What is the gender binary?
The gender binary falsely makes simple gender and sex, which are, in reality, complex and varied. The gender binary exists because of four myths.
1. There are only two biological sexes.
When a baby human is born, doctors and parents look at the baby’s genitals to determine its sex. They say, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” The gender binary perpetuates the belief that there are only two biological sexes. In fact, 1 in 100 births are of people who’s bodies differ from standard male or female. This is known as intersex. Modern medicine is now defining biological sex on a continuum rather than a binary because Biological sex is not so easily simplified.
Biological sex is the physical body, and gender is the behaviors, mannerisms, and presentation of a person. The gender binary says a person can be masculine or feminine. The gender binary classifies all human traits into gendered traits. The list below could be applied to a persons dress, mannerisms, personality, and preferences.
Image credit: https://www.pinterest.com/zoecobb/masculine-vs-feminine/
This is list is so familiar because our cultures condition us to believe these categorizations as natural. Conditioning us to believe that starts with children’s clothing and toy design, and continues in careers that are “masculine” or “feminine.”
3. Biological sex automatically determines gender.
The doctor who said, “It’s a girl!” was conflating two binaries: the biological sex (the genitals–male and female) and gender (and lived expression and behavior–masculine and feminine). This quick jump from genitalia to gender role is an assumption that perpetuates the gender binary. It is called cisgender-normativity. It is very harmful for millions of transgender people whose gender expression is not congruent with their biological sex, and countless more who are gender non-conforming. In addition to transgender folks, there is a wide variety of non-binary gender expressions. One problem with the gender binary is that it does not reflect the spectrum of gender identity and the fluidity of human experience.
4. Man and Woman are mutually exclusive categories.
When people say “opposite sex,” they reinforce the assumption that there are only two sexes, and they are mutually exclusive. “Opposite sex” implies If a person is male, they are therefore not female.
If we understood fruit the same way we understood gender, we could only know apples OR oranges. Apples are not oranges. Oranges are not apples. There is not part-apple, part-orange fruit hybrid (yet). Therefore, they are mutually exclusive. Any other fruit, such as a pineapple, would just be badly performing it’s role as an orange or an apple.
Mutual exclusivity is crucial myth in supporting the gender binary as an organizing belief in cultures. For example, many buildings are designed with bathrooms segregated by gender. They are reinforcing the gender binary with all four of these myths.
Image credit: https://www.tumblr.com/search/trans%20bathroom%20rights
2. Culturally, these spaces are policed by the public based on gender expression (and only two options, unless there is a single stall somewhere for families or persons with disabilities.)
3. Because we don’t dress in a way that displays our genitals, how a person performs their gender expression is how they are identified as masculine or feminine, thus combining biological sex and gender expression.
4. Male occupants are forbidden from the “women’s room” and female occupants are forbidden from the “men’s room,” thus reinforcing the mutually exclusive myth.
The gender binary is embedded into nearly every aspect of our lives, from bathrooms, to careers. The gender binary hurts everyone, but in different ways and to different degrees. All binaries benefit one side more than the other, and those who fall outside of the strict binary are most harmed.
Instead of acting a guide for gender and sexual expression, the gender binary is policed in an either/or fashion. One can only be male or female. One proves maleness by not being female. One proves femininity by not being male. It is precisely this dichotomy that harms everyone’s health.
See our next blog outlining specific health outcomes for different genders.