Gender binary is the socially constructed dichotomy of human activities, behaviours, appearances, emotions, mannerisms, body parts, etc., into masculine and feminine. It is a central tenet of patriarchy.
The binary asserts that there are only two genders, male and female; and there are only two types of humans, men and women. Usually a corollary is added that gender can be diagnosed by external observation as opposed to self-concept.
This strict division of the human experience into two mutually exclusive gender-related domains is artificial and unsupported by scientific research. Despite this, people are assigned, by parents, doctors, and culture, a gender at birth. This is done, most often, based on the presence of a penis or a vagina. If a baby is intersex, this is almost always seen as pathological and surgery is performed to bring their reproductive organs closer to either end of the spectrum.
The idea originates from the, historically recent, colonial/modern patriarchal invention of the idea of gender normality. Institutional power has been used by modern societies and organizations to try to enforce gender binary at the expense, trauma, injury, and lives of transgender, intersex, and non-binary people.
Because intersex people are born with genitals that do not conform to society's preconceived notions of what a "girl" or a "boy" should look like, their genitals are often surgically changed into shapes and sizes that do. Intersex people are coercively assigned a gender, just like all people, however in their case coercive gender assignment (which usually is based on genitals) cannot be carried out without surgery. This is a demonstration of some of the circular logic involved in assigning gender at birth.
Coercive and abusive normalisation of intersex people's genitals is a particularly brutal manifestation of the gender binary. Applying the logic of the binary onto body parts, known as dyadism, results in many intersex people's live being irrevocably damaged by so-called "corrective" or "normalising" genital surgery. Such surgery and coercive hormone "treatment" often results in intersex people losing the ability to enjoy sex:
|There were people there who had been intersex boys at birth (born with small penises and/or undescended testes), but had been given sex changes in infancy because it was believed that they couldn’t be happy as men with small penises, but that all they would need to be happy as women were “holes big enough to accommodate average-sized adult male penises.” (The quote comes from various medical articles I read for my undergraduate thesis at U.C. Berkeley.) Despite being castrated and left with huge breasts from the estrogen pills they’d been given, they had felt like boys all their lives. Sadly, doctors had told their parents to deny everything so that the sex changes would be a success, psychologically speaking. They weren’t. Instead, they were left psychologically confused and deeply betrayed by their parents’ lies.
- Alien Contact - A Comic on Gender Roles
- Lugones, Maria (2007). Heterosexualism and the Colonial / Modern Gender System Hypatia, Volume 22, Number 1, Winter 2007, pp. 186-209 | 10.1353/hyp.2006.0067.
- Dispelling The Myths: My Experience Growing Up Intersex and Au Naturel, by Hida Viloria