Gender binary (also known as gender binarism, binarism, or ambiguously genderism) is the classification of gender into two distinct, opposite forms of masculine and feminine, whether by social system or cultural belief.[A]
In this binary model, sex, gender, and sexuality may be assumed by default to align, with aspects of one's gender inherently linked to one's genetic or gamete-based sex, or with one's sex assigned at birth. For example, when a male is born, gender binarism may assume the male will be masculine in appearance, character traits, and behavior, including having a heterosexual attraction to females. These aspects may include expectations of dressing, behavior, sexual orientation, names or pronouns, preferred restroom, or other qualities. These expectations may reinforce negative attitudes, bias, and discrimination towards people who display expressions of gender variance or nonconformity or whose gender identity is incongruent with their birth sex.
The term gender binary describes the system in which a society allocates its members into one of two sets of gender roles, gender identities, and attributes based on the type of genitalia. In the case of people born with organs that fall outside this classification system (intersex people), enforcement of the binary often includes coercive surgical gender reassignment. Intersex people often identify anatomically as male or female; however, their innate gender identity may be different. Gender binary therefore focuses primarily on one's innate identity irrespective of their anatomical features.
Traditional gender roles are influenced by the media, religion, mainstream education, political systems, cultural systems, and social systems. Major religions such as Islam and Christianity, in particular, act as authorities for gender roles. Islam, for example, teaches that mothers are the primary care givers to their children and the Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination, only ordains cisgender men as priests. Christianity supports its adherence to a gender binary with the Book of Genesis in the Bible, where it is declared in verse 27 that "God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." Orthodox Judaism also forbids women to be ordained as rabbis and serve as clergy in their congregations.
In English, some nouns (e.g., boy), honorific titles (e.g., Miss), occupational titles (e.g., actress), and pronouns (e.g., she, his) are gendered, and they fall into a male/female binary. According to Hyde and colleagues, children raised within English-speaking (and other gendered-language) environments come to view gender as a binary category. They state that for children who learn English as their primary language in the U.S., adults' use of the gender binary to explicitly sort individuals (i.e. "boys" and "girls" bathrooms and softball teams), and not just the presence of gender markers, causes gender biases.
According to Thomas Keith in Masculinities in Contemporary American Culture, the longstanding cultural assumption that male-female dualities are "natural and immutable" partly explains the persistence of systems of patriarchy and male privilege in modern society.
Gender binarism may create institutionalized structures of power, and individuals who identify outside traditional gender binaries may experience discrimination and harassment. Many LGBT people, notably youth activist groups, advocate against gender binarism. Many individuals within the LGBT+ community report an internal hierarchy of power status. Some who do not identify within a binary system experience being at the bottom of the hierarchy. The multitude of different variables such as race, ethnicity, age, gender, and more can lower or raise one's perceived power.
Worldwide, there are many individuals and 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 ceremonial and social roles that that are seen as third gender. The hijra of South Asia and some Two-Spirit Indigenous Peoples of North America are often cited as examples. Feminist philosopher María Lugones argues that Western colonizers imposed their dualistic ideas of gender on indigenous peoples, replacing pre-existing indigenous concepts. In the contemporary West, non-binary or genderqueer people do not adhere to the gender binary by refusing terms like "male" and "female" as they do not identify as either. Transgender people have a unique place in relation to the gender binary. In some cases, attempting to conform to societal expectations for their gender, transgender individuals may opt for surgery, hormones, or both.
Some 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." Lorber argues that this corroborates the fact that the gender binary is arbitrary and leads to false expectations of both men and women. Instead, there is growing support for the possibility of utilizing additional categories that compare people without "prior assumptions about who is like whom".
Scholars who study the gender binary from an intersectional feminist and critical race theory perspective agree that during the process of European colonization of the U.S., a binary system of gender was enforced as a means of protecting patriarchal norms and upholding European nationalism. This idea of a gender as a binary is thought to be an oppressive means of reflecting differential power dynamics. Gender binarism also poses limitations on the adequacy of medical care provided to gender nonconforming patients. There is a large gap in medical literature on non-binary populations who have unique healthcare needs.
In her paper "The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough", Anne Fausto-Sterling 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 standards of gender binaries and puts into question society's role in constructing gender. Fausto-Sterling says 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."