Gender binary

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It's a social construct
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Spectra and binaries

The gender binary is the commonly held view that individual humans belong to one particular gender category: either male or female. It enforces conformity to socially acceptable forms of gender expression, such as choices in clothing, careers, and romantic and sexual partners. Most people do not think of the gender binary as an ideology, as it is so ingrained in the public consciousnessWikipedia. Nevertheless, the idea that there are two genders and that every person must fit into one of them is historically contingent and a socially constructed phenomenon.[1]

In recent years, as gender has become more widely studied, the socially constructed nature of the gender binary, and the uneven power relationships it produces and maintains, have become the subject of growing critique.[2]

Many individuals do not fall under the firm constraints dictated by the gender binary. Intersex people are individuals that display sexual characteristics outside of the bimodal sex spectrum.[3] An XX fetus may have congenital adrenal hyperplasia, causing androgens which results in male development, and an XY fetus may have androgen insensitivity syndrome, causing female development. Transgender people, broadly speaking, adopt traits of genders not matching their assigned birth sex[4]—people identifying as genderqueer, bigender, genderless, and so on may reject traditional categorization whatsoever.[5][6] In fact, part of the reason non-binary people are in obscurity compared to their binary siblings is because of the tendency of doctors to try and evaluate them as either FtM or MtF.[7] Transsexual people present a somewhat unique case, as their gender expression does not break the gender binary, but moves from one side to the other. There are also some countries such as Australia and India that recognize a third gender, either formally or informally.[8][9]

The backlash against the gender binary has produced movements aiming to broaden the range of recognized gender categories, or abolish gender as a legal and/or social concept entirely.

Cultural variations[edit]

While Western cultures weren't the first to invent the gender binary, they certainly enforced it on regions they conquered and colonized.[10] However, even in cultures with classical gender binaries there is still variation among gender roles and norms. Native American farmers were overwhelmingly AFAB, to the point that European colonizers, who thought that women were weak and needed to be protected, thought that Native women were enslaved and that Native men were lazy and lacked a proper work ethic.[11] In modern times Native women still make up a significant portion of the indigenous agricultural labor force, with more AFAB people involved in agriculture than in comparable non-indigenous farming communities.[12]

Even traditionally patriarchal cultures such as the Jews possess variations to the Western gender binary model. Traditional Western inheritance is patrilineal, meaning it's measured along the paternal line of descent, but Jewish inheritance is matrilineal, meaning descent is measured on the maternal line.[13] In Classical Greece, the SpartanWikipedia constitution mandated that inheritance be passed down the maternal line too, although men held power in the political and religious spheres.[14]

The Classical Maya city state of Palenque honored the divine "First Mother" as a royal ancestor, and women were known to serve as ajaw (meaning "lord")[15] when no male ruler was available. Women rulers were expected to step down when a male heir came of age, however.[16] Lady Sak Kuk' was ajaw of Palenque for three years until her son Kinich Janaab' Pacal I came of age.[17] However, even after Pacal's coronation Sak Kuk' held no small amount of power. She is known to have presided over the katun ceremony of January 25th, 633 CE (an honor usually reserved for the throne).[18]

A Western example of a woman fulfilling a traditionally masculine role would be Queen Elizabeth I of England. She notoriously refused to marry because then she would lose her power, and therefore her autonomy, to a man: the would-be king. Early in her reign Elizabeth said she would never marry, because she was already married "unto a husband which is the Kingdom of England." This preserved her autonomy at the cost of her succession. The Tudor line ended with her death.[19]

In the past boys used to dress in pink and wear dresses until the age of 8, but starting in the 1920s dresses and the color pink became increasingly gender-coded and as a result became viewed as "unmanly."[20] In as little a time as a decade gender norms can shift radically. All of this goes to show that gender fundamentally is a social construct, and not even the hallowed gender binary is free from cultural influence.

See also[edit]


  10. Narayan, Yasmeen (2 October 2018). "Intersectionality, nationalisms, biocoloniality". Ethnic and Racial Studies 42 (8): 1225–1244. doiWikipedia:10.1080/01419870.2018.1518536. ISSN 0141-9870. 
  11. The role of Native American women in agriculture
  12. Women’s Representation in Agriculture; Greater Among Native Americans - Native Land Information System
  13. "There is no problem of descent" - Books of Louis Jacobs
  14. Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: Historia Civilis. "The Constitution of the Spartans". 
  15. FAMSI
  16. Kinich Jaanab' Pacal - World History Encyclopedia
  17. Skidmore, Joel (2010). The Rulers of Palenque (Fifth ed.). Mesoweb Publications. pp. 56–57. 
  18. Martin, Simon; Nikolai Grube (2008). Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya (2nd ed.). London and New York. pp. 159–161. ISBN 9780500287262. OCLC 191753193. 
  19. Elizabeth I: marriage and succession - Royal Museums Greenwich
  20. Boys in Dresses: The Tradition - JSTOR Daily