Gender Must Be Consensual! Challenging the Gender Binary

gender must be consensual

steps towards challenging the gender binary

Newsletter Sept 2013-Aug 2014

Last year saw the release of two significant reports which have looked specifically at the question of gender identity and have talked about the experiences of people who identify in terms of nonnormative gender identities. LABIA’s (A Mumbai based LBT collective) report ‘Breaking the Binary’ came out in April 2013, and was launched at events in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Thrissur and Pune. The study, based on 50 narratives of people from all over the country, explores the lives and the concerns of people assigned gender female at birth, and their negotiations and struggles with the question of gender identity. The report is also available in Hindi.

The second study, ‘Towards Gender Inclusivity – A Study on Contemporary Concerns around Gender’ by Sunil Mohan and Sumathi Murthy, published by Alternative Law Forum and LesBit, came out in May 2013. This study, as well, was conducted through interactions with various people over a period of time, using discussions and larger conversations rather than the conventional interview or survey format.

In ‘Breaking the Binary’, the authors from LABIA talk about their use of the term ‘Persons Assigned Gender Female at Birth’, or PAGFB, saying that it allows for the understanding that one’s gender identity can be different from one’s sex, or the gender that is given to a person at birth, or by society. The study, therefore, was undertaken with this in mind – that the persons interviewed were all assigned the female gender at birth, but that an individual’s chosen gender identity often does not conform to this assigned gender. While there were some in the study who identified as ‘woman’, there were many others who identified as ‘man’ or ‘male’, as well as several who did not identify within this binary at all. This is also meant to recognise the fact that terms like ‘man’, ‘woman’ and ‘transgender’ do not fully explain or exhaust the ways in which people negotiate their bodies and their gender identities. This is evident in ‘Towards Gender Inclusivity’ as well, in which the term “female born gender and sexual minorities” is used, in order to recognise the numerous different identifications people may use to name or to describe themselves.

LABIA’s report looks at the various aspects of respondents’ lives in order to understand how gender identities are negotiated in different spaces, as well as the kinds of violence people face when they refuse to conform to normative forms of gender expression. The study reveals experiences of violence that respondents faced within their natal homes, and talks about how the family is very often a site of oppression, especially for those who do not conform to gender norms. The report also looks at how violence and intolerance in educational institutions and workspaces often limits access to education and work for trans* and other non-normatively identified people. An interesting aspect that this study reveals was to do with the threat that was very often experienced in public spaces – for many trans* people, women-only spaces are often major sites of harassment, for example, women’s toilets or compartments on trains. The report addresses problems of access to services because of the individual’s gender transgression.

One of the major themes in ‘Breaking the Binary’ is of examining queer feminist groups and spaces and their engagements with gender and transgender identity, beginning with LABIA itself. The report also talks about other groups that LABIA engaged with during the course of the study, like Sappho, Sahayatrika, LesBiT and Sampoorna. The study raises questions about how queer and feminist groups can evolve a better understanding of gender as non-binary and nuanced, as part of the struggles against heteronormativity and patriarchy. It further goes on to point out how violence against gender transgressive PAGFB needs to be understood not only in terms of public spaces but private spaces as well, and how the demands of groups dealing with these issues need to be expanded to include this reality.

‘Towards Gender Inclusivity’ also contains a critique of how the women’s movement has traditionally spoken about issues related to gender and the body. It points out that the focus has tended to be on violence and reproductive rights. The study emphasises, instead, the need for conversations around sexuality to also consider “a politics of desire, sexuality and pleasure”. The feminist idea of ‘personal is political’ needs to be pushed further into recognising a right to pleasure, and the recognition of the body as a site of desire. Similarly, there is also a critique of the LGB movement and its emphasis on ‘coming out’ as well as on visibility and a certain kind of legitimacy, which does not always take into account the reality of female born sexual and gender minorities.

An important concern that ‘Towards Gender Inclusivity’ addresses at length is what demands can and should be made of the state, and this is among the conversations conducted through interviews. The report expresses misgivings with the consultation processes around these issues, as well as with the idea of state-recognised gender identity, which runs the risk of creating even more problems, such as only including certain fixed identities, leaving no room for a nuanced and flexible understanding of gender. The study explores, in detail, the possibility of using existing laws to fight violence and discrimination against people with non-normative gender identities, rather than creating new laws.

Both reports highlight the need to understand nonnormative genders and sexualities in ways that recognise the complexities of people’s chosen identities. As the final chapter of ‘Towards Gender Inclusivity’ puts it, “to truly embrace the ‘private’ would be to incorporate our most ‘private’ desires – including our sexual intimacies and our perceptions of our bodies – into our politics.” ‘Breaking the Binary’ as well, sums it up perfectly when it concludes that “gender needs to be consensual”.

~~~~Available in English and Hindi, they can be downloaded from For copies, contact:

~~~~The report can be downloaded from