First DraftsO.O.P.S.Race

There’s Blood on Your Binary

The social and corporeal costs of gender dualism

“We are only ever better when we are many and varied.”

Anna Julia Cooper

A Voice from the South, 1898.

More than a hundred years after they were written, Anna Julia Cooper’s words are both timeless and timely — and yet the message has still not been received. Our world is one where we still fight for Black Lives to Matter, for women’s status as equal human beings, for indigenous rights to be upheld. Rival sides and categorical binaries divide and restrict our bodies into those that fit and belong and those that don’t. In this sense, we are only ever becoming worse, in advocating for the few and the same.

While scouring sources I ended up reading John Colapinto’s The True Story of John/Joan.[1] I was familiar with the “John/Joan case” (whom I will now refer to as David Reimer, his real name, initially withheld for privacy) — from Judith Butler’s chapter, “Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality;”[2] Paul Preciado’s portrait of John Money in Testo Junkie; and the BBC Now documentary, Dr Money and the Boy With no Penis.[3] Reading Reimer’s story again but from a new lens was saddening. His life is one story among many others, in which bodies have undergone mutilations, physical harm and emotional torment because they simply existed outside our rigid and limited gender binary — because not everyone is as accepting as Anna Julia Cooper, not even a hundred years later.

In 1997, writing for Rolling Stone, John Colapinto conducted the first spoken interview on record with Reimer[4] “apart from two previous short television appearances (his face obscured, voice disguised).”[5] What is most distressing about Reimer’s life — aside from his eventual suicide — is that everything done to him (and other intersexed or genitalia-ambiguous children) was done under the guise of “normalizing” and “fixing” him.

Lacking authority or even speech, life-altering decisions are made on behalf of babies that they must later try to understand; sometimes they never learn about their own history, but know that something is “wrong” — the very “issue” doctors attempted to “fix.” And why “fix” these bodies? Hermaphroditism has existed throughout history, across the globe. What has led to our strictly-regimented male/female binary and perception of gender, according to which a body is declared normal or not?

Contemplating these questions led to my examination of the failure of the gender binary on two fronts: most basically, its inability to capture the complexity of a human body, as an intricate system of systems, collaborative organs, biocides, cells, liquids, gases, “the fluid, dispersed, networking techno-organic-textual-mythic system.”[6] But more importantly, what must be underscored is the acute harm that this gender binary imposes on bodies that do not fit into its limited bipolarity.

I will begin with the role psychoanalysis has played in the creation of gender, and why, to use Patricia Gherovici’s phrase, psychoanalysis needs a sex change. Moving from the invention of gender identity, I will point to the limitations of binary thinking and then touch on the “coloniality of gender,” a term coined by Maria Lugones, to underscore the insufficiency of intersectionality when it comes to gender and race. I will end by offering a prescriptive reworking to our habituated (binary) thinking, moving beyond binaries to an understanding of individuality as “transindividuality,” a term borrowed from Chiara Bottici (and Etienne Balibar and Spinoza).

Why Psychoanalysis Needs a Sex Change

“Historically,” the author and practicing psychoanalyst Patricia Gherovici writes, “psychoanalysts have taken a normative position by reading transsexuality as a sign of pathology … [Yet] nothing could be further from what one learns in the clinic about sexuality.” [7]

In the late 1800s — not the most sexually-liberated of times — Sigmund Freud had many female patients disclose their private, sexual fantasies, thus he was privy to their “inner,” unconscious and subconscious desires and thoughts. From these women, he developed theories, which to this day, dominate our understanding of sexuality, sex drives, the unconscious, and human desire. Despite his many female patients, female sexuality forever perplexed Freud. He was, it could be said, unable to penetrate female sexuality — just one example of when the male structure, organ, and mythos are impotent.

Despite his inability to “unlock” female sexuality, some of Freud’s theories remain radical to this day. For example, he felt that no sexual-object — that which a sexual-subject desires—was more normal than another, whether it be a man, woman, sheep, or the hem of a dress. [8] Yet today, bestiality and objectophilia remain taboo.

