A Few Thoughts on the Concept of Binary Gender
When I was a kid, I learned that there are two sexes: male and female. Simple, easy to remember, black-and-white. But when I grew up, I discovered that there are people who feel like they are somewhere on a spectrum between the two as well as folks who feel like their body doesn’t reflect their true gender identity. I also discovered that failing to fit into the one-size-fits-all notion of clear-cut binary gender is nothing new; people have dealt with this issue since ancient times, all over the world. And modern science tells us that the concept of binary gender is wildly inaccurate, purely a social construct. So why the insistence on sticking with it? Why is it so hard for us to simply walk away from this artificial setup about how we think gender ought to work?
I have an idea, and it’s not a pretty one. For the past 6000 years or so, much of the world has been in the throes of a set of cultural ideals that make binary gender necessary in order to maintain the power structure. Yes, I’m talking about that dreaded word, patriarchy, the dubious inheritance we’ve received from the Indo-Europeans and their worldly conquests. So why would a binary gender setup be so important to them? Let’s consider how the basic patriarchal system works and I think that will become clear.
In a dominance hierarchy culture like patriarchy, by definition one group dominates and the other group submits. That’s a binary structure to start with. And in this kind of culture it’s vitally important to be able to identify which group each person belongs to, in order to determine their rights and obligations within that culture. So in a patriarchal setup, the men dominate and the women submit. There is no room for in-between. You’re part of one group or the other, period. Any attempt to blur the lines between the two groups, or to fit into both groups at the same time, threatens the power structure of the whole society. (And yes, I’m quite happy with the concept of threatening that power structure, in case you were wondering.)
So we’ve got basic physical sex, which turns out to be less clear-cut than we thought (see the article linked in the first paragraph – I really encourage you to read it). Then there’s sexual orientation, which may or may not play a role in the determination of which group a person belongs to, depending on the society’s values. In classical Greece, for instance, men were encouraged to have homosexual relationships and this was considered a normal part of being male, part of the dominator group. But in modern society, homosexuality is often considered ‘effeminate’ or ‘unmanly,’ blurring the lines and making it difficult to assign a person cleanly to either the dominator or the submissive group. I think that’s why it is such a contentious subject – it messes up the tidy binary gender system that has been in place for so long.
And what about gender identity? From the standpoint of the binary gender setup, transsexuals want to switch from the gender group they were born into and become a part of the other group, or worse, from the patriarchal viewpoint, they want to choose to hang out somewhere in between the two groups. I can see how people whose worldviews are strongly rooted in the concept of binary gender and the dominance hierarchy it grew out of would be upset about transsexuality. (To be clear, I’m not one of those people.) Let’s see how their reasoning might work: They might think a person born with a woman’s body who feels they’re truly a man is ‘cheating’ by attempting to move from the submissive group to the dominator group. And they might also think a person born with a man’s body who feels they’re truly a woman is threatening the power structure by shifting from the dominator group to the submissive group. And of course, anyone who dares to refuse the binary system is nothing but a troublemaker, threatening the very structure of the dominator society. This is why babies born with indeterminate sex are ‘assigned’ one gender or the other at birth and given surgery and medications to force them into one category or the other (again, see that article I linked above).
So what, you might ask. It’s all a mess and people on every side of the issue of gender and sexuality are having a hard time, from having their worldview threatened to having their lives threatened. (Seriously, people, didn’t your parents teach you to find better ways to work out your differences?) But I have hope. If the concepts of gender and sexuality are so deeply rooted in the patriarchal culture, the fact that the binary gender system is beginning to break down suggests we’re moving out of the dominator culture, one tiny step at a time. Yes, it’s a difficult and, at times, violent process, which really stinks. But change of this magnitude seriously rocks the foundations society is based on. I’m hoping, once we’re through this process, the binary gender system and the dominator culture it’s based on will be a thing of the past, one of those ‘old-fashioned’ concepts the schoolbooks talk about, that we’ve finally grown out of.