Gender binary

The gender binary, also referred to as gender binarism (sometimes shortened to just binarism),[1][2][3] is the classification of sex and gender into two distinct, opposite and disconnected forms of masculine and feminine. It is one general type of a gender system. As one of the core principles of genderism, it can describe a social boundary that discourages people from crossing or mixing gender roles, or from identifying with three or more forms of gender expression altogether. In this binary model, "sex", "gender" and "sexuality" are assumed by default to align; for example, a male at birth would be assumed masculine in appearance, character traits and behavior, including a heterosexual attraction to females at birth.[4]


The term gender binary describes the system in which a society splits its members into one of two sets of gender roles, gender identities and attributes based on reproductive organs. In the case of people born with organs that fall outside this system (intersex people), enforcement of the binary usually includes coercive surgical gender reassignment.[5][6] Gender roles are a major aspect of the gender binary. Gender roles shape and constrain individuals' life experiences, impacting aspects of self-expression ranging from clothing choices to occupation. Traditional gender roles continue to be enforced by the media, religion and educational, political and other cultural and social systems.[7] Major religions such as Islam and Catholicism in particular act as authorities on gender roles. Islam, for example, teaches that mothers are the primary care givers to their children and Catholics only allow males to serve as their priests.

Gender binaries exist as a means of bringing order, though some people, such as Riki Wilchins in GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, argue that gender binaries divide and polarize society.

Worldwide, there are many individuals and even several subcultures that can be considered exceptions to the gender binary or specific transgender identities. In addition to individuals whose bodies are naturally intersex, there are also specific social roles that involve aspects of both or neither gender: These include the Two-Spirited Native Americans and hijra of India. In the contemporary West, genderqueer people break the gender binary by refusing terms like "male" and "female". Transsexuals have a unique place in relation to the gender binary. In some cases, their gender expression aligns with their sex. Attempting to conform to societal expectations for their gender, transsexuals may opt for surgery and/or hormones, which according to Jason Cromwell in Queering the Binaries: Transsituated Identities, Bodies, and Sexualities, can be difficult if the individual does not "pass" cisgender.[8]


Many feminist scholars have contested the existence of a clear gender binary. Judith Lorber explains the problem of failing to question dividing people into these two groups “even though they often find more significant within-group differences than between-group differences.”[9] Lorber argues that this corroborates the fact that the gender binary is arbitrary and leads to false expectations of both genders. Instead, there is growing support for the possibility of utilizing additional categories that compare people without "prior assumptions about who is like whom".[9] By allowing for a more fluid approach to gender, people will be better able to identify themselves however they choose, and scholarly research will find different similarities and differences.

A further issue with the gender binary is the idea that men are inherently masculine and women are inherently feminine. This limits the possibility of people acting outside of their gender role without coming under scrutiny. In discussions of this issue, the terms "male" and "female" are not exactly synonymous with "masculine" and "feminine" because those terms are believed by gender scientists such as Allan Johnson to contain ulterior meanings that have been "politically contextualized and constructed" and to be less mutually exclusive than they are when used in ordinary speech.[10] In this way, many gender researchers believe assertions such as femininity applies solely to women and masculinity solely to men to be fundamentally flawed. Furthermore, they emphasize the importance of distinguishing femininity and masculinity as descriptors of behaviors and attitudes without tying them directly to a specific gender. Karen Beckwith maintains that by using masculine and feminine as adjectives, the words become helpful tools for understanding human actions.[11] Gendered descriptors have uses, but gender researchers believe that connecting them to specific sexes renders them oppressive terms that enable continued discrimination.

Maria Lugones observes that among the Yoruba people there was no concept of gender and no gender system at all before colonialism. She argues that a gender system was introduced by colonial powers as a tool for domination and that this fundamentally changed social relationships among the indigenous people.[12]


A person can exhibit both traits that were rendered exclusive to "girl" or "boy". Anne Fausto-Sterling suggests a classification of five sexes and a move away from the socially constructed gender binary classification of male and female. In her paper "The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough," she discusses the existence of intersex people, individuals possessing a combination of male and female sexual characteristics, who are seen as deviations from the norm and who frequently undergo coercive surgery at a very young age in order to maintain the two-gender system. The existence of these individuals challenges the standard gender binary and puts into question society's role in constructing gender.[13] Fausto-Sterling indicates that modern practitioners encourage the idea that gender is a cultural construct and concludes that, "we are moving from an era of sexual dimorphism to one of variety beyond the number 2."[14]

See also


  1. Marjorie Garber (25 November 1997). Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety. Psychology Press. pp. 2, 10, 14–16, 47. ISBN 978-0-415-91951-7. Retrieved 18 September 2012.
  2. Claudia Card (1994). Adventures in Lesbian Philosophy. Indiana University Press. p. 127. ISBN 978-0-253-20899-6. Retrieved 18 September 2012.
  3. Rosenblum, Darren (2000). "'Trapped' in Sing-Sing: Transgendered Prisoners Caught in the Gender Binarism". Michigan Journal of Gender & Law. 6. Retrieved 18 September 2012.
  4. Keating, Anne. "glbtq >> literature >> Gender". glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  5. Fausto-Sterling, Anne. "The Five Sexes, Revisited". Wiley Online Library. New York Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
  6. Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (1st ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
  7. Johnson, Joy; Repta, Robin (2002). "Sex and Gender: Beyond the Binaries" (PDF). Designing and conducting gender, sex, & health research: 17–39. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  8. Cromwell, Jason (1999). Transmen and FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities. Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois. p. 511. ISBN 978-0252068256.
  9. 1 2 Lorber, Judith. "Believing is Seeing: Biology as Ideology." In The Gendered Society Reader, edited by Michael S. Kimmel, Amy Aronson, and Amy Kaler, 11-18. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  10. Johnson, Allan. The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2005.
  11. Beckwith, Karen. "A Common Language of Gender." Politics and Gender 1(1) (2005):128-137. Accessed May 8, 2013, doi:10.1017/S1743923X05211017.
  12. Lugones, María (Winter 2008). "Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System". Hypatia. 22 (1): 196–198. doi:10.1353/hyp.2006.0067.
  13. Morgan Holmes (2008). Intersex: A Perilous Difference. Associated University Presse. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-575-91117-5. Retrieved 29 April 2014.
  14. Fausto-Sterling, Anne (March–April 1993). The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough. The Sciences. pp. 20–24.

Further reading

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