Gender as a Spectrum… or a Koosh Ball?

There is an article going around talking about how people are increasingly understanding gender as a spectrum. Of course, that’s an improvement from thinking of gender as two and only two mutually exclusive options.

Still, it’s like popular thought moving from one-dimensional thinking to two-dimensional thinking when there are other people busy exploring the time-space continuum and quantum physics (at least four-dimensions!). In other words as a culture, we are finally buying into “Newtonian” gender when “Quantum” gender is already in our midst.

Gender is not just one spectrum. It is not an orchestrated migration from one end of congruent “more masculine” traits towards “androgyny” and on to “more feminine” traits. Such a framework is still going to lead to mis-gendering and pathlogizing people. A proper framework for gender would eliminate “gender non-conforming” as a category altogether–by affirming that none of us are expected to comply with the way someone else constructs gender in their mind.

I prefer to think of gender as a Koosh Ball because there are so many aspects to gender.

Moving from one-dimension to two-dimensions is like moving from two dots (male and female) to a straight line (masculine to feminine). You may have seen a “GenderBread Man” or a “Gender Unicorn,” trying to get you to understand the complexity of gender. These illustrated tools have contributed to the shift towards spectrum thinking.

koosh one
Picture of a multi-colored Koosh ball, with parts in pink, yellow, blue, green, purple, and orange being held.

However, if you look at the later versions of these tools, you’ll see at least 12 arrows (not spectrums). If you take those arrows and connect them, you basically get a mini-Koosh ball. So my argument is not so radical. I just want to expand the categories on my Koosh.

Personally, I am a fan of a simpler model that Thrive developed for families with younger children. It provides four key categories without trying to tell us how many options there are in each category. My distinction is not about being G-rated, but rather about not trying to over-define our options. Sometimes less is more.

  • For a different take on resources for young leaders, look for the Gender Wheel

We can just say these are some ways that everyone experiences gender: WHO you are, your BODY, your EXPRESSION, and who you LOVE. Each of these options has more than two options. Each of these categories is more than a spectrum.

This is not unrelated to my concern for trans and non-binary folk showing more solidarity with our intersex siblings. The GenderBread/Unicorn approach really rather ignores physical diversities, which provide their own array of spectrums. Similarly gender expression does not line-up comfortably on a spectrum. How we understand ourselves? Not a spectrum. Who we love? Not a spectrum. A spectrum is too limited in every case.
Experiencing Gender In Our Bodies

Anunnaki Ray Marquez has a powerful blog outlining just the diversity around the Genital Tubercle. The blog is titled, “Eight Names for the SAME thing: Penis, Phallus, Clitoris, Phalloclitoris, Micropenis, Microphalus, Clitoromegaly and Pseudo-Penis” and it is explicit. The Genital Tubercle is one of the main things that doctors freak out about, causing great harm to intersex folk by “cutting into fresh health tissue with steel knives” as Tiger Devore says in Stories of Intersex and Faith. So it is important to understand that there is plenty of God-given diversity in this area of the body. The options are also more than just “Male, Female, or Other” as if “Other” was one thing. There are more than three options.

Chromosomes are just as complex. Most of us were taught that XX and XY were the only options and that those chromosomes line up with “boy” genitals or “girl” genitals in a consistent and predictable way. While that is often the case, it is not the only way that human babies are born. XX can result in other kinds of genitalia. XY can result in other kinds of genitalia. And other chromosome options exist, including: XXY, XXYY, X, XY/XO mosaic, XXX, XXXX, XYY, XX/XY chimera. This is not a spectrum!

Think of all of the other secondary sex markers: facial hair, broad shoulders, wide hips, chest size, Adam’s apple size, hand size, voice pitch, jawline shape and so much more. Each of these body characteristics could be placed on a “spectrum,” but we tend to be more sophisticated than that.

We could make an arbitrary cut-off point between “high pitch” voices and “low pitch” voices and then force folk to conform to that arbitrary category with hormones or surgical intervention. We could argue that “mid-range pitch” voices are against God’s plan. But think of all the beautiful music that would be eliminated from the world with such a move?

Our Gender Expression

Bodies are actually easier for me to talk about than gender expression. How much color does someone have to wear before they are considered “feminine”? And how culturally conditioned are such judgments? Pink used to be considered masculine and blue used to be considered feminine.

How strong must someone be? How defined must someone’s muscles be before they are considered “masculine”? What if they have strong legs, but are weak in their upper-body? Are the legs more important to defining gender expression or is the torso more important? Honestly, it makes no sense to reduce these kinds of expressions to a spectrum of “masculine” and “feminine.”

How we wear our hair? What we like to wear? What we like to do? How we carry ourselves? How can we expect a gender expression to be as simple as a spectrum? We are multi-facted people. For instance, one can wear a beard and feminine clothing–a trait considered highly masculine and a trait considered highly feminine. This is not the middle of a spectrum. This is two different characteristics: facial hair and clothing.

