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What is Gender Binary?

Why do we like to identify people as being one of two classifications?

Added to Library, on 13 July, 2015

What is Gender Binary?

Put simply, the Gender Binary is the classification of human beings into male and female, and with it, the various traits, behaviours and appearances of each as masculine and feminine respectively.

The Gender Binary relies on two concepts: sex and gender.

Sex is a person’s biological gender, which includes their physical attributes (external genitalia, internal reproductive systems, sex hormones, sex chromosomes etc). A person’s sex is then assigned to them at birth as male, female or intersex. However, gender is much more complicated: it is the relationship of a person’s sex with their internal sense of identity, as either male, female, both, or neither, along with the way the individual is perceived as being by those around them.

As a result, society has assumed all individuals to perceive their gender identity as being aligned to their biological sex, and with it, creates Gender Roles: that is, expected traits, behaviours and appearances that are expected of each gender – masculine for men, feminine for women. In two-gender societies, Gender Roles vary. In the Western World, Gender Roles have expected that men and women look and act a certain way – e.g. that men wear trousers, work and be “manly”, whilst women were expected to wear feminine clothes (such as dresses), have long hair, and raise babies.

But for many individuals, the way they identify – the way they look, feel, behave and hold themselves in terms of masculine and/or feminine – have contradicted their birth sex and expected Gender Role.

The idea of masculine/feminine traits has caused much conflict for individuals. Indeed, if you took something like the right to vote, it was once unheard of that women should vote, or even want to vote. Politics was considered a masculine pursuit, and as a result, the Suffragettes were often frowned upon by many ‘traditionalists’ for breaking Gender Roles. Many men (and women) considered the idea that women could even have the brain capacity to vote absurd, simply because of what they believed of females and femininity (ie the rationality was a masculine – and therefore male – trait, and irrationality was a feminine, and therefore female, trait).

Gender Roles & Expectations have changed through time and throughout societies on various scales, and so changing concepts of gender are no new thing. For example, high heels, wigs and make-up used to be common among the male upper-class, and pink was once considered a masculine colour (because it was close to red – the colour of war).

Whilst – at least in most parts of the Western World – women and men have come to expect (or at least fight for) equality, the Binary still plays a powerful role. Women who display masculine qualities are called ‘butch’ or ‘tomboys’, whilst men who display feminine qualities are called ‘effeminate’. It is therefore considered the “norm” that men display masculine traits, and that women display feminine traits. What is considered masculine and feminine is determined by society at the time, and often changes. It is because of the binary, too, that we have the concepts of homosexual and heterosexual – ‘hetero’ meaning ‘opposite’ and ‘homo’ meaning ‘same’, and that for a long time, intersex babies have had surgeries to ‘align’ them with a certain sex, which may or may not be aligned with their later-developed gender identity.

The Binary basically insists that one’s gender and sex are the same and aligned, and that the two options – male and female – are rigid, fixed and opposite. But for many individuals, their sex and gender are not aligned, and to various degrees. For example, a tomboy may still identify wholly as being female in both sex and gender, despite engaging in what the Binary considers ‘masculine’ behaviours. For others, particularly transgender individuals, the difference between their biological sex and gender identity is too misaligned, causing a feeling of alienation within their own bodies: that is, that their biological sex is the opposite to their gender identity (typically known as ‘being born in the wrong body’).

What has then developed is the Gender Spectrum – that is, that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are simply two extremes on a scale. Whilst the Gender Binary rejects a spectrum – much like labelling an individual as either “0” or “1” – the spectrum puts forward the idea that there is a spectrum, allowing numbers from 0.1 to 0.9. These individuals sometimes label themselves as ‘non-binary’ in their identity for this reason. There is increasing support for this concept: many accept it is absolutely absurd for a piece of clothing, for example a dress – which is, for all intents and purposes – nothing more than a piece of cloth, should be restricted to being worn on the basis of physical anatomy; much as we’d hope to think that the majority of us would accept that the right to vote should not be restricted on the basis of physical anatomy, either. Some individuals further feel they are not on the spectrum at all, and identify as not having a gender.

Because of the sheer complexity of gender identity, many identity terms have arisen. They fall into two broad categories, however: cisgender (those whose biological sex and gender identity are aligned) and transgender (those whose biological sex and gender identity are different – and to various degrees).

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What is Gender Binary?