Caitlyn Jenner and Our Cognitive Dissonance

Somewhere in the middle of the night in a Central African rainforest, a chimpanzee gives birth. Soon after, as the sun rises, mother and newborn sit there, dazed, amid a coffee klatch of friends and relatives. Inevitably, at some point, virtually every member of the group will come over, pull the kid’s legs apart and sniff: Boy or girl?

It’s the most binary question in biology, producing an answer that is set in stone. But in reality the binary nature of gender isn’t all that binary after all. Biologists have long known about exceptions to the boring, staid notion that organisms are, and remain, either female or male. Now our culture is inching toward recognizing that the permanent, cleanly binary nature of gender is incorrect.

In fact, it’s headline news. Bruce Jenner, a male gold medalist in the 1976 Olympics and a cover boy on a Wheaties box, is now Caitlyn Jenner, a 2015 cover girl on Vanity Fair. Laverne Cox, a transgender actor, is nominated for an Emmy for outstanding actress. America has seen openly transgendered individuals serve as a mayor, state legislator, judge, police officer, a model for a global cosmetics brand, and a high school homecoming queen. Even amid the appallingly high rates of discrimination and violence against the transgendered, there is a growing recognition that gender designation need not be permanent.

Many people are questioning whether there is even such a thing as “gender.” These are individuals whose psychosexual self-image may be of both genders, a third gender, no gender, or whose visceral perception of the social world does not include implicitly seeing people as gendered.

This new continent was formalized by as august and ancient an institution as Facebook, which offers 58 gender specification options on one’s profile page. These include Agender, Bigender, Intersex, Gender Fluid, Gender Questioning, Non-binary, Pangender, and my two favorites—Two-spirit, with a vaguely Native American grooviness to it, and Other, which basically implies that, Whoa, Nellie, we’ve barely scratched the surface!

In many ways the most radical departures from a binary gender system comes with gamers who spend virtually their entire lives

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus5 min readPsychology
It Takes A Village To Raise A Meerkat: What the rare cooperative species tells us about ourselves.
Living in the flat, arid landscape of the Kalahari, meerkats are one of the most cooperative species of mammal on the planet. The scarcity of food and few places to hide from predators has led them to live in groups where they share the tasks of fora
Nautilus5 min readScience
Think You Know the Definition of a Black Hole? Think Again
When I was 12, I made the mistake of watching the Paul W. S. Anderson horror film, Event Horizon. It gave me nightmares for weeks: The movie’s title refers to an experimental spaceship that could create artificial black holes through which to travel,
Nautilus10 min readScience
The Computer Maverick Who Modeled the Evolution of Life: Nils Aall Barricelli showed that organisms evolved by symbiosis and cooperation.
In 1953, at the dawn of modern computing, Nils Aall Barricelli played God. Clutching a deck of playing cards in one hand and a stack of punched cards in the other, Barricelli hovered over one of the world’s earliest and most influential computers, th