Gender Binary

In Kentucky, USA, a young transgender woman who has recently fully transitioned from being a man is suddenly told she cannot use the women’s restroom. In China, a young girl is chastised and punished by her teacher for displaying rowdy “boy-like” behavior. In Uganda, where homosexuality is outright banned, a man is thrown into prison for life because he was accused of being with another man. These situations occurred all over the world, but are united by a common theme: the people in these cases were all affected by the deep seated concept of a gender binary. This demonstrates far reaching effects that gender has upon an individual’s lifestyle, as well as expectations of how that person should behave in society.



Before we explore the idea of the gender binary, it is important to define what sex and gender are. Sex is based upon an individual’s reproductive anatomy and any secondary sex characteristics such as enlarged breasts in females and an Adam’s apple in males. In contrast, gender refers to the socially constructed ideas that a culture has about a certain sex. It includes society’s expectations about ideas and behaviors. For the most part, sex tends to refer to male and female, while gender usually refers to man, woman, trans, etc.

The gender binary pairs sex and gender together, and defines two distinguishable, distinct, and oftentimes contrasting genders: males who identify as men and females who identify as women. This means that any quality attributed to the way a certain sex is widely perceived to act within the confines of social norms, feminine or masculine, refers to the gender binary.1 This two sided categorization, which is mainstream in most cultures and societies around the world, dictates self-expression in all areas of life from lifestyle choices to occupations. Some areas that are strongly dictated by the gender binary are expectations of dress, private and public behavior, sexual orientation, names, pronouns, personality traits, careers, and the usage of restrooms.1 Though each culture determines gender roles and what is masculine and feminine, there are a few common traits of masculinity and femininity shared by many cultures.


Femininity and Masculinity

Femininity/ feminine traits are often looked down upon and are seen as shameful and embarrassing when males embody them. This can range from physical appearances such as wearing clothes regarded as only for females or a lack of muscular development, to having unrestrained emotional reactions especially for sadness and fear (which is widely perceived as a feminine trait by many cultures). Femininity is unfortunately often considered a sign of weakness in many cultures. The opposite holds true as well, where masculinity and being a man has close ties to power. There is an association of strength, aggression, initiative, and leadership with the idea of being masculine. Because of this, even in matriarchal societies, more masculine women tend to hold more power than feminine women. Over time, society has recognized that stereotypes of masculine and feminine behaviors and characteristics are inaccurate.

To illustrate this, let us pool all these concepts together and construct a fictional character named Jack. Jack is biologically male, so he is automatically assumed by most societal standards to be heterosexual and maintain masculine traits that can include virility, independence, assertiveness, competitiveness, and sexual aggression. Because of the gender binary, he is limited in the ways in which he can behave, while still being seen as an acceptable “man” in society. By diverging from these conventional and stereotypical behaviors, he can become victim to harassment, rejection, or even persecution in some parts of the world.


How Gender Identity Is Passed On

Most children tend to learn gender roles from an early age. Children usually inherit their beliefs from parents, other family members, close friends, and religion. Children also absorb ideas of gender roles from media and culture, including television, magazines, music, and other media.2 As children grow, they adopt and conserve behaviors that are rewarded by acceptance, love, and approval. They also stop or begin to hide behaviors that are subject to contempt, ridicule, or punishment. This happens early in life; by the age of three, most children have learned to favor toys and clothes that are “appropriate” for their gender and solidify their acceptance and understanding of the gender binary.

Unfortunately, even adults can still feel embarrassed, ashamed, and distressed if they do not adhere to the behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that are expected of them. Oftentimes, this fear of being outcast themselves or the process of growing up with a static mentality can prevent many people from empathizing with others, and can lead to people isolating themselves.


Fortunately, there seems to be a general positive trend around the world from each older generation to the newer generations. People have grown increasingly tolerant of others with views or lifestyles that differ from their own, even when those views are highly controversial. This is especially true for many western countries, as well as North America, many parts of South America, and Australia.


Childhood Gender Identity Issues

As stated before, by the age of three, most children have learned to favor toys and clothes that are “appropriate” for their gender and solidify their acceptance and understanding of the gender binary. Most children's gender identity aligns with their biological sex. However, for some children, the match between biological sex and gender identity is not so clear. When a child's interests and abilities are different from what society expects out of that child because of the child’s sex, he or she is often subjected to discrimination and bullying. It is natural for parents to want their child to be accepted socially. However, children need to feel comfortable with themselves and the environment they grow up in.

