Gender, sexuality, and other things that don’t belong in boxes

“I’ve always felt that sexuality is a really slippery thing. In this day and age, it tends to get categorized and labeled, and I think labels are for food. Canned food.”

Michael Stipe, musician, artist, and activist

We all do it. Some of us do it more than others. Some of us feel guilty about doing it and only do it when we think no one is watching. Others freely embrace doing it and don’t care who sees them. I’m talking of course about that most ubiquitous of procrastination activities…web surfing. You know how it goes. At first it’s just going to be one or two cute cat videos on YouTube and next thing you know you’ve fallen down that technology rabbit hole only to emerge an hour later knowing WAY too much about the latest South Korean dance phenomena.


Never fear, for I have something that can help assuage your web-surfing guilt. Someone recently told me about the website Upworthy, whose stated mission is “To make meaningful stories go viral.” It’s a collection of videos, stories, newsclips, and other gems from the internet that run the gamut from environmentalism to feminism to politics to just everyday awesome stuff. What makes this site so compelling is that it’s based on the brilliant idea that the “things that matter in the world don’t have to be boring and guilt-inducing.” I read one person describe the site in the following way: “Upworthy has a recipe for chocolate-covered news broccoli that actually tastes delicious.” And it’s true. In contrast to the fear mongering and sensationalism too often seen in the popular news media, when I peruse through my Upworthy feed I almost invariably find something that inspires me, that pushes me to take action on an issue that really does matter to me.

Sexual continuum versus boxes

One of my favorite videos on the site is one called “Everything You Wanted To Know About Human Sexuality But Were Afraid To Ask.” This clever and incredibly informative video succinctly sums up everything I try to teach my students about our outdated, bifurcated notions of sex and gender. It’s a commentary on sexuality, gender, attraction, and stigma all rolled up into one less-than-4-minute video. Hank Green, who created the video says, “My goal with this video is I want people to understand because I think understanding will lead to less hate and also less self-hate.”

In Green’s video, he talks about all the different factors that go into a person’s sexual identity, including their sex, gender identity, romantic orientation, sexual orientation, and sexual behavior.


Through this video, we can see that all of these factors are on a continuum, rather than binary boxes (e.g., male versus female). We can then appreciate how beautifully complex and infinitely varied we humans are when it comes to our sexuality. And when we aren’t set on trying to shove everyone into one or two discrete boxes, the possibility opens up that maybe there isn’t a “right” and “wrong” way of being; maybe there are an infinitely varied identities, sexualities, and genders and this can be alright. So, I say out with the old boxes and let’s make room for everyone on this beautifully rich continuum we call sexuality.

“You’re trying to ‘squish out’ my kid”: Is it time to revise our gender boxes?

“Little boxes made of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same”

Little Boxes, by Malvina Reynolds

Humans and categories

Oh how we humans love our boxes! Black/white, good/bad, Democrat/Republican, female/male. These nice neat categories make us feel safe, like we understand the world around us!

It’s true that categories are incredibly useful. They us help quickly and efficiently (albeit not 100% accurately) deal with the massive amounts of information that bombard us every day.  However, it seems to me that categories are more like guidelines; they are the cheat sheets for how to function in the world. They are good as a starting point, but they aren’t going to give you the whole picture. Treating these categories like they are an accurate substitute for how the world really functions is sort of like relying on the Cliff Notes version of Moby Dick—you get the general picture that it’s about some guy and a whale, but you miss a lot of the important stuff that makes the book great.

When I look around the world, it seems to me that very few things in life, or at least very few of the interesting things, can be grouped into neat little checkboxes. Rather, most of the interesting things in life fall on a continuum, a diverse spectrum where the colors bleed together to create the whole. So the idea that something as rich, complex, and interesting as one’s gender identity (that is, a person’s subjective sense of being male, female, both, or neither) could be simplified down to a simple two-choice checkbox seems dubious to me. And yet, that is pretty much how the vast majority of us think about gender, male/female right?

Gender Spectrum

In recent years, more and more people have been calling for a more inclusive, more nuanced way to talk about the continuum of gender identity. And many of those calls have been coming from the parents of young children who some refer to as “gender nonconforming”, kids who identify as something other than the neat little  male or  female categories.

Several weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a story called “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?”. In the article there were several stories of parents with young children who were grappling with how best to respond to their child’s nonconforming gender identity. They talked about the struggle to try to figure out what was best for their child amidst the frequently conflicting views various medical and mental health professionals, peers, educators, and family. They talked about the struggle to help their child navigate a society where, by and large, we maintain a fairly rigid concept of gender. Talking about that struggle, one mother wrote:

“It might make your world more tidy to have two neat and separate gender possibilities, but when you squish out the space between, you do not accurately represent lived reality. More than that, you’re trying to ‘squish out’ my kid.”

Should we revise our boxes?

Gender identity is a complex issue. And parenting is an even more complex and sensitive issue. And I certainly don’t purport to have the answer for how all parents should handle such complex issues with their children. And really, that isn’t my point here. Rather, what I was most struck by as I read the article in the Times was how strongly attached we humans are to our categories, how certain we are that they are “right”. And most of all, how scary it can be when those categories start to get challenged. But in clinging to those categories, maybe it’s the case that there are a bunch of kids (and adults too!) who are getting “squished out”. I don’t know what the right answer is for every parent, but I do think it would be a good beginning for our society to revisit this whole concept of gender and how we categorize it. With an open dialogue from a position of curiosity rather fear masquerading as certainty, maybe we’ll discover that there is more to this whole gender thing than we first thought. And maybe Moby Dick is about more than just some guy chasing a whale.