Non-Binary Binary

Instead of the biologically or anatomically determined model of gender that our society seems to prefer these days, I’d like to suggest something different, something non-binary though still, in a way, binary.

I’ve been working off and on for a long time with the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination. It’s based on the concepts of yin and yang, which are more or less familiar to a lot of people today. Indeed, there are probably millions of people in America today who have what they think of as yin-yang tattoos, wear yin-yang jewelry and post yin-yang images to Facebook.

The familiar symbol of two circling fishlike energies, one black and the other white, is actually called the t’ai chi, which means something like “supreme ultimate.” (The slow-motion martial art that people call tai chi is actually “t’ai chi chuan,” or “supreme ultimate boxing”.) What it symbolizes is an interaction of forces that gives rise to all the phenomena of the world around us.

Those two forces are associated with all the varied dualisms or dichotomies that we humans are prone to see in nature, in society and in ourselves. Yin, “the receptive,” is associated with things dark, earthy, inward-tending, nurturing, passive. Yang, “the creative,” is assocciated with light, the sky, outwardness, activity and aggression. Culturally, yin characteristics have been associated with the feminine and yang characteristics with the masculine, but the association isn’t essential – within ancient Chinese philosophy the daughters and sons of the highest principles represent combinations of yin and yang; only the mother and father are purely one or the other.

Using the I Ching for divination involves casting coins or sticks to obtain combinations of six “lines,” each of which is either yin or yang, with the resulting “hexagram” defining a situation or moment that can then be interpreted according to the relative preponderance of yin or yang and their positions in the structure of the moment.

The reason I think this might be of interest in discussions of gender is because out of the 64 possible combinations of yin and yang in the I Ching, only two are pure yin or pure yang. That’s only about 3 percent. Pure yin amounts to just 1.5 percent, and pure yang likewise.

So if we were to look at the I Ching as a model for gender, we would expect to find only about 3 percent of the population expressing either pure masculinity or pure feminity, and the remaining 97 percent expressing some combination of yin and yang, including eight that are equally yin and yang.

None of these combinations is fixed or static; on the contrary, each easily becomes another with the change of even one line. That’s why the book is called I Ching, which means Book of Changes.

So I think it’s worth looking at this very ancient and very deep text for possible applications to the study of gender identity and to our personal individual circumstances. I think all of us have experienced fluctuations in how we feel about our gender, and the I Ching could provide us with some help in articulating what we feel, as well as a model of how duality or multiplicity or complexity can finally be the expression of ultimate oneness.


Author: Christina Cooper

Gender non-conforming. Deal with it.

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