The modern gender binary invalidates the spectrum that it actually is, dictating that there are only two distinct genders that must follow specific norms. (Chels Chang)
The modern gender binary invalidates the spectrum that it actually is, dictating that there are only two distinct genders that must follow specific norms.

Chels Chang

Colonization of gender: From tradition to modern day

December 16, 2021

A man mocked for his femininity. A non-binary person unsure of their gender’s validity. An indigenous person no longer able to comfortably and publicly identify with a gender once revered by their people.

These issues all stem from a troubling common ancestor: colonization.

Since the arrival of colonizers on native lands, gender has long been intertwined with the inner workings of colonization. Thus, Argentine feminist philosopher María Lugones coined the concept of the “coloniality of gender,” which is the theory that gender is a colonial establishment.

Creation of the modern-day gender binary

As colonizers brought their traditions and culture, they had a stowaway aboard their ships: European gender constructs.

“Colonies were used to spread European ideas and ideologies like hierarchies and the gender binary. In Africa, throughout the Americas, Asia, and Oceania, genders outside the strict European binary were recognized, but after European colonization, Westernization, and exploitation of these continents, those genders were erased,” said Brian Yan, a senior.

According to retired American Indian Studies professor Walter Williams, a diverse range of gender and sexual identities were embraced by Native Americans. This soon changed when European Christian views became more prevalent within the community, and transphobic and homophobic perspectives were popularized until the resurgence of the Red Power movement in the 1960s.

However, Lugones makes an important distinction in her essay “Heterosexualism and the Colonial / Modern Gender System.” Colonialism didn’t enforce pre-existing European genders arrangements on colonized communities. Instead, she argues that it kept indigenous people and white bourgeois colonizers separate, creating an entirely new system to oppress colonized people. Whereas men are at the top of the hierarchy and white women fill the void that is femininity, women of color are dehumanized and seen as genderless by Western society.

Today, although there are movements to abolish the gender binary, the general public’s perception of the gender binary remains largely the same. To many, there are only two genders: male and female.

“It’s usually assumed that all cultures have a male-female gender binary, but when you look at mythology, that’s not true. Colonization has wiped out a lot of people’s knowledge about this. Nowadays, it’s the norm to think of things as either male or female,” said Elliot Sum, a senior.

Norse mythology is one example of the many cultures where gender is presented as a spectrum. For instance, Loki, a trickster god, has been depicted changing genders on multiple occasions. Due to this, some modern retelling of myths portray him as genderfluid, someone whose gender is fluid and changes over time.

However, because of the gender binary and its strict gender norms, genderqueer identities are often erased and invalidated. This affects more than the genderqueer community; cisgender people can fall victim to the gender binary’s expectations.

As a cisgender man, most of Yan’s experiences with gender are due to gender roles, an oppressive mechanism enforced by capitalism and colonialism.

While society has become more accepting of the gender spectrum, Yan notes that he still feels the societal pressure to abide by the gender binary. From the clothes he wears to the traditionally masculine behavior he’s expected to exhibit, the gender binary dictates his gender expression.

“Binary roles keep certain images like nonbinary people out of the norm, and when they come into the spotlight, it is through the lenses of sexualization or stigmatization,” Yan said.

Although different from Yan’s story, Sum’s experience as a genderfluid person who uses any pronoun is characterized by the same gender binary Yan feels.

Growing up, instead of wearing dresses like the other girls in his grade, Sum opted to wear more masculine clothes.

“I was often called a tomboy, but that made me uncomfortable because I wasn’t a guy, but I also didn’t align with what girls liked or thought. I felt very stuck in the middle,” Sum said.

Later, the concept of being nonbinary would first be introduced to them in middle school. However, from the information she saw, nonbinary seemed like an extension of androgyny, something Sum didn’t identify with. In eighth grade, he discovered what being genderfluid meant.

“I learned more about gender and other labels, and I discovered what it meant to be genderfluid. However, at the time, I only felt masculine around once a month, so that made me feel very insecure about identifying as genderfluid,” Sum said.

Although it took years for Sum to feel comfortable with her gender identity, they have since embraced the label genderfluid.

“I had no idea the gender spectrum existed until I had access to the internet, which is something that no child should have to go through to learn about themself,” Sum said.

Sum isn’t alone in this belief; genderqueer people today all over the globe have dealt with the same discrimination and limitations imposed by the gender binary and the lack of public awareness surrounding the gender spectrum.

Ethan Shusterman, a transgender man and the brother of English teacher Cindy Shusterman, has also faced the brunt of homophobia and transphobia.

During his high school years, when he still publicly identified as a woman, Ethan Shusterman came out as a lesbian.

“He was very viciously bullied. People would throw things at him at rallies, his car got vandalized, and people would call our house and leave threatening messages,” Cindy Shusterman said.

Although Ethan Shusterman would soon go out of state for college, the prejudice he faced wouldn’t end there.

Devaluing women and genderqueer minorities

Merriam-Webster broadly defines the patriarchy as the “control by men of a disproportionately large share of power.”