General societal expectations of the traditional “specialties” of each gender have changed.2 Boys now commonly excel in artistic subjects once traditionally thought of as feminine or learn to expose themselves emotionally in a more open manner. More and more girls are joining sports teams and integrating into school subjects traditionally thought of as masculine. Almost all children show some behaviors that were once thought of as typical for the opposite gender. In other words, no one shows exclusively male or female traits and this is completely normal. For example, if a parent’s son doesn't have the talent for any sports or even have an interest in them, there will still be many other opportunities and areas in which he can excel.

Each child has his or her own strengths, and at times, they may not conform to society's or even a parent’s expectations. However, these strengths will still be a source of his or her current and future success. It is up to the parent to understand this and act as a bed of constant support for a child; encouragement and positive influence is far healthier than simply forcing a child along a strict path or mindset that they do not wish to follow.



Classification within the gender binary does not encompass individuals who are born with non-binary reproductive organs (intersex) and excludes those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, genderfluid, or third gender. Around the world there are many individuals and subcultures who defy specific gender or transgender identities.

In several North American indigenous cultures, there are third and fourth gender roles that encompass gender variant individuals within their communities. These “two spirits” as they are known, perform tasks and wear clothing associated with both men and women. These tribes do not conform to the traditional gender binary and some consider there to be at least four genders: feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, masculine man. Within these communities, two spirits are completely accepted and many even hold respected positions as healers, conveyors of oral traditions and songs, and traditional dancers.

In South Asia, there exists a category of trans women called Hijra. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the hijras are officially recognized as third gender by the government, being neither completely male nor female.6 In India, transgender people have been given the status of Third Gender and are protected by the law despite the social ostracism. This protection ranges from basic legal rights such as freedom of expression to job and education welfare and security.


The gender binary is even challenged by some unlikely sources within certain subcultures. American Rock and Roll is widely considered an accepted and mainstream form of music. Although it is often the hyper-masculine musicians who are considered to be the epitome of the perfect rock star, many popular rock stars defy gender boundaries and participate in “gender bending."5 These gender benders are the ones actually following the neglected ideals of the rock and roll culture: they live outside of the mainstream culture, and rebel against anything that aims to restrict freedom. For example, Robert Plant of the rock and roll group Led Zeppelin took the idea of masculinity and gave it many physical aspects that one would find traditionally feminine. As a young rock and roll legend, he had grown his hair out long, wore tight and flamboyant clothing, and moved around the stage with “effeminate” movements. Though many would argue that his persona was incredibly assertive, confident, and masculine, his physical presence conflicted with this notion.

There are many cultures and individuals around the world who defy specific gender or transgender identities. In some cases these third gender or gender fluid communities are well rooted in history and culture, while some are fairly modern and ever changing. It is important to understand and respect this as proof that the gender binary is not as concrete as some may think.


Gender Binary and Discrimination: Social

Gender and biological sex, because it is often tied to gender in many societies, affect all parts of our lives. Although gender is inherently personal, it is also political in many situations. Since the gender binary is so well ingrained into culture, any deviation from it often results in antagonistic attitudes, prejudice, and mistreatment in public areas or the workplace. Transgender or transsexual people can even face harassment from their friends and family. The term for this form of discrimination is called transphobia.

Transphobia is defined as a range of antagonistic attitudes and feelings against transgender or transsexual people, or towards the concept of transsexuality itself. Transphobia can be emotional disgust, fear, anger or discomfort felt or expressed towards people who do not conform to society's gender expectations. It can often be fueled by insecurities, religious dogma, or ignorance. Transsexual or transgender people, like gay or lesbian citizens, are often discriminated against and feared for challenging and undermining traditional beliefs about gender norms and the gender binary.

Sometimes a person will grow up constantly exposed to a certain way of living or only experiencing an ideology within a closed community. When that person experiences a behavior or idea that is not reflected in his or her lived experiences, he or she might defensively respond by trying to confront and denounce the problem until it aligns with a familiar perspective. It is a sad reality that is the root cause of gender binary discrimination, and unfortunately one of the most difficult aspects of human nature to change or unlearn.


