The False Idea of the Gender Binary

Main image courtesy of Vanity Fair.

By Aarushi Pant

The belief that gender is a strict male-female binary is a commonly-held one, but recently, people have been pushing back at the “traditional” concept of the gender, and even sex, binaries. The idea that gender is a spectrum, rather than a binary, has been around since the beginning of history.

Native American cultures had two-spirit individuals who identified with both masculine and feminine spirits and were revered members of their communities, serving as healers and leaders in many tribes. Another example is the hijras, the third gender that was present in many South Asian cultures. 

Diagram of the gender spectrum, with an upward curve for women on the left, men on the right, and other genders in between as a single downward curve in the middle.
There’s even scientific evidence supporting the idea of a gender spectrum. Because sex isn’t binary either, there is no biological basis for the idea of a gender binary. Image via Cade Hildreth.

However, western culture has consistently defined gender as being a binary, rather than a fluid concept that shifts and evolves with time. While the existence of gender nonconforming individuals is not new, the prejudices that they face is unprecedented. The idea of being non-binary is treated with ridicule at best and violence at worst. In fact, any individuals that don’t conform to the gender they were assigned to at birth are constantly faced with danger. 2021 was the deadliest year on record for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals: at least 50 trans and gender non-conforming individuals were killed last year alone, and a disproportionate percentage of them were Black trans women, highlighting the dire need for intersectionality in LGBTQ activism.

However, there have been some steps in the right direction. Many institutions of higher education, such as colleges, have begun to push for more inclusivity in their language in recent years. Practices such as including pronouns in introductions and on class rosters or school profiles have become much more common, creating a safer, more comfortable environment for people who may not identify with the gender they were assigned to at birth. 

three circular pronoun badges that say, from left to right, she, her, hers, they, them, theirs, and he, him, his.
People can go by a variety and combination of pronouns. For example, some people use both she and they pronouns, while others use only he/him pronouns. Image via The Asana Blog.

Although many terms are still heavily gendered, such as “sister” and “brother,” alternatives such as “sibling” are being explored and used. Some fraternities, sororities, and other organizations have become more accommodating of the members that they accept, encouraging and welcoming trans individuals as well as those who are gender nonconforming to join. 

Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done and progress to be made. The idea of gender fluidity is yet to be widely accepted, and we are still living in a society that is built upon foundations of heterosexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination. It’s essential that transgender and gender nonconforming individuals have the acceptance and support that they need on their journey to shaping a more joyful, authentic life for themselves. 

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