A U.S. citizen living in Germany helps us understand non-binary gender from a trans-cultural perspective.
I am an immigrant.
I am an immigrant from the United States in Germany, which affords me a lot of privileges that other immigrant workers don’t have. I spend a lot of time observing the way people interact in my new country, particularly the way people perform gender. That’s a complicated statement, so I’ll explain it a little bit.
We are taught how to be the gender we are when we are children by the culture we grow up in. The adults around us encourage different behavior, television and our cultural narratives shape our actions and reactions. Sometimes what we are taught does not match up to how we feel, or what gender we actually are. Sometimes we identify with our bodies biological sex, but not the gender roles that are proscribed by our culture. Sometimes we don’t identify with our biological sex at all, and seek to change that. Because every culture teaches people different ways to act out gender roles, and some cultures have more genders than two, people interact in very different ways depending on where they learned how to ‘gender’.
Something I have noticed in Germany is that men from the great United States are almost immediately recognizable, because they tend to be the loudest, the least aware of the amount of space they take up, and often offend people because of it. This is an example of how different types of masculinity are performed. Not all U.S. born men perform masculinity this way, but it is something characteristic about us, that we are socialized to take up space.
I am a product of what is called both “The American Melting Pot” and “Colonialism and Systematic Erasure of Indigenous Peoples.” My family comes from a European and Lakota mix so confusing I had my genes sequenced to figure it out. That fact is only significant because it makes me very aware that the Lakota, and pretty much every North American tribe, had more than two genders. The ways of performing gender were very different from the usual U.S. gender roles today. Some of the words for third gender people include winkte, Two Spirit, and many others in many, many languages. The people of third or fourth genders had a place in the community, often a very important place. There is even an interactive map of cultures with more than two genders on the PBS website.
Living in Germany, I see the way masculinity is socially performed as less harmful to other people than the stereotypical U.S.A. way. Yet German, like many European languages, doesn’t have a good way to refer to non-binary genders. There are no gender neutral pronouns, and sometimes I wonder if the constriction of language is what confused some of the first settlers (though they weren’t German) on the North American continent. How can you comprehend a culture when you don’t even have the concepts in your own language to define and understand hugely important parts of their community?
But today we can do much better than that, we can understand non-binary people exist, and we can look critically at the way masculinity is taught to children and the way we ourselves perform it. A strict, confining gender role hurts everyone, from women to men to non binary to transgender to trans-cultural people. Trying to fit a whole, complicated human being into the tiny molds provided by our culture is a recipe for failure in a modern world. These times are far more complicated than that, and to be fair they have always been more complicated because gender has always been more complicated than just man and woman.