More often than not, the patriarchy harbors misogyny, denoting femininity to weakness. For Sum, this notion is something that he is intrinsically familiar with.

“I was raised to believe that I’m weaker than my brothers, and while I can get an education, I’d ultimately be better off marrying a rich man,” Sum said.

From cultural beliefs like these to their manifestations in the workforce, the misogynistic undertones of the patriarchy can be found in every corner of society. One example of this is the patriarchal belief that a woman’s job is to bear and raise children, which continues to hinder job mobility for women today.

“Major companies are hesitant to hire women, especially for positions of power, because they could go on maternity leave. That’s something we face every year at Carlmont; it’s something that women in the workforce face all the time,” Cindy Shusterman said.

However, sexism in the workforce isn’t limited to the hiring and promotion policies of a company. It can manifest itself in different ways, from the gender pay gap to the gender-linked jobs that exacerbate generational discrimination.

The education system is one of the most prominent examples of this.

Mainly a female-dominated field but primarily run by men, teachers and administrators are notoriously underpaid. In addition to contributing to the gender pay gap, the education system is also one of many gender-linked jobs that encourages women to stay in lower positions.

This is the patriarchy at work.

However, the patriarchy extends past the workplace and appears in nearly every aspect of life and society. This can be, in part, traced back to influential works and philosophies supported by the patriarchy.

During the Enlightenment, the concept of the individual was popularized, and the examination of this topic found its way into other sectors of life such as education and family. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of many to contribute to this with his book “Emile, or On Education.”

“The writings of Rousseau and his other famous contemporaries created the foundation for modern pedagogy and conceptions of the nuclear family. Although families used to be large and extended, they began to shrink into the ancestors of the modern nuclear family. The Enlightenment’s focus on the individual combined with the completion of capitalism created the western, patriarchal, nuclear family. This singular conception of family was then imposed upon societies across the world due to colonization,” said Ian Chen, a junior at Gunn High School.

Not only has colonization imposed patriarchal constructs onto family structures, but these norms have bled into the relationships many women hold, whether or not they are romantic in nature. Although Sum doesn’t identify as a woman, according to the data from National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. survey, they are part of the 54% of genderqueer people who have experienced intimate partner violence.

Previously in a romantic relationship that he was guilt-tripped into staying in, Sum said she was mentally, verbally, and sexually abused. They were also slapped in the face once.

“Early in our relationship, my ex-boyfriend would tell me that if I left him, he wouldn’t have the will to live anymore, and I was the only thing keeping him going,” Sum said.

Much of this results from the over-sexualization and objectification of women and genderqueer minorities brought upon by the patriarchal system European colonizers normalized.

People would see her and say, ‘She’s so cute, or she’s such a beautiful little girl.’ It’s usually men who say these kinds of things, and I’d say, ‘Don’t tell her she’s pretty; tell her she’s smart. Tell her she’s kind. Tell her she’s compassionate. Tell her she’s brilliant. Tell her she’s anything but pretty because I know the unlearning I had to do.

— Cindy Shusterman

Still, since the patriarchy is a collection of societal and cultural norms, it can present itself differently, often varying between communities and geographical locations.

“Growing up in the deep South, my physical appearance in terms of stereotypical Aryan attractiveness was valued over my intellectual abilities. When young girls are given that as a model growing up, even if they have a family like I did who attempted to reteach certain values, there’s still a massive amount of unlearning to do,” Cindy Shusterman said.

When Cindy Shusterman first left her small town in the South to attend a college in Birmingham, Alabama, she began her journey towards unlearning the cultural values and societal views she was surrounded with. Still unsatisfied with the lack of acceptance in the South, she later moved to California.

Now, as a California resident, Cindy Shusterman has firsthand experience with the cultural differences between the South and the West Coast. When she revisited the South, these differences became even more apparent when she noticed the Southern attitudes towards her daughter.

“People would see her and say, ‘She’s so cute, or she’s such a beautiful little girl.’ It’s usually men who say these kinds of things, and I’d say, ‘Don’t tell her she’s pretty; tell her she’s smart. Tell her she’s kind. Tell her she’s compassionate. Tell her she’s brilliant. Tell her she’s anything but pretty because I know the unlearning I had to do,” Cindy Shusterman said.

Looking back on her childhood, Cindy Shusterman describes her experience growing up in the deep South as nothing less than traumatic.

“My brother and I both went through a lot of trauma and really deep dark stuff to get to where we are now — to a place where we, as adults in their 30s and 40s, can finally feel comfortable enough in our own skin to be able to present ourselves the way we truly feel inside,” Cindy Shusterman said.

Although she wishes she could return to her former high school and speak to students about leaving the South, she acknowledges that it’s not that simple. Class, like many other demographics such as race and sexuality, can severely inhibit or encourage social, or in Cindy Shusterman’s case, physical mobility.

“My white privilege and my parents’ financial ability to send me to college allowed me to leave the toxicity of the South,” Cindy Shusterman said.

