Author’s note: This was written years ago. I still think it’s mostly true, but I never published it because it didn’t feel like a full explication of why this is worth thinking about. I’ve since seen similar models gestured at, so this idea is by no means unique to me. Publishing it as part of a draft dump because why not?
[Epistemic status: works on my machine]
Note: for the purposes of this article, I am assuming that there are only two genders. I’m not sure I believe that in real life, and I suspect this concept could be extended to N genders, but it makes it way, way easier to talk about.
Inspired mostly, I think, by Ozy’s excellent concept of cis by default and in particular this examination of misuses of the idea, I’ve been interrogating my own internal gender identity a lot. I’ve come up with what I’m calling the “two-bucket” theory, which feels right to my own experience.
And now I’ve come up with a new mental model for this: the two buckets model. I think this resolves a bunch of issues, but I have no idea if it will resolve yours. The idea is that, rather than having a gender, you have two gender buckets that have orthogonal amounts of gender-phlogiston in them. I have also explained this has being like the speedometer on a car, or being like attribute points in an RPG.
This feels right to me! I have a very small amount of maleness, and a very small amount of femaleness. I don’t think I would feel wrong in a female body, because I don’t think I feel right in mine; I just… don’t care much? I don’t really think I’m completely agender, and I probably lean male slightly more than female, but it’s like 10-8 whereas, like, Arnold Schwarzenegger probably has 100 points of maleness (and I don’t want to speculate on how much femaleness he has).
So what are the advantages here, besides ‘it feels right to me, personally’? Well, I think it explains a few things pretty well.
I think “cis-by-default” is defined by people who aren’t much of either gender. Like, if your maleness:femaleness ratio is close to 1 and low in absolute value, you probably don’t care much and being gendered in line with your body is not painful. Sure, I’m a cis man. If I had been born with my same self-ness* into a female body, I’d be a cis woman. I just don’t care much one way or the other.
I have, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, never really understood what “non-binary” means, and, in particular, how it is distinct from being agender. Like, how is being “in-between” genders different from just being not a gender at all? There’s no way that I’m aware of to explain the existence of both non-binary-but-gendered and totally-non-gendered in a spectrum model. In the two buckets model, a non-binary person might be like 55 male and 56 female, while an agender person might be 0/0 or 1/1 or similar, extremely small values.
One of the difficulties people have with the existence of trans folks seems to me of the form “you were born in a male body, you got by just fine being male for 25 years, and now all of a sudden you’re saying it was always wrong? You were a normal man for 25 years! You can’t have just been faking it that whole time!” I think you could model this sort of trans person as being, like, 15 male/90 female. Enough male that they would get by as cis-by-default if there weren’t a burning femaleness inside them.
* I am aware that my self-ness would have grown and developed differently if I had been born female. Maybe it would make more sense if this was a freaky-friday type of thing than a counterfactual born-female Alexander thing. But I hope my point makes sense either way.
“non-binary” means “anything other than ‘male’ or ‘female'”; an umbrella term that envelops agender, bigender, genderfluid, third+ genders, things in between and around and beyond all that, et cetera.