A video of Ben Shapiro graced my Facebook feed in which he pur­portedly “destroys trans­gen­derism” during a Q&A session with an audience member. I clicked to watch, noting the pre­dictable routine that plagues many speaker-audience con­tentions — nervous question, witty one-line response, laughter, repeat until bored or screaming at each other. (To Shapiro’s credit, he’s pretty good at one-liners.) When he says, “You’re not a man if you think you’re a man” or “For all of human history, ‘boy’ meant ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ meant ‘girl,’” there’s an unwill­ingness to rec­ognize that the present con­flict dances around a simple, def­i­n­i­tional dis­agreement. This wor­ry­ingly pre­dom­inant style of smug, one-liner debate isn’t just lazy, but unpro­ductive and dan­gerous.

A pro­ductive con­ver­sation neces­si­tates we start talking about how we talk about gender; that we cease bick­ering about the number of genders, boy scouts, and bathroom bills. It is clear that neither lib­erals nor con­ser­v­a­tives are sharing a vocab­ulary, resulting in def­i­n­i­tional entrenchment, hackish psy­cho­analysis, and dubious moral rea­soning. Most damn­ingly, the current gender debate largely ignores the core issue: we do not have a uni­versal, cul­tural schema that pro­tects non-binary gen­dered persons in the United States.

A better dis­cussion begins by defining sex and gender. Sex is the property by which organisms are clas­sified into male and female in accor­dance with phys­i­o­logical char­ac­ter­istics such as hor­monal levels, chro­mosome types, and repro­ductive organs. Gender, as used here, per­tains to per­sonal and cul­tural inter­pre­ta­tions of an individual’s societal role based upon pre­con­ceived notions of mas­culinity and fem­i­ninity.

Though not true of every human society, gender is typ­i­cally an inter­pre­tation of sex as it informs societal roles. A nur­turing per­son­ality, for instance, is often thought effem­inate due to the preva­lence of nur­turing persons of the female sex; sim­i­larly, aggression is seen as mas­culine. A culture may then define a role for females as care­givers and males as war­riors. Such a cat­e­gorical dis­tinction would be pointless if everyone inter­preted their sex through the same ideas of mas­culinity and fem­i­ninity, but humans are weird.

Alter­native gender systems to the Western binary exist and could inform a better con­ver­sation. There is evi­dence that some soci­eties, such as the Yoruba people of West Africa, did not have a gender system prior to col­o­nization by European powers. Of those cul­tures that did con­ceive of gender, many used sex as an anchoring point, but also under­stood mas­culinity and fem­i­ninity dif­fer­ently from the West. The Navajo people con­ceived of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in a manner similar to us, but their 3rd and 4th genders called nádleeh, or ‘two-spirits,’ do not translate to the Western binary. Sim­i­larly, Indian culture has a con­ception of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ but also a third gender, hijra, encom­passing eunuchs, inter­sexed indi­viduals, and cul­turally effem­inate males in general.

In par­ticular, the hijra demon­strate that there was a respectable role for effem­inate males in India. Their exis­tence is doc­u­mented as early as the 8th century and, though fallen from grace since the colonial period, they boast a dis­tin­guished history. Hijra served as royal counsels, guards for noble women, and ful­filled a sacred role as devotees of the mother-deity Bahuchara Mata and Shiva. To this day, they perform blessings at fes­tivals, births, and wed­dings through song and dance.

One could argue that the hijra and nádleeh suf­fered col­lec­tively from psy­cho­logical ill­nesses. Yet the con­tem­porary notion of mental illness neces­si­tates dys­function. Being a hijra in pre-colonial India would not be dys­func­tional, but advan­ta­geous pre­cisely because they held a respectable societal role.

Yes, the suicide rate for the American tran­sexual com­munity is much higher than the standard pop­u­lation, plau­sibly because tran­sexuals lack a societal role and thus a sense of purpose in American society, or that American culture pre­dom­i­nantly stig­ma­tizes tran­sexuals. It goes without saying that a non-binary person is deviant, but they can only be called dys­func­tional in a cul­tural context that makes no allowances for devi­ation from dom­inant gender norms. In short, cul­tural context can make deviance a source of dis­tress, a nec­essary second cri­teria for mental illness.

With more than 700,000 Amer­icans who cannot, for whatever reason, conform to the Western gender binary, per­sonal beliefs con­cerning gender are sub­servient to a greater need. Many of these people are homeless, forced by cir­cum­stance into pros­ti­tution, and unable to find legit­imate work or shelter. We could argue over whether they are con­fused, immoral, or attention seeking — we could also argue about our favorite colors and ice cream flavors.

In light of the hijra and nádleeh, how could we max­imize the utility of deviant-gen­dered indi­viduals in society? By defining roles for certain persons, they become more likely to con­tribute to order and pros­perity. In spurning them, society fails to assign them a role, decreasing the like­lihood they might con­tribute to or benefit from society. History sug­gests that inte­gration of deviant-gen­dered persons into the fabric of culture is neither inex­pe­dient nor unprece­dented. If we are to embrace and protect all our cit­i­zenry, we might start by expecting humans to be the messy, non-dichotomous, feath­erless bipeds they are and discuss accom­mo­dation.

Mr. Dunkerley is a junior studying English and math­e­matics.