Nautilus

Caitlyn Jenner and Our Cognitive Dissonance

Somewhere in the middle of the night in a Central African rainforest, a chimpanzee gives birth. Soon after, as the sun rises, mother and newborn sit there, dazed, amid a coffee klatch of friends and relatives. Inevitably, at some point, virtually every member of the group will come over, pull the kid’s legs apart and sniff: Boy or girl?

It’s the most binary question in biology, producing an answer that is set in stone. But in reality the binary nature of gender isn’t all that binary after all. Biologists have long known about exceptions to the boring, staid notion that organisms are, and remain, either female or male. Now our culture is inching toward recognizing that the permanent, cleanly binary nature of gender is incorrect.

Along with the high-profile Caitlyn Jenner, and Emmy-nominated actress Laverne Cox, America has seen openly transgender individuals serve as a mayor, state legislator, judge, police officer, a model for a global cosmetics brand, and a high school homecoming queen. Even amid the appallingly high rates of discrimination and violence against transgender individuals, there is a growing recognition that gender designation need not be permanent.

Many people are questioning whether there is even such a thing as “gender.” These are individuals whose psychosexual self-image may be of both genders, a third gender, no gender, or whose visceral perception of the social world does not include implicitly seeing people as gendered.

This new continent was formalized by as august and ancient an institution as Facebook, which offers 58 gender specification options on one’s profile page. These include Agender, Bigender, Intersex, Gender Fluid, Gender Questioning, Non-binary, Pangender, and my two favorites—Two-spirit, with a vaguely Native American grooviness to it, and Other, which basically implies that, Whoa, Nellie, we’ve barely scratched the surface!

In many ways the most radical departures from a binary gender system comes with gamers who spend virtually their entire lives role-playing as their avatars in a virtual world. Be whoever you want—male, female, neither, a hybrid. Be whatever you want—bonobo, parakeet, centaur, Lord Vishnu. Heck, pick the right site and you can spend

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus6 min read
The Math Trick Behind MP3s, JPEGs, and Homer Simpson’s Face
Over a decade ago, I was sitting in a college math physics course and my professor spelt out an idea that kind of blew my mind. I think it isn’t a stretch to say that this is one of the most widely applicable mathematical discoveries, with applicatio
Nautilus11 min read
Learning Chess at 40: What I learned trying to keep up with my 4-year-old daughter at the royal game.
My 4-year-old daughter and I were deep into a game of checkers one day about three years ago when her eye drifted to a nearby table. There, a black and white board bristled with far more interesting figures, like horses and castles. “What’s that?” sh
Nautilus3 min read
This Famous Aging Researcher Doesn’t Want Us to Live Forever
In the Netflix anime series Knights of Sidonia, humankind is marooned in a spaceship 500,000-strong, refugees constantly on the run from shapeshifting aliens who destroyed Earth over 1,000 years ago. Both the patriarchy and poverty have been smashed.