Over the last few years, terms like “gender binary” and “gender nonbinary” have become common lingo in certain cultural convos.
But do you know what the gender binary is, exactly? If not, you’ve come to the right spot.
At its most distilled, “the gender binary is the false idea that there are only two genders and that every single person is one of these two genders,” explains clinical social worker and gender specialist Rebecca Minor.
But it’s also more than that. Ahead, a deep dive on the gender binary.
“Gender binary refers to the societal or cultural belief that there are only two categories of gender: men and women,” says Tony Ferraiolo, director of the youth and families program at Health Care Advocates International, a public health and advocacy organization serving the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s also the idea that there’s a ‘right’ way to be a woman and a ‘right’ way to be a man. “It’s the idea that men are masculine and women are feminine,” says Ferraiolo.
Further, the gender binary perpetuates the idea that gender is synonymous with sex — it’s not!
Sex is a label that you’re assigned at birth based on the genitals you’re born with. Think: “It’s a boy!” and “It’s a girl!” This gets marked down on someone’s birth certificate as “M” or “F.”
Gender is an internal sense of self. It encompasses a myriad of things that make up a person’s identity, including their behaviors, mannerisms, personality traits, thoughts, dreams, and more.
When someone’s assigned sex and gender are aligned, it’s known as being cisgender. When someone’s assigned sex and gender aren’t aligned, it’s known as being transgender.
These days, talk of the gender binary has infiltrated nearly every cultural or social sphere.
It’s almost everywhere — especially in the United States and other Western cultures, explains Abbie Goldberg, professor of psychology and director of the women and gender studies program at Clark University.
But where did the concept originate? It’s a good question.
According to gender and sexuality educator Suzannah Weiss, different iterations of these ideas have existed for a longgg time.
“Arguably, modern notions of the gender binary originated during the Enlightenment,” they say. “That’s when scientists and physicians adopted what historians call a ‘two-sex model’ when describing people’s bodies.”
This model treated male and female bodies as opposites, and as the only two options.
“Up until that point, popular thinkers thought more along the lines of a one-sex model, where male and female bodies were homologous,” explains Weiss.
Case and point: female genitalia were viewed as male genitalia turned inward, and female orgasm was deemed necessary for reproduction since male orgasm was.
Indeed, the one-sex model had its own problems. Mainly, women were often viewed as incomplete men.
“But the two-sex model created new problems, such as the devaluing of female sexuality and the erasure of anyone outside the gender binary,” they say.
“Many indigenous cultures around the world have tended to have more dynamic and fluid and flexible notions of gender — at least until they were until they were confronted with Western notions and theories of gender,” says Goldberg.
“Many scholars argue that Western colonizers imposed binary ideas of gender on indigenous people.”
Sadly, there are so many examples to point to.
Bathrooms, locker rooms, team sports, some nouns, honorific titles, and occupational titles all point to the false belief that gender is binary, says Minor.
The gender binary also rears its dirty head anytime someone assumes someone’s (gender) pronouns based on how they look, anytime groups of people are addressed by monikers like “ladies and gentlemen,” and anytime groups are divided based on whether they’re women or men, she says.
The gender binary also exists in how certain doctors and bodily capabilities are named. For instance, phrases like “women’s health,” “maternal health,” and “feminine care products.”
“All of these experiences can be incredibly dysphoric and sometimes prevent nonbinary and trans folks from accessing necessary healthcare, using the correct bathrooms, and feeling safe or seen in work and learning spaces,” says Minor.
In other words, the multitude of ways gender plays out in real life has a major impact on both the people who live within and outside of the gender binary.
Nope! There are many people who have genders other than “man” or “woman”!
Some of these people are nonbinary. Some are as transgender. Some identity with both labels. And others identify with neither experience.
What do the terms trans and nonbinary mean? Great question.
“Nonbinary is a gender identity label used by some people who do not identify with the binary of man/woman,” explains Minor. Nonbinary folks have a gender that is outside of, or apart from, the binarist gender model.
