One feminist’s view of non-binary gender

I became aware of feminism as a teenager, back in the 1970s. After some initial resistance, feminism wound up appealing to me not only because it held out the hope of equality for women, but also because it challenged existing gender norms and gender roles. I’ve never been comfortable with the stereotypical gender norms for men in the United States. I’m not the strong silent type. I’ve always liked working with children. I kinda like doing housework (except cooking, I’m bad at cooking). I didn’t know the term “toxic masculinity” back then, but I knew what toxic masculinity was, I knew it was hurting me, and I wanted to change it.

But we mostly remained stuck with the old gender norms throughout the 1980s, and the 1990s, and the 2000s. In 2002, I took a battery of psychological tests as part of my preparation for ministry. On one of those tests, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), I scored well out of the normal range on gender identity. Worried that I had some kind of pathology, I asked the psychologist who administered the test what that score meant. Oh, the psychologist said, don’t worry about that, men going into ministry often test out of the normal range on that scale. I found the psychologist’s reply even more disturbing than the thought that I might have a pathology — because the psychologist’s reply meant that men trained to be empathetic, caring, and group-oriented were considered pathological by society.

So when non-binary gender finally emerged as a viable option, I felt we were taking a step in the right direction. Biological females who happened to be assertive and articulate and willing to talk over men didn’t have to get pushed into a gender role that required them to be deferential and self-deprecating. Biological males who happened to be caring and empathetic didn’t have to get pushed into a gender role that required them to be strong, silent, and unemotional. Non-binary gender gave the promise of allowing a wide range of gender expression, far beyond these two examples.

Non-binary gender is a step in the right direction. It has opened a tiny and fragile space between male and female gender roles. But across the U.S., only a small percentage of people now consider themselves non-binary gender. For most people in the U.S., the old gender norms remain intact. I feel hopeful about that fragile open space where non-binary gender exists. But I’m discouraged that the old gender norms still wall in that tiny open space. I’m discouraged that non-binary gender has to be a matter of individual choice for just a few people, rather than a change in the way society understands gender. I’m discouraged at the thought that as a man, I’d still probably test as pathological on the MMPI. And I’m especially discouraged that non-binary gender people face wide social discrimination.

When non-binary people are discriminated against in much the same way the women are discriminated against, it seems to me that we’re still stuck with toxic masculinity running the show. We have taken a step in the right direction, but from my feminist perspective, it’s only a baby step; I wish we could grow up, and take adult-sized steps.

5 thoughts on “One feminist’s view of non-binary gender”

  1. I wish you wouldn’t characterize of “out of the normal range” for your biological sex as pathological. Being 5’4″ is the mode for women; men who are 5’4″ aren’t generally sick – just shorter than average for men – nor is a woman who is 5’9″.
    And I’m not sure that the gender scales on the MMPI were intended to identify psychopathology, but factors that might influence how it manifested.
    I took the MMPI in a battery of tests going into college, and was right in the middle on the gender scale. It didn’t surprise me, and I didn’t think it a pathology that I wasn’t “feminine” enough. My husband scored similarly. We have both lived our lives doing what felt right without worrying about the stereotypes. We were lucky to have been born into families, and chosen professions, where no-one felt strongly about adhereing to those stereotypes.
    As what you say implies (at least to me), our troubles as a society – and for individuals who do not fit the stereotypical, constructed, gender roles, come from taking deviance from those stereotypes as a pathology that needs to be corrected – either by forcing ourselves to behave according to the stereotype, or even more extremely, to choose to be identified as a different gender. Perhaps we should have been concentrating more as identifying the stereotypes as pathological, or at least no longer productive.

  2. This is an interesting paper, from 1983 (but data older than that), about identifying items on the MMPI which distinguish men with gender dysphoria. One thing that struck me was “The first two areas suggest that the scale has good face validity and is consistent with one’s clinical experience that patients with gender dysphoria tend to polarize and stereotype masculine and feminine sex roles.”

  3. LdeG, the MMPI has a statistically defined normal range (one or two standard devations from the mean, or something like that); the MMPI is designed to identify psychopathology; and more specifically the MMPI is designed to test psychopathology related to gender identity. Note that I am completely comfortable with my gender identity, and always have been; but I score as slightly pathological on the MMPI. I don’t know enough about the MMPI to know how they define “normal” gender identity, but based on what the psychology who administered my test said, I assume it has something to do with fairly stereotypical gender roles. And just to be clear, I don’t see this as my problem, I see this as a problem with the MMPI and more broadly with our society — i.e., I don’t feel I need to change, I feel society needs to change.

  4. LdeG, there’s the Gd scale on the MMPI, and then there’s the GM and GF scales. These scales are often lumped together by laypeople like me as “gender identity” scales, though Gd pertains to gender dysphoria, and GM and GF pertain to gender roles — very different things. The paper you reference is about the Gd scale. My post doesn’t make it clear that what I’m critiquing are the GM and GF scales, not the Gd scale. Sorry for the lack of clarity.

  5. Also of interest: the latest update of the MMPI was released last fall, as noted in this article. From the article, it appears that there’s been a major update in the way the MMPI deals with gender.

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