The gender binary falsely assumes that gender and sexuality can be neatly divided into two categories, male and female. The gender binary polices people’s expression and behavior based on their sex at birth. Read about the four myths that make up the gender binary in our last blog post.
When the gender binary is imposed on a diverse group of people, three groups emerge with different outcomes. There are those who are precieved as male, those who are precieved as female, and those who are precieved neither male nor female (or confound the contruction of the gender binary altogether). In this blog, I will outline the harmful health outcomes for each group. I have included hyperlinks to research that supports the claims in this article.
The gender binary hurts everyone, and here’s how. This list is not nearly comprehensive, but meant for illustrating the harmful effect of the gender binary on health.
How the gender binary hurts people perceived as male.
Men and people preceived as male benefit most from patriarchy. Yet, the gender binary does have harmful effects on the health of people preceived as male. These impacts have been recently called “Toxic Masculinity.” The process of masculinization is traumatic to young people. Toxic Masculinity refers to the socialization of men to be difficult or unable to express themselves emotionally in non-violent ways. This leads to disconnection in family, society, and self.
1. Suppressing feelings. Maleness is defined by not showing emotions (except anger) or being in control of one’s emotions so as not to appear to have emotions. The habit of suppressing feelings harms a person’s mental health and ability to express themselves genuinely. Suppressing feelings ill-equips a person to cope with emotional challenges.
2. Social isolation. Maleness is defined by independence and self-reliance. Humans trying to prove their masculinity perform roles that disconnect them with social support and interconnectedness.
3. Violence. Maleness is defined by a person’s ability to defend against violence using violence. This norm is reinforced with minor every-day violences that young perceived males are expected to endure. People who experience violence are much more likely to enact violence in their families and others. Therein, the gender binary reinforces the cycle of violence and lack of tools to process the emotional fallout from violence.
Masculine Health Issues:
Suicide. Violence towards oneself. “Males take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and represent 77.9% of all suicides.”
Substance abuse. Males start using drugs at an earlier age than women. Males abuse drugs more often and in larger amounts. Males are more likely to abuse alcohol and tobacco. Males are more likely to engage in binge drinking (the consumption of five or more drinks in a short time period).
Gun violence. Men are much more likely to be a victim of gun violence. Men are also responsible for 98% of gun deaths.
How the gender binary hurts people perceived as female:
1) Intimate partner violence and rape and the perpetual fear of it. 9 of 10 victims of rape are women.
2) Hypersexualization and disempowered sex roles. Hypersexualizing representations of femininity dehumanizes female-presenting people in over-emphaisizing her “usefulness to men” as a sexual object and under-emphsizing her needs, desires, and pleasure. This reduces respect for female presenting people and diminishes expectations of her intellect. Combine this with antiquated expectations of a virgin bride, and read more about Madonna/Whore complex.
3) Exhausting beauty standards. Impossible/unhealthy/debilitating/expensive expectations of feminine beauty.
4) Unpaid emotional labor. The gender binary defines femininity in terms of nurturing others. This includes raising children, maintaining relationships, and supporting friends in emotional crisis. This work is endless and in addition to any labor market work this person does. \
5) Reduced economic opportunities. Being intelligent, strong is classified in masculine traits, while femininity is defined by frivolous, fun, and weak. Feminine-presenting people are shamed for succeeding in school or sports. In turn, this reduces a person’s economic viability, and increases their dependence on relationships with people who express masculinity. On average, American full-time working women earn just 78 cents for every dollar a man earns. The stastics are staggeringly low for women of color.
6) Internalized gender inferiority. When everyday microaggressions tell you that your gender is weaker, less competent, and in need of protecting, then you start to internalize that. It’s called internalized oppression. It impacts a person’s confidence in their knowledge and experiences. It introduces doubt and anxiety into a person’s self-image. It has been scientifically measured in phenomenon such as stereotype threat.
This list could go on, and on, and on. Here are the highlights.
Feminine Health Issues:
“More than one in three women in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. 74 percent of all murder-suicides involved an intimate partner (spouse, common-law spouse, ex-spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend). Of these, 96 percent were women killed by their intimate partners.”
As a result of violence many female-presenting people experience Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome
How the gender binary hurts people who do not fit into categories of male or female.