Some folks identify specifically and/or exclusively with the nonbinary label. Others use nonbinary as a vague umbrella term but feel that another term (or terms) describes their gender more accurately.
Transgender is a label for people whose sex assigned at birth doesn’t align with their experience of gender.
Here’s where it gets a little nuanced: It *is* possible to be transgender and have a binary gender! For example, a transgender man or transgender woman might feel that their gender fits within the binarist model.
It’s also possible for someone to be transgender and have a nonbinary gender! Someone, for example, might be transgender and genderqueer.
More on some of these other gender terms below.
Simply, that someone has a gender that isn’t exclusively “man” or “woman.”
Someone who is bigender, trigender, or polygender, for example, might identify with one or both of those two genders at some point during their life.
Because nonbinary can be both a gender itself and an umbrella term for all non-binary genders, the specific meaning can vary from nonbinary person to nonbinary person.
There are a number of other genders under the nonbinary umbrella that someone may identify with, notes Minor.
To name just a few:
There are no prerequisites for identifying with any gender label or experience. The only thing you need to be a gender is to feel that gender (or genders, plural) fit(s) best.
So how do you begin to understand your individual experience of gender? Through self-reflection.
Here are some questions you might ask yourself:
- What gender terms bring me a sense of comfort? Which bring me a sense of discomfort?
- What emotions does being called a “boy” or “girl” elicit?
- Are there certain words, pronouns, monikers, or honorifics that bring a sense of euphoria?
- What is my sex assigned at birth? Does it align with the gender terms that feel best to me?
An LGBTQIA+ affirming therapist can offer you a safe place for exploring the answers to these questions.
“Don’t think that you have to identify as something other than the gender you were assigned at birth if you don’t fit the stereotype of your gender,” says Weiss. “Similarly, don’t feel like you can’t identify as a different gender even if you generally fit the stereotype of your assigned-at-birth gender.”
There is a wide range of what it looks like to be a man, woman, nonbinary or any other gender.
If you want to help challenge the gender binary, the good news is that there are so many things you can do.
To start, “talk about the fact that the gender binary exists and call it out when you see it in action,” says Minor. That might look like crossing out the gender options on forms, adding your own categories, and talking with managers about adding gender-neutral facilities,” she says.
How? By listening to podcasts like Gender Reveal, Bad in Bed, En(ba)by, QUEERY, and We’re Having Gay Sex. Reading fiction and nonfiction books like “Detransition, Baby,” “The Natural Mother of The Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood,” “The Argonauts,” “Cemetery Boys,” and “The Death of Vivek Oji.”
And following people all across the gender spectrum on social media.
“When we educate ourselves on these things, we’re able to teach our children that the binary is a social construct, [and] we’re able to raise a generation of children who haven’t been socialized by the limitations of the binary,” says Minor. *Slow clap*
Anything you do to challenge the gender binary is going to directly or indirectly benefit the nonbinary people in your life.
If you own a business, “be conscious of whether your products really need to be gendered and make them available to anyone who wants them,” says Weiss.
If you’re a healthcare professional, do your best to become as educated about the full spectrum of the human gender as possible.
“You should also avoid making assumptions about people’s needs based on their presumed gender,” says Weiss.
Regardless of your profession, you can support nonbinary people by:
- Not making assumptions about someone’s gender based on how they look
- Sharing your pronouns with others online and in-person
- Monitoring the gendered language you use when addressing large groups of people
- Educating yourself about the spectrum of gender
The gender binary may be deeply embedded into most (Western) cultures. But that doesn’t mean that it’s beneficial to the people within those cultures.
On the contrary, the gender binary perpetuates ideas and norms that can be harmful emotionally, psychologically, and physically.
The good news is that now that you know what the gender binary is, you can begin to identify the way it’s worked its way into nearly every facet of your day-to-day life.
And once you can identify it, you can begin to challenge it one small act at a time.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.