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Has Gender Always Been Binary?

Gender has historically been viewed in a more fluid manner.

The extent to which men conform to stereotypical masculine behaviors and interests and the extent to which women conform to stereotypical feminine behaviors and interests can be described as gender conformity. When individuals stray from their expected gender roles—or behave in gender non-conforming ways—they tend to be evaluated negatively, although such negative views are not meted out equally. For example, men who possess feminine qualities or interests are often evaluated much more harshly than women who possess masculine interests or qualities. One does not need to look any further than the differing connotations applied to the concepts of a tomboy girl versus a sissy boy to see how society responds differently to gender nonconformity as a function of whether one is adopting or abandoning masculinity.

The very notion of gender non-conformity is predicated upon a concept known as the gender binary.

Source: Pexels.

The gender binary refers to the notion that gender comes in two distinct flavors: men and women, in which men are masculine, women are feminine, and, importantly, men are of the male sex and women are of the female sex. Much of the world around us is based upon this binary understanding of sex and gender, such as the clothing we buy, barbershops vs. salons, and men’s rooms vs. women’s rooms. In fact, one of the first things new parents often learn about their future child is their sex, based on a grainy ultrasound image of tiny little genitals. From this point forward, a parent’s idea of who their child will grow up to be is significantly shaped by the sex, represented through the color of the nursery room, the types of clothing purchased, and of course, the list of potential baby names. Our expectations based on gender do not stop there. When we find out that a baby is a boy, we are more likely to describe him as strong, tough or handsome, whereas we will view baby girls as sweet, gentle and kind.

The gender binary is such a prevalent and well-accepted concept within our society that we tend to get upset when we are unable to place something or someone into one box or the other. We even extend this binary to our pets, often getting upset if people mistake our handsome boy dog for a girl, quickly correcting the offending stranger by emphasizing our response to “Ohhhh what a cute little puppy, what is her name?” with “His name is Buddy!” This isn't to say that there is no such thing as a male dog or a female dog, but rather, it emphasizes our cultural investment in perceiving someone's (or some dog's) gender correctly and using that piece of information as an overarching tool through which to understand the person or dog that we have just encountered.

Yet, while the gender binary is certainly well anchored within society and our social mores, there is actually a long history of gender not being viewed in such a black and white manner. Indeed, many indigenous cultures around the globe held more fluid and dynamic understandings of gender before encountering Western theories of gender. Even within Western cultures, the characteristics associated with one gender or the other have changed stripes so many times through history that it is almost surprising how adamantly we now argue that heels, wigs, makeup, and the color pink are only for women and girls, when all of these things were previously reserved only for men and boys.

Thus, while it may seem like discussions about non-binary understandings of gender and acceptance of gender nonconforming behavior are new additions to the daily dialogue, there is perhaps more in our collective past to point us towards a more diverse understanding of gender than there is to keep us focused on rigidly defined, binary gender roles.

While these topics seem to come up most frequently when discussing transgender and non-binary individuals and their respective rights, as well as the controversies that surround their ability to access those rights, the concept of dismantling a binary view of gender is actually one that applies to everyone, whether you identify as cisgender (someone whose gender identity and expression is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth), transgender (someone whose gender identity and/or expression is different from the sex they were assigned at birth), non-binary (someone who does not define their gender based on the binaries of men and women) or agender (someone who identifies as not having a gender). Adopting a more open and fluid understanding of gender certainly makes it easier to accept transgender, non-binary and agender individuals, but it also makes it easier to be accepting of anyone who possesses, expresses, or desires qualities that have previously been earmarked as being the prevue of only one gender or the other.

In my next few posts, I will be exploring some recent research related to the gender binary, including a study that examined whether an individual’s gender non-conforming behavior is seen as more or less threatening when the individual is transgender vs. cisgender and a recent symposium that explored the experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals around the globe.


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Sheppard, M., & Mayo Jr, J. B. (2013). The social construction of gender and sexuality: Learning from two spirit traditions. The Social Studies, 104(6), 259-270.

Nanda, S. (1986). The Hijras of India: Cultural and individual dimensions of an institutionalized third gender role. Journal of Homosexuality, 11(3-4), 35-54.

Aznar, A., & Tenenbaum, H. R. (2015). Gender and age differences in parent–child emotion talk. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 33(1), 148-155.

Lindgren, C. (2010). Pink Brain Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps. Acta Paediatrica, 99(7), 1108-1108.

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