Following Freud’s pre-gender-gender-fluidity, Gherovici’s latest book, Transgender Psychoanalysis (2017)argues that the time is ripe for psychoanalysis to undergo a sex change. Gherovici stresses that “being trans is not an experience of ‘having’ [it is not a lifestyle choice, or a wanting of a new nose] … but a strategy of ‘being.’” [9]Psychoanalysis (and analysts) must put an end to its pathologizing principles and recognize that “Trans people’s experiences may force us not just to re-evaluate our notions of gender, but also to reconsider how we think about other forms of difference as it unravels identity as a construction.” [10]

Gherovici and sociologist Rogers Brubaker are among those whose clinical and/or research experience with transgender folk reveals gender transition to be “not just a movement between categories,” respectively illuminating the ways it “also offers new positions between and beyond existing categories.” [11] In this way, transgenderism disrupts the rigidity of “gender,” highlighting the “plasticity, contingency and arbitrariness” of categorical binaries.[12]

By adopting a Freudianesque, fluid approach and understanding of gender, we can bring an end to the pathologizing, ostracizing, and physical harm associated with thinking in terms of a gender binary, which puts transgender bodies at risk of danger and increased rates of “poverty, homelessness, unemployment, poor health, HIV infection, assault and incarceration…,” [13] rates that double for black transgender women. [14]

Moreover, the male/female gender binary fails to capture the actual experience of the human body. One only has to feel the sensations of breathing, eating, shitting, fucking, and hurting, to understand the body to be more complex than just a sex and corresponding identity. Preciado’s lucid explanation of the body as “a technoliving, multiconnected entity incorporating technology,”[15] makes clear the inextricability of the body to technology and capitalism, as well as its irreducibility to “man” or “woman.” Adherence to the gender binary will only continue to cause harm to bodies both outside and inside its bipolar regimes. The only ones profiting are non-corporeal corporations, state-governments, pharmaceuticals, and those so repressed who need to feel the built walls of their “gendered” cages in order to feel secure. To highlight this point, Preciado uses to the term sexopolitics — adjoining Wittig and Butler on capitalism and Foucault’s biopower — to articulate how sex has become integral in plans for power, or in other words, to show “that the discourse on masculinity and femininity, as well as techniques of normalizing sexual identity, have turned into governmental agents of control and standardization of life.”[16] For example we can look to the fact that oral birth control was first tested at the expense of female bodies of color,[17]and that birth control continues to mainly be the responsibility of women, with little scientific and marketing effort for a men’s birth control pill.

Gender and Racial Binaries

Despite today’s bipolarity of gender and what is deemed essential to be identified as a man or woman, “masculinity” and “femininity” as “culturally recognizable behavior and physical expression” identifiers are fairly recent inventions.[18] The medical-pedo-psychiatrist,[19] John Money, responsible for this new usage of gender — as opposed to previous philological use—coined the term gender identity in 1955. This differentiated one’s gender from one’s sex, “as a name for a social role or psychological identity,”[20] a separation that helped advance his theory for “(using surgical, endocrinological, and cultural techniques) to ‘change the gender of any baby up to 18 months.’” [21]

His theory and those behind him had no intention of producing an “alternative (multimorphic) epistemology for understanding bodies and desires,”[22] despite the “scientific” (read legitimate) knowledge that there are at least five different gender categories within human anatomy, with between one and four percent of the world’s population (or 1 in 2,000) born intersex[23]  — a term that describes bodies with ambiguous and/or non-corresponding genitalia. Instead Money’s binary cortège was a promise to parents that he could “fix” their children’s mutilated, ambiguous or non-conforming genitalia and turn them into “normal” boys and girls.

The case of Reimer was largely responsible for Money’s sky-rocketing career — before the public learned of the devastating truth and eventual suicide of Reimer. Reimer described his experience twenty years later to journalist John Colapinto:

It was like brainwashing … I’d give just about anything to go to a hypnotist to black out my whole past. Because it’s torture. What they did to you in the body is sometimes not near as bad as what they did to you in the mind — with the psychological warfare in your head. [24]

So what happens to these bodies and to these people? In an attempt to “rectify” and “normalize” them, they are paradoxically cut-up, mutilated, and transfigured. As Butler writes:

The very criterion by which we judge a person to be a gendered being, a criterion that posits coherent gender as a presupposition of humanness, is not only one which, justly or unjustly, governs the recognizability of the human, but one that informs the ways we do or do not recognize ourselves at the level of feeling, desire, and the body, at the moments before the mirror, in the moments before the window, in the times that one turns to psychologists, to psychiatrists, to medical and legal professionals to negotiate what may well feel like the unrecognizability of one’s gender and, hence, the unrecognizability of one’s personhood. (Butler, 58.)

Gender binary thinking has explicitly reduced the multiplicity of bodies that exist in the world, not only propelling people to exist outside of the law, but placing many bodies in harm. We must begin to understand human beings as “nothing but complex individuals resulting from movements of attraction and repulsion between more or less complex individuals. In other words, they are not given entities, but rather processes, webs of affective and imaginary relations, which are never given once and for all.”[25]

In the perpetuation of fictitious norms of what we are supposed to be, of what a body is supposed to look like, act like, and fuck like, we create the idea of other to establish an idea of us. With this perceived closeness and security of “normal,” “right,” “straight,” and “white” we imply a distance to the “non-normal” as “wrong,” “gay,” and “black.” This binary of gender, thus acts as a coloniality of gender, to use Lugones’s term, wherein words are weighted with the power of categorical separation, but are also an instrument of subjugation and domination.

