homophobic values and LGBTQ+ rights equivalently, take their average, and then make policies with that. LGBTQ+ rights, once again, are human rights. I say this because false equivalence is often deployed as an unjust, manipulative and undemocratic rhetoric to justify homophobia in public policy. That is unacceptable.
What LGBTQ+ persons need is not pity nor to be others’ feel good stories. What LGBTQ+ persons want is, amongst other things, dignity, autonomy, self-determination, equal rights protected by constitution, and freedom to choose partners without being confined by binaries, and with mutual consenting practices among adults.
Life is beautiful with love and democracy, and when we begin thinking beyond the gender and sexual identity binaries.
1. Lisa M. Diamond (2008). Female bisexuality from adolescence to adulthood: Results from a 10-year longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology 44(1), 5–14.
2. Gaby Hinsliff (2019) The pansexual revolution: how sexual fluidity became mainstream. The Guardian, February 14.
3. Susan Pell (2002) Inescapable Essentialism: Bisexually-Identified Women's Strategies in the Late 80s and Early 90s. Third Space. A Journal of Feminist Theory & Culture 2(1) November issue.
4. Shoshana Rosenberg (2018) Coming In: Queer Narratives of Sexual Self-Discovery. Journal of Homosexuality 65(13), 1788-1816.
Vural Özdemir is a systems scientist, physician and researcher-writer on democratization of science, technology and innovation.