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The gender binary, also referred to as gender binarism (sometimes shortened to just binarism), is the classification of sex and gender into two distinct, opposite and disconnected forms of masculine and feminine. It is one general type of a gender system. As one of the core principles of genderism, it can describe a social boundary that discourages people from crossing or mixing gender roles, or from identifying with three or more forms of gender expression altogether. In this binary model, "sex", "gender" and "sexuality" are assumed by default to align; for example, a biological male would be assumed masculine in appearance, character traits and behavior, including a heterosexual attraction to the opposite sex. Classification within this gender binary, by definition, excludes individuals who are born with non-binary reproductive organs and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, genderqueer or third gender.
The term gender binary describes the system in which a society splits its members of male and female sexes into gender roles, gender identities and attributes. Gender role is one aspect of a gender binary. Gender roles shape and constrain individuals’ life experiences, impacting aspects of self-expression ranging from clothing choices to occupation. Traditional gender roles continue to be enforced by the media, religion and educational, political and social systems. Many societies have used the gender binary to divide and organize people, though the ways this happens differs between societies. Gender binaries exist as a means of bringing order, though some, such as Riki Wilchins in GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, argue that gender binaries divide and polarize society. Certain notable religions are often used as authorities for the justification and description. Islam, for example, teaches that mothers are the primary care givers to their children and Catholics only allow males to serve as their priests.
Worldwide, there are many individuals and even 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 gender: These include the Two-Spirited Native Americans and hijra of India. In the contemporary West, transgender can be said to break the gender binary in the form of genderqueer. Transsexuals have a unique place in relation to the gender binary because in many cases their gender expression transitions from one side of the gender binary to the other but still conforms to the gender binary itself.
Many feminist scholars have contested the existence of a clear gender binary. There is an increasing amount of research that illustrates that the evidence for dividing humans into the two distinct categories of men and women is problematic and a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, 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 genders. Instead, there is growing support for the possibility of utilizing additional categories that compare people without “prior assumptions about who is like whom.” By allowing for a more fluid approach to gender, people will be better able to identify themselves however they choose, and scholarly research will find different similarities and differences.
A further issue with the gender binary is the insistence that men are masculine and women are feminine. This reduces options for people to act outside of their gender role without coming under scrutiny. In discussions of this issue, the terms "male" and "female" are not exactly synonymous with "masculine" and "feminine" because those terms are believed by gender scientists such as Allan Johnson to contain ulterior meanings that have been “politically contextualized and constructed” and to be less mutually exclusive than they are when used in ordinary speech. In this way, many gender researchers believe the assertion that femininity applies solely to women and masculinity solely to men to be fundamentally flawed and that it is important to distinguish femininity and masculinity as descriptors of behaviors and attitudes without tying them directly to the genders man and woman. Karen Beckwith maintains that by using masculine and feminine as adjectives, the words become helpful tools for understanding human actions. Gendered descriptors have uses, but gender researchers[by whom?] believe that connecting them to specific sexes renders them oppressive terms that enable continued discrimination.
Maria Lugones observes that among the Yoruba people there was no concept of gender and no gender system at all before colonialism. She argues that a gender system was introduced by colonial powers as a tool for domination and that this fundamentally changed social relationships among the indigenous people.
The existence of transgender individuals is an indication that binary sex is refutable. A person can exhibit both traits that were rendered exclusive to "girl" or "boy". Anne Fausto-Sterling suggests a classification of five sexes and a move away from the socially constructed gender binary classification of male and female. In her paper "The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough," she exposes the existence of intersexuals, individuals possessing a combination of male and female "parts," who are seen as deviations from the norm and who need to be "fixed" in order to maintain the two-gender system. The existence of these individuals challenges the standard gender binary and puts into question society's role in constructing gender. Fausto-Sterling indicates 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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- Lorber, Judith. "Believing is Seeing: Biology as Ideology." In The Gendered Society Reader, edited by Michael S. Kimmel, Amy Aronson, and Amy Kaler, 11-18. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 2011.
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- GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary (Alyson), (Joan Nestle, Clair Howell Co-Editors) 2002 ISBN 1-55583-730-1
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