Coloniality of Gender

Lugones’s phrase the coloniality of gender, underscores not just the intersectionality of race and gender, but the imperative of their coalescence, highlighting that “it is only when we perceive gender and race as intermeshed or fused that we actually see women of color.”[26] The use of “coloniality,” from colonialism, is an intentional move, summarized by Bottici below:

Capitalism needs not only cheap labour and resources for free, whether through slavery, serfdom, or contemporary means such as debt and the industrial prison complex. Hence the importance, as decolonial theorists emphasized, to focus on coloniality, and not simply colonialism: whereas the latter may be perceived as an item of the past, coloniality denotes the relations of power that continue to exist even when the formal process of colonization is over.[27]

The invention of “race” was a pivotal turning point in history as it created the relations of superiority and inferiority through domination.[28] The making of an other to secure an us. Though race and gender are fictionally biological, their narrative remains operative as a means of violence, domination, oppression, and exclusion. These fictional biological notions include ridiculous, once believed propaganda such as black people having smaller heads and therefore smaller brains; or women’s lack of penises as a physical sign of their second-class. Though intersectionality has at least brought to light the multiplicities of oppressions that affect certain individuals, the problem with lists — the form intersectionality often adopts — is twofold. As Bottici writes, “they are all necessarily incomplete, while at the same time being necessarily closed …To put it bluntly: any list is deemed to tell us at the same time too much and too little.” [29]

Making use of the “coloniality of gender,” Lugones points out how racial and gender binaries worked in tandem to classify and subjugate bodies. To clarify, she does not posit the non-existence of sexual difference and social roles in pre-colonial times. In Bottici’s words, “it simply means that this dimorphic organization was not a worldwide hegemonic as it is now.” [30]

We can look to Oyeronke Oyewùmí’s The Invention of Women (1997) as an example. Oyewumi outlines the colonial ideas of gender imposed onto Yorùbá society — a society in southwestern Nigeria “in which the body was not always enlisted as the basis for social classification.” [31] In other words, the Yorùbá did not derive social categories from the anatomical from which to determine their social hierarchy. In contrast to Eurocentric/American classifications, “one cannot place persons in the Yorùbá categories just by looking at them. What they are heard to say [and chronological age] may be the most important cue.”[32] Oyewùmí further explains that the West’s “concentration on vision as the primary mode of comprehending reality promotes what can be seen over that which is not apparent to the eye; it misses other levels and the nuances of existence.” [33]

Oyewùmí and the Yorùbá society illustrate how Western customs, ideas, and power structures are uncritically taken as universal, eventually infecting all available domains. “In African studies,” she writes, “historically and currently, the creation, constitution, and production of knowledge have remained a privilege of the West. Therefore, body-reasoning, and the bio-logic that derives from the biological determinism inherent in Western thought have been imposed on African societies.” [34] The West in this way is able to use the construction of “race” and “gender” as ideological apparatuses/instruments of domination, disguised as biological truth. There is blood on their binaries.

Moving Beyond Binaries

It is unlikely that the West will rectify its scopic fetish, but perhaps blurring the lines can weaken the power of our optic ontologies. In this sense, perhaps Preciado and the wider community of “gender hackers” and “gender pirates,”[35] who aim to foil society’s expectations, are effectively making gender into a pasquinade.

In addition to wearing patches of Testogel — testosterone replacement therapy — on our arms and experimenting with birth control pills in order to free ourselves from the restraints of the gender binary, and from the harms habituated in binary thinking, I propose adopting Bottici’s “ontology of the ‘transindividual.’”[36] The ontology of the transindividual allows for individuals to be understood as “…never atoms, events, let alone subjects, given once and for all … [but instead as] … processes, the result of constant movements of association and repulsion that connect simple individuals with other simple individuals, but also with more complex ones that constantly do and undo a body.”[37] This liberates bodies, labeled women and men, from the socially perceived “normal” forms and breaks free from the idea that “gender,” “sex,” and anatomy correlate in any given way.

Both sex and gender are transindividual processes, and it should now be clear that sex is as much a socially constructed idea as gender. Neither sex nor sexual difference are natural, but they are codified visually as “anatomical truths” functioning like a legitimization of a new political organization of the social field.[38] Thus by controlling sex and gender, both in and through imaginal — the realm of images that permeate our unconscious and conscious — and social spheres, medical and pharmaceutical industries, governments, and capitalistic enterprises grasp control of how we live, move, eat, dress, fuck, love, live, and even die.

