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Gender binary (also known as gender binarism, binarism, or genderism) is the classification of gender into two distinct, opposite, and disconnected forms of masculine and feminine, whether by social system or cultural belief.
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 splits 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 sexual identity may be different. Gender binary therefore focuses primarily on one's innate identity irrespective of their anatomical features.
Gender roles are a major aspect of the gender binary. Gender roles shape and constrain people's life experiences, impacting aspects of self-expression ranging from clothing choices to occupation. Most people have feminine and masculine psychological characteristics. Traditional gender roles are influenced by the media, religion, mainstream education, political systems, cultural systems, and social systems. Major religions such as Islam and Catholicism, in particular, act as authorities for gender roles. Islam, for example, teaches that mothers are the primary care givers to their children and Catholics only allow cisgender men to serve as priests.
In English, 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. Children raised within English-speaking (and other gendered-language) environments come to view gender as a binary category. Studies have found 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), as opposed to 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.
Socialization in the United States
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Studies on children in the U.S. have found that children are only able to detect the gender of other children when there are "culturally stereotypic markers of their gender," including hair styles, make-up, and clothing. Throughout U.S. history – until the victories of the Stonewall riots – it was illegal to not conform to the assigned sex at birth in public settings, which Hyde and colleagues argue suggests that gender is visibly marked so that it unnaturally becomes psychologically salient.
In the LGBT community
Within the LGBT community, gender binarism may create institutionalized structures of power, and individuals who identify outside traditional gender binaries may experience discrimination and harassment within the LGBT community. Most of this discrimination stems from societal expectations of gender that are expressed in the LGBT community. But many LGBT people and many youth activist groups advocate against gender binarism within the LGBT community. Many individuals within the LGBT+ community report an internal hierarchy of power status. A specific example of this would include a white, gay man who behaves as "masculine" as being more powerful. However, those 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 social roles that involve aspects of both or neither of the binary genders. These include Two-Spirit Native Americans and hijra of India. Feminist philosopher María Lugones argues 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 break the gender binary by refusing terms like "male" and "female". Transgender people have a unique place in relation to the gender binary. In some cases, their gender expression aligns with their sex. Attempting to conform to societal expectations for their gender, transsexual individuals may opt for surgery, hormones, or both, which can be difficult if the individual does not "pass" as cisgender.
Limitations and rejection
Some feminist 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 feminism and critical race theory perspective agree that during the process of European colonization of the U.S., a binary system of gender was created and enforced as a means of protecting patriarchal norms and upholding European nationalism. This idea of a gender as a binary has been shown to be an oppressive means of reflecting differential power dynamics. Studies of Two Spirit traditions have shown that various Native American nations understand gender and sexuality in a way that directly opposes Western norms.
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 nonbinary populations who have unique healthcare needs.
Anne Fausto-Sterling suggests a classification of 23 sexes and to move away from the classification of male and female. In her paper "The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough", she 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."
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