Either/or: The dangers of binary thinking

It’s past time to recognize that there are more than two genders — there are multiple cultures where more than two genders are the norm.

Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson

You know that old joke — you’re either the kind of person who sees things as either/or — or you’re not?

Humorous, to be sure. And it’s true, our brains do like to categorize things for us, so that we don’t have to examine every detail of every single thing we see each and every time we see it.


Categorizing people is much trickier. It too often invites choosing “sides” (Are you a dog person or a cat person?), stereotypes (Cat people are more independent), and judgment (How can I possibly be friends with a cat person? They won’t ever understand me).

Either/or categories also leave out a whole bunch of people who are both (Our dog and cat are best friends!), neither (#allergies), or something entirely else (Goldfish rock!).

This may seem silly, but sometimes, it’s deadly serious.

A study last year published in the Journal of Adolescent Health affirmed that transgender youth who are able to use their chosen names in several contexts (work, school, home, and with friends) show a severe drop in depressive and suicidal symptoms. And by “a severe drop,” I mean “71 percent fewer symptoms of severe depression, a 34 percent decrease in reported thoughts of suicide and a 65 percent decrease in suicidal attempts.”

The suicide attempt rate for folks identifying as transgender is already about 10 times that of the overall population: 41% as opposed to 4.6%

The study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health used the chosen name marker to indicate validation of a person’s gender identity. And I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Katherine Kuvalanka from Miami University in Ohio, who is quoted as saying, “Helping to facilitate chosen name use for trans youth could save lives.”

It’s important to understand that when we impose our adult discomfort with trans and gender non-conforming identities onto youth, it is literally life-threatening.

It’s past time to recognize that there are more than two genders — there are multiple societies and cultures where more than two genders are the norm and have been for centuries.

It’s past time to recognize the difference between learned and internalized judgment and lack of knowledge and understanding. There are hundreds of resources for all ages available to help educate you and your family about the complexities of gender.

Gender diversity is not a value or belief. It is science with an ever-increasing body of research that shows that supporting children and youth over time in their understanding of their own gender is healthy, and it saves lives.

You’re either with me working to save lives, or you’re not.

Amy Johnson, MSW, is a trainer and educator in the Pacific Northwest. She is co-author of three books and facilitates classes and workshops in the Puget Sound area. Amy specializes in sexuality education and in promoting safe and healthy sexuality culture in faith communities. All opinions are her own. Contact comments@diligentjoy.com.

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