Patriarchy: Not just a women’s issue

Sixty percent.

According to a poll conducted by FiveThirtyEight, that’s the percentage of male respondents who believe that society pressures men to act in an unhealthy or harmful way.

Despite the innate benefits men receive from the patriarchy, they aren’t exempt from its bigotry. For example, as seen by the higher custodial rates for women as reported by the United States Census Bureau, men are more likely assumed to be unfit parents since it’s the women’s patriarchal role to act as a caretaker.

One of the patriarchy’s more notable forces targeting men is toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is, as the name suggests, masculinity to the point of toxicity. It stems from the glorification of hypermasculine behavior, and, as a result, men are heavily discouraged from engaging in feminine behavior. This harms everyone regardless of gender by creating strict behavioral expectations for men and adding contempt for feminity, equivocating it to weakness and inferiority.

For English teacher Erik Migdail, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing was a prime example of toxic masculinity’s culture.

“When I got to college and saw the same culture that Kavanaugh was from, I was stunned by the toxic masculinity, extraordinary binge drinking, misogyny, and entitlement to sexual violence. I’ve had a front-row seat to the worst of toxic masculinity from a particularly privileged subset of society that takes this as the norm,” Migdail said.

During Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations against him came to light. Despite this, Kavanaugh was voted into the Supreme Court with a Senate vote of 50-48, the closest roll call for a justice confirmation since 1881.

Not only has Migdail observed the effects of toxic masculinity in society but also in his personal relationships.

“It’s not an accident that many of my closest friends have actually been women. So many men buy into the toxic masculinity paradigm, and I think that it’s a very deleterious force in the world,” Migdail said.

He’s not alone in this thinking; Migdail has also seen his two sons reject certain beliefs that toxic masculinity perpetuates.

“Both of my sons ended up isolating themselves during recess throughout their elementary and middle school years because all the other boys were playing kickball, and they hated the culture surrounding it. Seeing the effect of that kind of toxic masculinity on them and their decision to opt-out made me reflect on my own experiences, which were very similar,” Migdail said.

Growing up, Migdail was never interested in sports or, more specifically, the culture around it that men are expected to conform to. However, the degrading language he’s heard used to describe women, which he describes as appalling, exists outside of sports.

“Like many things, toxic masculinity is about power, and power never gives up power,” Migdail said.


Intersectional oppression

Although the patriarchy is a force that seemingly only targets women on the surface, it serves as the foundation for other forms of oppression, helping to promote discrimination like racism and homophobia. For example, with toxic masculinity, one of the byproducts of the gender binary, the fear of appearing feminine is often linked to being perceived as gay.

Due to the interconnected nature of oppression, it can give rise to specific types of privilege, systemically offering benefits to people of certain identities and communities.

“I’ve always been very aware of my own privilege because I pass as a white male. I’ve benefited from privileges and entitlements in a system that I’ve been actively trying to tank. This is something I’ve always struggled with because I can’t pretend that the power I hold doesn’t exist, but I don’t want to be patronizing and condescending with how I use it,” Migdail said.

However, privilege can extend past race and sex, targeting factors like socioeconomic status. Even economic systems like capitalism are not independent of oppressive systems.

“In its current form, patriarchy is intertwined with capitalist oppression. The patriarchy and the traditional gender binary are maintained because they divide labor and maintain the gender and sexual roles that allow for women to be treated as production lines to create workers,” Yan said.

In his feature “Gender as a Colonial Object,” Ph.D. student Lucas Ballestín echoes Yan’s claim and clarifies the division of productive and reproductive labor. In a capitalist system, women are sexualized and reduced to their reproductive abilities, whereas men are seen as the workforce, laboring for the profit of their superior.

As a result, some have adopted a different worldview to counteract the divisive characteristics of systemic discrimination.

“I always try to see beyond categories, whether it’s gender, race, or anything else. The more that we take note of differences, the less unified we’ll be. Ultimately, you have to view each individual as an individual, and a failure to do so simply does violence to them as an individual,” Migdail said.

Still, some believe that society still has a long way to go before more substantial progress can be made. For Yan, he believes that institutions and norms must be challenged first. However, he notes that discussions surrounding these topics are normally dismissed as being too radical or taboo.

“To allow the challenging of traditional gender roles and the gender binary is to allow the possibility of further questioning of the status quo, including the questioning of capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism,” Yan said.

According to Yan, oppressive structures cannot act alone.

Yan said, “Only through the abolition of oppressive structures like the state, capitalism, the patriarchy, and racial oppression can gender truly be freed.”

About the Contributor
Photo of Chels Chang
Chels Chang, Podcast Producer
Chels is a senior at Carlmont High School. As a Managing Editor for Highlander, staff writer for Scot Scoop, and a podcast producer for ScotCenter, she's very passionate about journalism and hopes to go into communications. In her free time, she likes to watch Pokémon and listen to music. To check out her portfolio, click here.

Twitter: @ketachels

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