Gender Binary

Neon blue sign that spells "boys" and neon pink sign that spells "girls."

The gender binary is a system that pairs together sex (which is based on an individual’s reproductive anatomy) and gender (which refers to the socially constructed ideas and expectations that a culture has for certain sex). More specifically, it classifies two distinguishable, distinct, and oftentimes contrasting genders: males who identify as men and females who identify as women. Therefore, any quality (feminine or masculine) attributed to the way certain sex is widely perceived to act within the confines of social norms 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 For example, in the USA, a young transgender woman who has recently 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 occur 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 matter demonstrates far reaching effects that gender places upon an individual’s lifestyle, as well as expectations of how that person should behave in society. Though each culture determines their own gender roles and definitions of masculine and feminine, there are a few common traits of masculinity and femininity shared by many cultures.

Femininity and Masculinity

Femininity refers to the quality or qualities associated with being female or “womanly.” Masculinity refers to the quality or qualities associated with being male or “manly.” Feminine traits are often looked down upon and are seen as shameful or embarrassing when males embody them. These traits can range from physical appearances (such as wearing clothes regarded as only for females or having a lack of muscular development) to having unrestrained emotional reactions (especially for sadness and fear, which is widely perceived to be 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 these traits are associated to masculinity, even in matriarchal societies, masculine women tend to hold more power than feminine women. Over time, societies have begun to recognize that stereotypes of masculine and feminine behaviors and characteristics are inaccurate.1

Social Conditioning of Gender Identity

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 behaviors that are rewarded and reinforced by acceptance, love, and approval. They also stop or begin to hide behaviors that are subject to contempt, ridicule, or punishment. This adjustment happens early in life; by the age of three, most children have learned to favor toys and clothes that are “appropriate” for their gender, solidifying their acceptance and understanding of the gender binary.2

A girl next to a boy who is playing with toy dinosaurs.

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 outcasted 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 as a way to avoid judgement.2

Fortunately, with each new generation, there seems to be a generally positive trend around the world of acceptance for more diverse gender identities. People have grown increasingly tolerant of others with views or lifestyles that differ from their own, even when those views are highly controversial. An expanding tolerance is especially true amongst many western countries, as well as North America, many parts of South America, and Australia.3

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. Many 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. If the distress and discomfort that arises from this discrepancy are severe, the child may be experiencing a condition known as gender dysphoria. When a child’s interests and abilities are different from what society expects out of them because of the child’s sex, he or she is often subjected to discrimination and bullying. It is natural for parents to want their children to be accepted socially. However, children need to feel comfortable with themselves and the environment they grow up in.2 

General societal expectations of the traditional “specialties” of each gender have changed over the past few decades.2 Boys now commonly excel in artistic subjects once traditionally thought of as feminine, such as design and dance, and learn to expose themselves emotionally in a more open manner. Conversely, more girls are joining sports teams and integrating into school subjects traditionally thought of as masculine, such as science. Almost all children show some behaviors that were once thought of as typical for the opposite gender. In other words, very rarely does a person exhibit exclusively male or female traits, which is completely normal.2

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. Encouragement and positive influence are far healthier than simply forcing a child along a strict path or mindset that they do not wish to follow. For more information on child gender roles and parenting, check out this article titled, “Raising Your Children Gender Neutrally.”


Three feminine shirtless men holding each other.

Classification within the gender binary does not encompass the vast possibilities for people to experience and identify their gender. Around the world, there are many individuals and subcultures who defy specific gender construct.1

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.4

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.5 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.3

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.”6 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 grew 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.6

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.

Social Discrimination

Gender along with biological sex (since 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 people can even face harassment from their friends and family. The term for this form of discrimination is called transphobia.5

Transphobia is defined as a range of antagonistic attitudes and feelings against transgender  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. Transgender people, similar to gay or lesbian citizens, are often discriminated against for challenging and undermining traditional beliefs about gender norms and the gender binary.5

Sometimes a person will grow up constantly exposed to a certain way of living or will only experience one particular ideology within a closed community. When that person encounters 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.

Legal Discrimination

Since there are only two legally recognized genders in most societies around the world (man or woman), 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 families.6

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.5

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. This behavior is now mandated by federal law.7 Choosing a bathroom that corresponds with gender identity 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.7

A person next to a sign that says "gender neutral restroom, this bathroom is for everyone."

However, states’ rights are 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 was not until recently that the federal government began definitively protecting 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 limit a person’s public bathrooms that correspond with their biological sex at birth.7 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 to fear something that is unfamiliar with the norm. However, the law, in theory, exists to avoid issues of emotional discontent and to 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.

Concluding Remarks

To some people, being masculine or feminine is a lifelong and absolute part of what makes us human; it is 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, both of which may appear 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 what it really 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 all people, regardless of 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. Plunkett, Mary. “The 10 Most Tolerant Nations in the World.” The Richest. N.p., 22 Apr. 2014. Web. 2 June 2016.
  4. Chrisler, Donald R.; McCreary, Joan C. (2010). Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology, Volume 2. Springer. p. 366.
  5. Chakraborti, Neil; Garland, Jon (2009). Hate Crime: Impact, Causes and Responses. SAGE Publications, Ltd. p. 77.
  6. 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.
  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 Update: 4 June 2017.