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Last Updated on November 13, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1530

Gender Identity Beyond the Binary

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Sasha, who chose their name because of its gender-neutrality, identifies as agender and uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” eluding binary gender roles and perplexing many teens and adults in Dashka Slater’s The 57 Bus. Unlike Andrew (formerly Samantha), who definitively says “I am not a girl” and transitions, Sasha does not reject or accept any gender identity and questions the concept of gender itself. Thus, the refusal to subscribe to a gender identity, and the implications and consequences of this refusal, are central to the book.

An inventor of their own language—Astrolingua—and a gifted student who blazes through “calculus, linguistics, physics, and computer programming,” Sasha inevitably applies their intelligence and aptitude for questioning to the issue of gender.

“I just know,” Sasha’s father Karl said when Sasha asked how he knew he was a man. “It’s who I am.”

But how does he know? Sasha wonders. Is it because of biology, or social conditioning, or both? More importantly, why do people need to define themselves by gender? Once Sasha begins an epistemological inquiry into gender, they have an epiphany.

Other people seemed to have a file in their brain marked Gender. But Sasha didn’t feel that.

Still, identifying as one gender or another is the dominant norm, as Sasha realizes while making daily decisions, such as whether to use the men’s or women’s bathroom in public. Sasha solves the problem by discarding gender as a sorting category: for instance, they decide to pick whichever bathroom is less crowded. When Sasha visits her father’s kindergarten classroom, they question the practice of organizing children’s registers by “boys” and girls” and suggest Karl instead use folders “A–M” and “N–Z” to group the children by name. In these ways, Sasha exposes the arbitrariness of gender as a sorting category and neutralizes its importance in their life. Further, Slater discusses how categories of biology, gender, sex, and romance are beginning to separate and combine in endless algorithms:

It was like a gigantic menu, with columns and columns of choices.

In Sasha’s case, the support of their parents and attendance at the progressive Maybeck School empower them to define their unique identity. What’s more, the meaning of “identity” itself is fluid for a digital native like Sasha, whose selves extend into virtual domains and games. The outside world, on the other hand, is more static. When Samantha transitions to Andrew, for instance, he becomes the subject of gossip at his public high school:

People at school kept coming up and saying awkward and nonsensical things like “I heard you got a sex transplant?”

Andrew’s parents are not as supportive as Sasha’s, which hastens his crisis. Further, even though Sasha’s parents accept them unconditionally, they, too, struggle at first to adjust to Sasha’s agender identity. When Sasha begins to wear a skirt at eighteen, Debbie and Karl worry about them becoming a target. Karl recalls the time he was attacked as a young man by a group of young men who assumed he was gay. Thus, through varying experiences of gender, and a close examination of terms like “grey-sexual,” the book juxtaposes Sasha’s compassionate, expanding consciousness with a society still struggling to catch up.

The Fear of the "Other"

With its two protagonists belonging to minorities of race or gender, respectively, the idea of otherness plays a crucial part in The 57 Bus. Identifying as agender, Sasha constitutes an “other” for the heteronormative majority; and though class and race privileges protect them from pervasive discrimination, Sasha ultimately faces danger in a more public space. In the book’s central incident, sixteen-year-old Richard sets fire to Sasha’s skirt as Sasha sleeps on the bus, leaving their legs badly burned. When the police interrogate him with leading questions about motive, Richard replies,

I wouldn’t say I hate gay people, but I’m very homophobic.

The sight of “dude” Sasha, their skirt dangling “gauzy and white” on the edge of their seat, is both funny and terrifying to Richard and his friends Lloyd and Jamal. On a dare from the two other boys, Richard takes a lighter to Sasha’s skirt, intending to prank them, like on the “Ashton Kutcher show, Punk’d.” Ironically, Richard himself, who is black, is seen as an “other” by white society. Slater contextualizes his otherness with facts: Unlike Sasha, Richard lives in a poor part of Oakland “where the bulk of the city’s murders happen.” His high school is attended by Asian, Latino, and black students, but very few whites. Further, boys like Richard are more likely to be arrested for alleged crimes:

African American boys made up less than 30 per cent of Oakland’s underage population but accounted for nearly 75 per cent of all juvenile arrests.

