Who is binary anyway?
I know that some transpeople identify as “non-binary,” but is anyone really binary? Do they have an exact opposite somewhere, some kind of anti-them who they can pair off with to complete a binary?
Humans are “jagged,” to use the term Todd Rose uses in his “The End Of Average.” In dismantling the tyranny of the average, he shows how no one really fits neatly into any template, how we are all “jagged,” with our own individual peaks and valleys, strengths and weaknesses, crossing the bounds of normative expectations to be our own unique person.
For many, it’s comforting to imagine that a binary exists, a clear demarcation between us and them. For example, we are non-binary, liberated and free, while they are binary, walled in and trapped. That idea, though reminds me of Robert Benchley’s notion that there may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.
In my experience, people are just way too complex and wonderful to be neatly divided into any sort of binary. We are each beautifully jagged, faceted and shimmering, moving in the light of co-creation, the way we take the gifts we were born with and then reveal, polish or fight them in the world.
Binary is just a human imposition on the infinite beauty of creation, an attempt to build separations that feel cozy, safe and real. They offer an easy way to evoke a feeling of connection, knowing that we are like the people around us and we are different from those other people.
Often, this ends up leaving us with only a negative definition of identity; we can’t really express who we are in the world but we are damn sure clear about who we are not. Instead of having a personal awareness and authenticity, we only have a group image, knowing that we are not like them, sure of who we are opposed to, who has it wrong.
We don’t want to be different, we want to be like everyone else, so we strive to be tame, well assimilated, doing what we need to do to be seen as a member of the in-group. Not being one of the outsiders, the marginalized, the disparaged, the uncool, the despised becomes so important to us that we do anything to try and fit in, rejecting what we believe others will find unattractive.
Searching to find what makes us different and special but still leaves us safely part of a group is the quest to find binaries that include us. We wrap ourselves in the banner of the group we want to belong to, taking on their characteristics and becoming one of them. This process builds walls, separations that we very much want to believe are real and solid, protecting us from the fear of being thrown out into the cold alone and lonely.
When we fervently need to believe in the binary, needing to feel protected and cosseted by it, we can feel entitled to judge other people on quick, surface assignments. They are just a man, just a gay, just a Muslim, just a poor person, just a whatever we find to be less than and loathsome to us. Instead of engaging them as an individual, discovering their own jagged offerings, we wall them off, cutting them out of our highly defended and judgmental acceptance.
In a world where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity. I knew that was my personal mission statement when I head it twenty three years ago now, and I still believe it today. Binaries are always, always, always oversimplifications, always an attempt to smooth over some of the awesome and transcendent jaggedness which makes every human unique, special and precious.
This has always been the role of the shaman, to reveal the connections between all things, seeing beyond the conventions and fears to a wider view.
For me, the assertion of a “non-binary” gender identity is just an attempt to create another binary. Simply rejecting the language, symbols, assertions and expectations of gender does not create a strong and potent personal identity, one that can stand for something in the human community.
Embracing the truth that no one is simply binary, rather we are each jagged, each special, and each of us has something different to contribute is at the heart of celebrating diversity. To me, that celebration is the heart of a commitment to the queer truth that threads through us all, that threads back to creation.
As humans, we are responsible for making the most of what we have been given, by creation and by those who have worked so hard to help us grow. We have the obligation of playing our role and the impetus to get clear, gain mastery and be the best we can be.
Staying defended behind conventional binaries, trapped inside cultural boundaries never lets us claim our own unique power and gifts in the world.
Moving beyond binaries to continuous common humanity is the only way that know to be fully and gracefully present in the world, returning the gifts we have been given along the way.
Nobody is just a binary, no matter how comforting it might be to stay hidden and defended against our personal responsibility for connection by trying to build a wall between us and them. To be valued as an individual, we have to value others as individuals first. Before we can demand others take responsibility for their differences, we have to take responsibility for our differences, for our own jagged and human nature.
The joy of human culture is in how all the jagged pieces come together to form a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.
I, for one, want to be a part of that.