If psychoanalysis aims to stay true in its objective: to liberate people from themselves and their unconscious fears and repressions, it must relinquish both its power and tendency to pathologize. In lieu of opprobrious diagnoses (of beings who don’t easily fit our labeled boxes), Gherovici suggests a return to Lacan’s notion of the “sinthome,” a new kind of symptom that does not need to be removed or cured.[39]

Furthermore, hegemonic/colonial/patriarchal/capitalistic/white/Eurocentric/elitist structures of domination must not remain uninvestigated standards. Preciado reminds us that:

All philosophy is intended to be a form of autovivisection — when it isn’t a form of dissection of the other. It is an exercise in self-cutting, an incision into subjectivity. When enthusiasts of vivisection escape from their own body and head for the body of others, the body of the collective, the body of the earth, the body of the universe, philosophy becomes political.[40]

Our own individual habits give life to social customs and collectively habituated patterns. If philosophy and psychoanalysis enable the individual to look inside, and potentially free oneself from the limitations imposed on us and by us, we become more capable in liberating others. Through the rigorous examination and subsequent shedding of our own mental binaries and habituated ways of perceiving the world, we can go beyond the fear that these habituations serve to cover over and open ourselves to a wider view of the phenomenal world and our fellow humans. Lastly, the adoption and commitment to the ontology of the transindividual is collectively liberating, as it frees us and others simultaneously from binary thinking and the inextricable relations of domination.

Habitual patterns are almost like reflexes: When we are shocked, we panic, and when we are attacked, we become defensive. On a more subtle level, we use habitual patterns to hide our self-consciousness. When we feel inadequate, we employ habitual responses to patch up our self-image: We invent excuses to shield our inadequacies from other people. Our standard emotional responses are often reflections of habitual patterns, as are mental fatigue, restlessness, irritation over something we don’t like, and many of our desires We use our habitual patterns to seal ourselves off and to build ourselves up.[41]

Ceilidh Webster is a recent graduate in philosophy from the New School.

Works Cited

Bottici, Chiara. Bodies in plural: Towards an Anarchafeminist-Manifesto, in Thesis Eleven, 2017

Bottici, Chiara. Imaginal Past: Philosophy, Coloniality and the Politics of Remembrance. 2018

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender: “Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality.” Routledge 2004. 57-74.

Colapinto, John. The True Story of John/Joan. Rolling Stone, December 11, 1997. Pages 54-97.

Gherovici, Patricia. Transgender Pyschoanalysis: A Lacanian Perspective on Sexual Difference. Taylor and Francis, 2017.

Lugones, M. The Coloniality of Gender 

Oyewùmí, Oyeronke. The Invention of Women, University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Preciado, Paul B. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2017.


[1] Rolling Stone, December 11, 1997. Pages 54-97.

[2] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, pages 57-74.

[4] Colapinto has since written a book from this initial article, titled: As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a GirlSee Natalie Angier writing for The New York Times, review.

[5] Colapinto, 1997.

[6] Preciado, 43 quoting Donna Haraway.

[7] Gherovici, 2.

[8] Jamieson Webster, in class February 22. 2018.

[9] Gherovici, 5.

[10] Gherovici, 3.

[11] Gherovici quoting Brubaker, 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Gherovici, 19.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Preciado, 43.

[16] Preciado, 69

[18] Preciado, 27.

[19] Pedo-pyschiatrist is an apt description in two senses: one, in that he saw child patients and had questionable methods, and two because Money believed that children and adults should be free to be together and sleep together (if mutually consensual), therefore making him a pedo(philiac) pyschiartrist.

[20] Preciado, pg. 99-100.

[21] Preciado quoting John Money, Joan Hampson, and John Hampson, “Imprinting and the Establishment of Gender Role,” Archives of Neurology and Pyschiatry 77 (1957): 333-36.

[22] Preciado, 105.

[23] First statistic from Gherovici, pg.??, Second from Colapinto, 1997: 7.

[24] Rolling Stone, December 11, 1997: 54.

[25] Bottici, 2017, 98

[26] Lugones, 4.

[27] Bottici, 2017 also quoting Torres, in Imaginal Past: Philosophy, Coloniality and the Politics of Remembrance.

[28] Lugones, 2.

[29] Bottici 2017, 94-5.

[30] Bottici 2018, 16.

[31] Oyewùmí, 13.

[32] Oyewùmí, 13-4.

[33] ibid, 14.

[34] Oyewùmí, x.

[35] Preciado, 55.

[36] Borrowed in part from Balibar and Spinoza.

[37] Bottici, 97.

[38] Preciado, 74.

[39] gherovici, 9.

[40] Preciado, 359.

[41] Chogyam Trungpa, “Overcoming Habitual Patterns,” in Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Volume Eight, page 97.

Also for you:

Ceilidh Webster

Previous post

An Excerpt from Fear City

Next post

When New York City Almost Failed