The moment student Maria Munir came out as non-binary to Obama, in a packed town hall meeting, in front of the world’s cameras, was news. Thrilling, taboo breaking, epoch defining news. It made the front page of the Guardian, and was a national story for Channel 4. This moment was news for Sky. And for the BBC.
But why was this news?
Presumably because it is revolutionary not to be fully a man or a woman. But what does it mean to be gender non binary? For Munir, as for many a believer in what Rebecca Reilly Cooper calls the ‘doctrine of gender identity’, gender is a strongly felt internal sense of identity. Munir was thus announcing to the world that ‘they’ do not feel themselves to be male or female.
This announcement can only be news in a society that shares Munir’s understanding of gender, or which needs to be educated to understand this sense. The very terms of the news reports assume that the reader either accepts this understanding or needs to learn to accept it. But what does it mean? Where is gender located? Was Munir talking about body, mind, or soul?
We can assume that Munir is not talking about her body, that she is not coming out as intersex. We know also that over 99% of human beings belong quite neatly to what has been called ‘3G sex’, in other words that they conform to one of two sexed categories in terms of genes, gonads and genitals. The claim to be ‘gender non binary’ is therefore a claim either about an internal sense (‘I don’t feel feminine, or masculine’) which is surely not something that anyone would need to announce publicly to the leader of the western world. Or it is a statement which is assumed to represent a recognition of a fundamental and immutable fact of brain sex. As a statement about brain sex, however, this would once again only be worth stating publicly if it were in any way unusual.
In a 2012 article , ‘Genetic-gonadal-genitals sex (3G-sex) and the misconception of brain and gender, or, why 3G-males and 3G-females have intersex brain and intersex gender’, Daphna Joel points out that in terms of our brains, 100% of human beings are intersex: ‘Although more than 99% of human beings are sexually dimorphic (that is we belong neatly to one of two categories, male or female, in terms of our genes, gonads, and genitals) in terms of our brains, 100% of human beings are intersex.’
In summary, parallel lines of research have led to the conclusion that although there are sex differences in the brain and in behavior, cognition, personality, and other gender characteristics, these sex differences are for the most part not dimorphic and not internally consistent. This is in marked contrast to the almost perfect consistency between the highly dimorphic levels of 3G-sex. Therefore although ~99% of humans are 3G-“males” or 3G-“females”, that is, have all the characteristics of their category, and only ~1% are 3G-“intersex”, when it comes to brain and gender, we all have an intersex brain (i.e., a mosaic of “male” and “female” brain characteristics) and an intersex gender (i.e., an array of masculine and feminine traits).
The day after her 15 minutes of fame, Munir described the electric moment her question came to her:
“I realised that if anyone was going to accept me for who I am, it would have to be Obama, one of the most powerful men in the world. I thought if he can’t do that or if he says anything negative then that will galvanise a lot of people into contemplating what it is we really mean when we say we are a liberal society.”
Munir had presumed there was a very slim chance of getting picked for a question. But the student was handed the microphone – at which point, Munir said, the “blood ran cold”.
I salute Munir’s courage and her skill in the fine art of parental manipulation: if you want something from mum and dad, get Obama on your side. What is strange is that the media chose to report as news a statement which must necessarily be true of 100% of human beings.
Perhaps what is strange, above all, is that we are frozen in collective wonderment at human identity, at the possibility that each of us contain qualities gendered by society as male and as female. How did we get here?