Gender Binary and Discrimination: Legal

Since there are only two legally recognized genders in most societies around the world, there is an outstanding issue with gender and the law. People who cross certain gender boundaries cannot “exist” in a legal and social sense, without denying or hiding fundamental parts of themselves. People who identify as neither men nor women, as well as people for whom the categories of man and woman do not adequately encompass all of their gendered identities, are rendered almost invisible within the laws of society. Gender queerness is seen as unintelligible and contemptible, the legitimacy of a transgender person’s identities is ignored, and they have almost no representation within their communities, countries, or family.


Our sex and gender affect how other people treat us, and they determine our legal status. This legal status as either male or female is detrimental in matters such as marriage, divorce, adoption, child custody, inheritance, immigration status, and employment. For example, in many places transgender individuals are often unable to enter into a heterosexual marriage after undergoing sex-reassignment. Gender status also affects access to services such as shelters, clinics and centers, and health benefits. On identity papers and personal records, gender entitles the owner to certain rights through a structured state constitution or federal mandate.

A current hot issue in the United States is the legality of bathrooms and trans bathrooms. A transgender person should use the restroom that corresponds to his or her gender identity, and this is now mandated by federal law.7 This is an inherent right whether a person has undergone a full sex change or whether a person does not “look the part”. Rights to restrooms that match a person’s gender identity have also been recognized in the workplace and are actively being asserted in public accommodations.7 For example, In Iowa, a state within the larger United States, discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity has been prohibited by law since 2007 through the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

However, states’ rights is a unique issue to the United States. States have the sovereignty and ability to define and create their own interpretations of the law, but it wasn’t until recently that the federal government has definitively protected transgender rights. States like Mississippi and most recently North Carolina, have imposed strict laws that codify being a man or a woman into the law. North Carolina’s legislature has ordered public agencies and local school boards to allow people to use only public bathrooms that correspond to their biological sex at birth. This kind of discrimination is still commonplace in the United States, a country that has progressive roots growing in many parts of the country.

It is human nature to oppose change and fear something that is unfamiliar with the norm. However the law, in theory, exists to avoid issues of emotional discontent and focus on equality for the larger scale. There is still much work that needs to be done and plenty of legal reform in many areas around the world, but there is a hopeful trend of progressive laws starting to be passed or at least discussed in many countries.


Why the Gender Binary Should Be Eliminated

To some people, being masculine and being feminine is a lifelong, absolute part of what makes us human, a fact that is constantly reinforced by their religion, sense of self, sense of duty, and daily life. To others, gender is unimportant, fluid, or simply chosen by the individual.

Societal categories for what is masculine and feminine are constraining, unrealistic, and hinder basic human freedoms for expression.1 They do not capture how people can truly feel, how people behave, or how people define themselves. All men have some so-called feminine traits, and all women have some so-called masculine traits. And we may show different traits at different times. Many cultures teach women and men to be the opposite of each other in many ways. However, more and more people are beginning to see gender as how it is: a spectrum that allows for more fluidity.


There are a variety of legal issues that must be addressed, and legislators must be educated as to why they are important issues. Federal anti-discrimination legislation must be amended in order to protect gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.

Unfortunately, ridding society of the gender binary system or even acknowledging that there are other gender systems in play, will take generations. It will take empathizing, understanding, and tolerance to begin focusing all of our energy toward a radically different, ideal future. The truth is that people, no matter what gender or biological sex, share more similarities than differences and that will always remain a positive source of human connection.





  1. "Dismantling the Gender Binary System." Serendip Studio's One World. Bryn Mawr College, 18 Dec. 2009. Web. 02 June 2016.
  2. "Gender Identity Development in Children." American Academy of Pediatrics, 21 Nov. 2015. Web. 02 June 2016.
  3. Chakraborti, Neil; Garland, Jon (2009). Hate Crime: Impact, Causes and Responses. SAGE Publications, Ltd. p. 77.
  4. Chrisler, Donald R.; McCreary, Joan C. (2010). Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology, Volume 2. Springer. p. 366.
  5. Hartman, Caroline, and Letizia Schmid. "Girly Boys and Boyish Girls: Gender Roles in Rock and Roll Music." Rutgers Dialogues 9 (2014): 55-70. Rutgers School or Arts and Science. Rutgers University. Web. 2 June 2016.
  6. Plunkett, Mary. "The 10 Most Tolerant Nations in the World." The Richest. N.p., 22 Apr. 2014. Web. 2 June 2016.
  7. "FAQ: Answers to Some Common Questions about Equal Access to Public Restrooms | Lambda Legal." Lambda Legal. Lamda Legal, n.d. Web. 02 June 2016.

Last Updated 2 June 2016

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