This or that. Black or white. Good or evil. Liberal or conservative. Man or woman. We encounter binary language every day of our lives. Something is always one thing or another, and we categorize based on those two options.

Yet, our world is anything but binary — when exactly does day end and night begin? Is it a noticeable difference one minute to the next? Forcing a binary onto a non-binary world often leads to more harm than good, and for evidence of that we should look no further than our perceptions of gender.

What and Why?

Binary refers to a system composed of two parts. In the case of the gender binary, these two parts are “male” and “female.” Western society typically places each person into one of these two categories, and many are upset when someone does not adhere to the assigned roles of their binary category.

However, this binary system is an artifact of an outdated understanding of the human body. For centuries, there was a belief that all people were of a single universal sex, with a woman’s body being simply the inverse of a man’s. According to this one-sex theory, one would be able to move “up and down a ladder” within that sex based upon different actions and biological processes.

According to UC Berkeley Professor Thomas Lacquer, “someone having a nosebleed was [experiencing] nominally the same physiological process as menstruating.” Therefore, that person would be viewed as more feminine. There were even reports within medieval texts of women who would become men during puberty when their genitalia finally “dropped” from their bodies.

Obviously, this has since been disproven, and research has found that sex is determined —  among other factors — chiefly by the presence or absence of a Y chromosome, though this conclusion still ignores the 1–2 in 100 people who are born intersex.

Sex and Gender

Conflating sex and gender leads to barriers in identity and self-expression. To deny this opportunity for self-identification is to stifle the emotional growth and stability of that individual. This is where the issue of the binary comes into play.

A binary world normalizes an identity dichotomy. According to the binary, you are either a man or a woman, and those two are opposites of one another.

“If it was really ‘natural’ to be a woman or a man, why do people spend so much time telling children how to do it?”

But then, if one trait is identified with one of these gender identities, the pitfalls of the dichotomy lead to assumptions that the opposite trait must be true for the “opposite” gender. If a man is strong, a woman must be fragile. If a man is proud, a woman must be humble. This is the origin of gender roles.

We now better understand and accept that not all men must be physically strong — that does not make them any less of a man. Likewise, not all women are fragile, and that certainly makes them no less womanly. Yet, gender roles still persist, as do other stereotypes of the “two” genders.

Many argue that such conformity into the binary is necessary, as it falls within the “natural order,” but there is little natural about a society’s dictation on how a person should and should not act.

In the words of Margaret Gibbon in her book "Feminist Perspectives on Language," “if it was really ‘natural’ to be a woman or a man, why do people spend so much time telling children how to do it?”

Trauma Where It Always Is

During childhood, you are typically assumed to be the gender that matches your sex assigned at birth. You’re then exposed to things stereotypically associated with that gender. Boys get trucks, girls get dolls.

Because this is the standard, we have "special" names for those who branch out and find alternative interests as kids. How many boys were seen as something other than manly? How many were called names for their “girly” interests and habits; names that shouldn’t be reprinted here?

How many were called names by their own parents? Or had “accepting” parents who still fed their child coded language like, “Oh, you’re dating a girl? We were worried there for a while, congratulations.”

Even for those who remain within the gender binary — those who identify with the gender that corresponds with their sex assigned at birth — the binary still packs a punch. They’re pigeonholed into conformity and forced to wear what others expect of them and speak the way their gender is “supposed” to speak.

These words and actions can have lasting effects on someone and cause serious self-doubt throughout the rest of their lives. Often, it causes a lifelong struggle for acceptance and a mistrust of others.

But what of those who don’t conform?

Beyond the Binary

As mentioned previously, many individuals are born intersex. They are neither fully male nor female. How are they supposed to fit into the gender binary? How are they expected to identify and present themselves?

The pressure of the gender binary can force someone in this situation to lose touch with a key part of their identity. They may be pressured to present themselves as a boy or a girl, depending on what others deem is most appropriate.

Further, there are those who may be born within the sex binary, but who do not identify with it. They may feel that they do not identify with either gender, or that perhaps they identify with both. Those who are genderfluid may feel an affinity for one gender over others dependent upon the day.

The reality is that gender comprises so many disparate ideas and identities, and humans are diverse in every imaginable way. To reduce this down to a binary “this or that” is a dangerous oversimplification.

"It’s not just okay to discover your gender for yourself; I argue that it’s best to do so."

It’s not just okay to discover your gender for yourself; I argue that it’s best to do so. You may discover a closer connection to the gender identity others had always assumed for you, or you may find yourself identifying with another gender entirely — or perhaps an identity outside the gender spectrum altogether.

But to truly explore gender, one has to set aside the binary. The world is hardly black and white, and gender is no exception.