When Richard is arrested for assaulting Sasha, his racial identity plays a part in the decision to try him as an adult. During Richard’s trial, his relatives discuss the case of Donald Williams Jr., an African American boy relentlessly bullied by white classmates at university. Even though his classmates clamped a bike lock around Williams’s neck, claiming to have lost the key, and tortured him in other ways as well, they were merely expelled from school and charged with “misdemeanors.” As Regis, Richard’s cousin, notes,

Girl, they got misdemeanors . . . Nobody got charged with any felonies. Three white boys on one black boy.

Slater observes that, in mainstream consciousness, there are two kinds of people in the world: “Male and Female. Black and White. Gay and Straight. . . . Just Two. Just Two.” This implacable binary between “us” and “them” defines both the assault on the 57 bus and its consequences. Had Richard not viewed Sasha as the other, he would not have assaulted them, and had the justice system not regarded Richard as the other, the sixteen-year-old boy might not have been tried as an adult and sentenced to five years in prison.

Restorative Justice and Forgiveness

Ideas of justice have evolved over time, with most contemporary democracies tempering retributive (“an eye for an eye”) justice with reformative practices. An advancement from both is restorative justice, which Slater explores in depth. Restorative justice takes justice out of the ambit of courtrooms entirely and focuses on healing through dialogue between the perpetrator and the wronged in the presence of the community. It is especially useful when applied to crimes within families or committed by juveniles. Though Debbie and Karl are wary of attending a restorative justice circle, as proposed by expert Sujatha Beliga, they are not entirely unsympathetic to Richard. As Debbie notes,

I don’t want to be begging for lenience and then have him go out and hurt someone else. But I also don’t want to send him to adult prison.

As Baliga observes, however, restorative justice is not “lenient”; rather, it is about “dispensing with punitiveness for its own sake” and changing the paradigm of the criminal justice system. Closely tied to the idea of restorative versus retributive justice is the subject of adolescent “crime,” as well as the outcomes of the incarceration of juveniles. While the DA’s office decides to try Richard as an adult given the shocking, public nature of the crime, and popular opinion brands Richard as akin to a sociopath, Slater notes that Richard in in fact neither an adult nor a proven sociopath. Neurobiology shows that the adolescent brain widely differs from the adult brain in its poor capacity for impulse control and tendency to succumb to peer pressure. Further, the brain does not reach adulthood even at eighteen, becoming fully formed only in a person’s mid-twenties. Being more plastic, the teenage brain is more likely to reform with restorative justice and, by corollary, also to suffer more with abuse and trauma—such as being incarcerated with older, violent criminals. This is why Richard’s lawyer, Du Bois, is shocked when he learns Richard may be sent to adult prison at eighteen:

He’s now thrown to the wolves.

Slater shows that most prison sentences do not reform juveniles; instead, they turn juveniles into hardened criminals, providing endless fodder for the criminal justice system.

Forgiveness, when it enters the story of The 57 Bus, has tremendous healing power. After Sasha finally receives the letters of apology Richard wrote them fourteen months ago, they find Richard’s perspective “really moving.” Debbie and Karl also observe that had they read the letters during Richard’s trial, they would have been more engaged in “what was going on with Richard.” Though Richard is sentenced to juvenile jail rather than adult prison, this is a mixed blessing, as Slater notes that the process of incarceration is itself dehumanizing. Significantly, though Sasha is healing well and attending MIT by the time the book is written, Richard is still in juvenile jail. He offers a meaningful perspective on forgiveness and justice when he tells his mother, Jasmine, that he has let go of his anger at the police officers and lawyers who have contributed to his situation:

To forgive, you have to forget. . . . Because otherwise you haven’t truly forgiven.