This group is most impacted by the gender binary. This group of people are impacted by the gender binary in both of the above categories, plus severe punishments for falling outside of categories of masculine or feminine. See the report “Injustice at Every Turn,” which was the most comprehensive survey of transgender populations in the US, ever.
1) Gender policing at critical development stages of their childhood. Parents, siblings, peers, and non-family authority figures who punish children for behavior and preference outside of the gender binary cause significant stress between child and attachment figures which impacts brain development.
2) Lack of self-identity. There’s a feminist saying, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Lack of positive role models for gender nonconforming folks reinforces a perceived non-existence that leads to self-doubt, internalized sexism, and confusion of self. Trans* and Gender Non-Conforming (GNC) people do exist, and have existed throughout history (even before than the gender binary itself). It takes years for a person to figure this out, and define themselves on their own terms.
3) Social isolation. See masculine health issues and multiply by a lot because of social ostracizing, discrimination, homophobia, and sexism.
4) Internalized sexism/homophobia/cis-sexism. When family, media, education, and legal systems enact sexism, homophobia, and cis-sexism over a lifetime, GNC people can’t help but internalize some of these harmful beliefs.
5) Restricted access to education and mentorship. Many factors in education and industry push GNC people out including violence from teachers and students, lack of affirming language and pronouns, lack of access to safe bathrooms, and much more. When GNC folks don’t complete education or lack mentors, they struggle to find adequate employment.
6) Severe lack of economic opportunities. Ditto #5 and add in legal employment discrimination in many states. Workplace abuse was nearly a universal experience for Transgender* people as reported in the report Injustice at Every Turn report.
7) Physical harm — medical. “19% of our [transgender] sample reported being refused care due to their transgender or gender non-conforming status, with even higher numbers among people of color…” For those people who can access care, 28% report they were verbally harassed in a doctor’s office. Many intersex babies are born each year and physicians perform non-consensual genital surgeries.
8) Physical harm — peers, strangers. Bullying at school and by strangers in public is an all-too common experience of transgender* and gender nonconforming people. This physical harm often begins with verbal harassment, escalates to pushing, and in worst cases, escalates to severe injury or death. The Transgender Day of Remembrance honors trans* lives lost throughout the year. See their lists for names and ceremonies.
9) Physical harm — police, teachers, judges, prison guards. When people with authority and power over the public hold anti-transgender bias, they can significantly injure a GNC life. Police can and do target and charge transgender people for minor crimes which place them in the criminal justice system. This system of judges and prison guards can and do exploit their positions of power to impose the gender binary on GNC people. More data on this in the task force report.
10) Homelessness/poverty. Due to the above mentioned employment discrimination and push-out from education systems, GNC folks experience high rates of poverty. Additionally, housing discrimination happens routinely, and in some states is still legal. 1 in every 5 transgender people have experienced homelessness.
Gender Queer/gender nonconforming health issues:
Mental health: depression, anxiety, suicide, self-harm. 41% of transgender and GNC respondents reported attempting sucide. Additional barriers exist in getting support including high rates of poverty (4x as likely to make less than $10,000/year) and discrimination and assault at the hands of medical providers.
Substance addiction and abuse: alcohol, drugs, tobacco are often used as coping mechanism.
Assault. 61% of Trans and GNC folks were assaulted. 64% experienced sexual assault. 78% of respondents reported harassment in school. This physical and verbal harassment contributes to mental health decline.
HIV For GNC and transgender folks, job and housing discrimination can lead to desperate situations. “The appalling effects of social and economic marginalization” shows in the fact that transgender and GNC folks reported four times the national average of HIV infections.
Lack of access to medical care.
- Lack of or insufficient insurance coverage
- Refusal of care by physicians
- Discrimination or assault by healthcare providers
- Uninformed or misinformed health care providers
- Postponing care due to an inability to pay
The gender binary harms everyone by limiting their individual expression and liberties. Over time, these limitations on liberty and safety have a drastic impact on a person’s health. Most impacted are those who fall outside of rigidly defined gender roles. The next most impacted are those who fall into the disadvantaged side of the gender binary. All binaries have a losing side, and in the case of the gender binary, it is the feminine-presenting side. Lastly, the gender binary hurts masculine-presenting people. This population struggles with health issues specific to the expectation of “power over” and rugged individualism.
From whichever category the gender binary puts you in, it’s bad for your health.