What is the Gender Binary?
In order to define the gender binary, we must first define gender. Gender is a social construct which is extremely subjective in nature. It may or may not include self expression (through clothing, hair, etc.), the way one is perceived by oneself and/or society, cultural and societal roles, and sex characteristics. In Western society, people are assigned a gender when they are born -- they are labeled either a male or a female by a doctor, often (but not always) depending on their sex characteristics only. (Sex differs from gender in that sex serves biological and medical purposes while gender is a social label. Even sex, however, is not a binary -- there are intersex people along with males and females.) The two-gender labeling system in Western culture is the gender binary.
The gender binary is much of the problem behind the gender roles and stereotypes impressed upon men, women, and other people throughout their lives. Simply because of the labels we are given, we are directed down different paths in life, for the most part -- boys enter a world of sports, video games, and race cars, while girls are given princess toys, pink ballet slippers, and jewelry boxes. Forcing people not to stray from these strict paths inhibits self-expression, which can obviously have many negative effects. We use the words masculinity and femininity to describe the characteristics of these two paths, respectively. The gender you are assigned affects everything from the way people treat you in conversation to the color of your lunch box, and most of us don’t fit into the rigid roles of the binary.
Why is the Binary Harmful?
- Our Western-centric media often uses the binary to erase other cultures which do not work within the binary system, such as some Native American tribes and their two-spirits or India’s third hijra gender. (More on third genders here, more on the way gender fits into history here)
- Transgender people (or people who identify with a gender other than the one they have been assigned at birth) can be prevented from expressing or finding their gender identity because they are forced to conform to the stereotypes of the binary label they were assigned at birth. This includes transgender people who label themselves within the binary and also those who are nonbinary or gender non-conforming. Cisgender people are those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, and the binary often also restricts them from exploring and understanding their gender identity and gender as a construct.
- Because we as a society are so focused on placing people into one category or another, we often assign gender and even assume genitals simply based on the way a person looks, which can lead to embarrassment, confusion, and distress if that person is misgendered.
- The binary gives men the power, strength, and confidence of masculinity while forcing women to be quiet, submissive, and feminine. However, even masculinity has its downside -- men can often feel pressured to hide their emotions or display them through violence or other unhealthy means in displays of toxic masculinity. When women act masculine or men act feminine in an attempt to undermine or subvert these roles, society is upset and will go to far lengths to put them back in the places they have been assigned.
Call to Action
Learn More and Inform Others
- "Understanding non-binary people: A guide for the media" by Trans Media Watch
- "Transgender Rights" - American Civil Liberties Union
- Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
- "Know Your Rights" - National Center for Transgender Equality
- "8 Comics That Remind Us to Throw Out the Gender Binary," by Sophia Labelle (2015, Everyday Feminism)
- Freedom Massachusetts: the bipartisan campaign working to ensure all people are treated fairly and equally under the law in the state of Massachusetts
- BodyImage4Justice (BI4J): aims to bring the LGBTQ community together through the common cause and interest of body image, health and wellness by focusing on empowerment and social justice for the trans community.
- "Your Rights: Gender Identity Discrimination" by Workplace Fairness
- "Transgender Health" by the American Medical Student Association
- FORGE's Espavo Project which collects professional-created photographs of transgender survivors of sexual assault.
- Respect the identities of transgender/nonbinary people (including using their pronouns)
- Don’t assume someone’s interests based on the stereotypes of their gender identity
- Use the singular “they” rather than “he” when gender is uncertain or neutral
- Listen to nonbinary people about their identities and their struggles
- Stick up for transgender or gender non-conforming peers of yours who may be being bullied at school or are not accepted by their family without assuming anything about their experiences.
- Check out all of the amazing ways you can help here in "30 Days of Action To Reduce Violence Against Transgender and Gender Non-binary People" by FORGE
- Follow organizations such as the National Center for Transgender Equality to stay updated on different opportunities to contact your legislators about gender-based (and binary-based) discrimination
By Hannah H. (16), 2015