Who We Love

When we get into talking about someone’s “energy” or assertiveness as “masculine” or “feminine,” it becomes even more arbitrary and culturally based. I do not doubt that these differences exist. Indeed, such subjective attributes may be very important in terms of understanding desire and the ways that people match up romantically, but such differences are not necessarily tied to gender. Labels like “top” and “bottom” detach the “energy” question from gender. Still, the nature of this expression is more than a spectrum. Not everyone desires the kind of energy exchange represented by “top” and “bottom.”

Meanwhile, if there is so much diversity in terms of bodies and expression, then our romantic attractions ought to have just as much diversity.

Who We Are

koosh solids
A picture of 6 Kooshes–with just one color per Koosh. Orange, yellow, green, blue, pink, and another green.

Suffice it to say that there are more than two labels for who and how a person can be in regards to gender. More than “male,” “female,” and “other”/ “in-between.” How many styles of Koosh balls are there?

If we want to think about a spectrum, it should be a color spectrum, not a two-dimensional spectrum. A Koosh Ball lets us begin to see that variety in terms of color, including the nuance of various shades or gradations.

Moreover, a Koosh Ball also lets us define identity in terms of race and culture and education and any number of other categories of experience which end up interacting with how we understand someone’s gender.

koosh collectoin
A picture of 13 Koosh balls. All are multi-colored, but each one has a different set of colors. Several are two-color Kooshes with one color on each half of the Koosh. Others have a mixture of colors within one Koosh. One Koosh has rainbow stripes.

Maybe 80%, 90%, even 95% of people are pretty simple in terms of their gender. Maybe the majority of people are one-color Kooshes. But why would we want to eliminate all of the other beautiful options? Aren’t we more empowered and accurate when we have more language to describe ourselves?

Having language to describe something helps us to recognize it. I am going to say that again. Having language to describe something helps us to recognize it. Having less language makes us less knowledgable in many ways.

Having more language to describe gender does not create more variations. Having more language only allows us to acknowledge and describe what we have already seen and experienced.

Reading Gender

koosh two color
A pink and black, two-colored Koosh.

The analogy of the Koosh ball can also help us to understand some of the ways that gender operates in the world. We have been trained to expect a one-color Koosh. So much so that when we see a pink and black Koosh, we feel pressured to name it “pink” or “black”–even if it is actually both. For some reason, we are pressured to “decide.”

What? You don’t feel that way about a two-color Koosh? Only about gender? Hmm.

A picture of Jason Momoa in a suit

Take someone like actor Jason Momoa. We see his long hair (typically considered a feminine trait) and we see his beard, muscles, men’s suit. We look at the total picture and sort him out into “man” because we somehow weigh his masculine traits as more dominant than his long hair.

Of course, it is worth noting that this kind of decision-making or sorting is extremely culturally conditioned. In many cultures long hair is a perfectly normal masculine trait!

koosh one
A multi-colored Koosh ball, with parts in pink, yellow, blue, green, purple, and orange.

If we can understand this kind of sorting of multiple signals into a singular identity, a multi-color Koosh can also help us understand the complexity of gender. “Two and only two genders” is like expecting “pink” and “blue” as the only two mutually exclusive options for a single-colored Koosh.

With those kinds of limited expectations a multi-colored Koosh will confuse us entirely–whether it’s got two colors or more! We will want it to be either pink or blue, but only because we don’t understand all of the other options. Our preconceived notions will prevent us from understanding what we can see right before us.

We need new language to describe, not only the way that pink and blue are both present (in my example, a multi-colored Koosh), but to indicate that there is also yellow and green and maybe even a bit of purple and orange in there. To describe such a Koosh as simply pink or as simply blue would be to miss the point of describing it altogether. We need to be able to talk about how there can be more than one (more than two, even) colors in one Koosh.

So it is with human beings and the fanciful, marvelous universe of gender that is before us today. We have solid colors (pink, blue, green, purple, yellow, orange, and more) and mixed pastels and mixed stripes and more! Seeing gender as a spectrum is like opening up to one-color and two-color Kooshes, while ignoring the rest of the varieties.

Don’t let your expectations of a single color Koosh keep you from seeing and appreciating all of the other options that may be in front of you every day!

Deciding Gender

Last but not least, it is important for me to clarify that the analogy of a Koosh falls flat insofar as it teaches us to look and see gender. Much of our experience of gender is within us and can only be discerned by asking. You may read all kinds of traits that make you think someone is one gender, but you will not be able to see what is inside of that person unless you ask. Remember that who we are is not something that can be seen from the outside.

Compiled by Mx Chris Paige on January 22, 2020. Updated January 23 to reference the Gender Wheel and Doing Our Own Work.

Note: This blog is intended to be an on-going work in progress. Please contact us if you have additions, corrections, or concerns.

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