The student news site of Carlmont High School in Belmont, California.

Creation of the modern-day gender binary

December 16, 2021

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.

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