[Originally from December 30, 2014]
There seems to be a contradiction between strong formulations of non-binary gender theory and gender equality. Basically, if you define gender as a societal construct unlinked from one’s physiology, you’ll have problems arguing for reducing differences between genders to objectively physiological ones. Both of them try to unlink behavior from sex, but do it in a completely different way.
The core assumption behind the classic theory, reflected in such places as ICD-10 F64, is that gender and sex are ultimately linked. The desire to signal the opposite gender is not fundamentally different from the desire to have the body characteristic for the opposite sex – they just reflect different intensity of the association with the opposite gender-sex, as noted in Benjamin scale. This theory would sustain a bit of damage in the world with no gender stereotypes at all – it’s already less applicable to people assigned female at birth due to looser definitions of crossdressing – but overall, it would stand. Lower levels disappear, but the higher ones remain. On a side note, whereas in its original formulation it postulates a clearly wrong linkage between gender identity and sexual orientation, the distribution of sexual orientations among trans* people appears to be significantly different from that in general population, so this actually could be an area of fruitful research.
Non-binary theory, on the other hand, notes that genitals per se matter only if you consider someone as a sexual partner. Genotype and internal organs matter even rarer – only if you consider having kids or going to a doctor with something more serious than flu. In most cases, perceived gender, communicated by secondary sexual characteristics and gender-specific clothes is enough to select social protocols of interaction. A certain behavior may or may not be used as a way to signal gender, but many of them constitute it when combined together, and linked with the expectation to be treated in a certain way. And since there are a lot of possible combinations of behaviors, and they’re not directly linked to one’s body or sexual orientation, it’s just natural that there are more than two possibilities here. That approach allows us to encompass a lot more phenomena than the binary theory.
Now let’s talk about ender equality, going gradually from motte to bailey. In its weakest form, gender equality just require to abolish any legal discrimination between genders and sexes. That’s the easiest thing to make, although in many places there are problems even with that. More importantly for this discussion, that doesn’t create any problems for gender theories – just use the word “person” everywhere in laws. A bit stronger requirement is not just for the laws, but for the people to avoid prejudice, and judge everyone on their own merit only. Now, I have to say that there’s always a trade-off between avoiding prejudice and dropping valid Bayesian evidence (an extreme case: even if someone looks like a woman, and does everything that is stereotypically associated with femininity, you should make no assumptions about their gender until explicitly asking), but this is more or less orthogonal to this topic. Generally, a purely meritocratic society works with both binary and non-binary people just fine.
However, there is a stronger idea of gender equality – the one where all the gender differences should be abolished, aside from those directly following from physiology of sexes. Boys and girls should be socialized in the same way, not taught that anything one can do with their appearance can be gender-specific; products and services should not be gender-targeted, unless again they specifically address one’s physiological needs; people should not have problems combining different gender clues like having a beard and wearing a dress, being fragile and sensitive while liking NASCAR, etc.
This idea also sounds interesting, but now we have a problem: it basically strives to abolish gender as understood by the non-binary theory. Binary theory would be fine, and F64 will still be there – some people will still hate their genitals, and want to have the other type (well, probably. Everything points in this direction, but ultimately, without unethical experiments with isolated societies, we cannot really tell if the aversion to genitalia is innate or conditioned by associating them with the preferred gender, not preferred sex). The lack of pressure to do something just because you have a certain type of genitalia doesn’t hurt it. If, however, we already say that gender is a social construct defined by behaviors and not necessarily linked to sex, we have a problem defining what it is to have no presumptions about genders. If gender is a cluster in the multidimensional space of behaviors, then doing something significantly different from one cluster is by definition not belonging to this gender. Or, if behavior should be ignored, there’s no gender beyond sex, which is reasonably binary.
So. In a world of true gender equality it’s impossible to define gender as a social construct, which completely undermines the non-binary understanding of gender. In a world where everyone internalized the non-binary understanding, it’s impossible to do something completely uncharacteristic of one gender while being associated with this gender. We could make a workaround by saying that the non-binary theory only applies to the societies without gender equality, but that is a moderately strong arguments against the idea of gender being innate. There are some examples of allegedly innate characteristics that only manifest themselves in very specific societal conditions: for example, absolute pitch – it can only be demonstrated after inventing 12-note octaves – but then again, it is being hypothesized that it’s not actually innate. At least one of these three theses has to be at least slightly false for them to work together.