The world is a colorful, diverse place, but we somehow minimize it to black and white. While it is easy to divide everything and everyone into polarized opposites — Democrat and Republican, homosexual and heterosexual, young and old, black and white, — there is much more to be explored, acknowledged, and appreciated. By recognizing only the dominant binaries in every category, we alienate people by squeezing them out, and stealing their visibility. When people are not visible, it is less likely that they will gain the rights and freedoms they deserve as human beings.
“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Gender Binary
The gender binary assumes that every person must be feminine or masculine, identifying as woman/girl or man/boy. This construct immediately others intersex people from the moment of birth, often leading to surgery to make a sex assignment possible. Beyond this, the gender binary applies not only to people, but to the things with which they interact. This is where we get the age-old idea that dolls and pink are for girls, and trucks and blue are for boys. It is expected that gender identity and expression matches biological sex, and behavior falls in line. This is a pipeline to gendered roles in relationships that are enforced by the media, education, religion, law, and social systems.
The Political Binary
While there is evidence of people falling outside of the defined binary, there is little room to express a political opinion that is not squarely Democratic or Republican, and we view these options as staunchly liberal or conservative. In a poll on debate.org, 91% of respondents said the two-party system in the USA is flawed. In many countries outside North America, two-party systems do not have such distinctive labelling, but independents and less dominant party options are ignored. This often creates a dynamic where people vote mindlessly, or feel like the best they can do is vote for the lesser evil. More and more, people are voting against a person, ideology, or party rather than for representation reflective of their own values. The ideological extremes don’t serve the people with more diverse views, beliefs, and visions for the future of the country. How could moderate options outside of the Republican-Democratic binary change politics and governance, and impact the way we address global issues?
The Sexual Orientation Binary
The LGBT+ community is large and diverse, but many of the people in it are not recognized by the world at large. For a long time, there was only “gay” and “straight.” In recent years, the lesbian community has become stronger and more visible, but others continue to struggle. In particular, bisexuality carries stigma as people identifying in this way are considered to be confused, indecisive, or between two worlds. It is still not a widely accepted sexual orientation, even relative to homosexuality. They are often envisioned straddling the line between heterosexuality and homosexuality because we fail to see sexual orientation and sexuality as a spectrum as suggested by the Kinsey Scale and the Klein Sexuality Grid. Biphobia is only the tip of the iceberg. People who are pansexual, asexual, questioning, queer, and many others falling outside of the binary struggle to find legitimacy, allies, and a safe way to exist. It can take them a long time to find the language to describe their sexual orientation and inclusive communities because neither of the two are generally visible or a part of mainstream conversations on sexuality.
The Binary Effect
Binaries assume that there are only two options or categories. They are the basis upon which systems are created and maintained, and require everything and everyone to fit into one of the defined categories. These are often determined based on the state of the majority, failing to consider existing moderates, or the possibility that moderates will eventually come to be. Binaries are seen as more than defaults. They ignore, deny, and other any non-compliant people, labeling them as deviants. This is in complete contravention to the values many of us claim to have: diversity, inclusion, and participation. No binary ever ends at the point of classification. This is a simplified version of the effect of binaries:
Binary —> Normalization —> Extremism —> Othering
The gender binary, for example, has a domino effect in several directions. One trajectory, following the model above, can be simply plotted as:
Gender binary —> Gender norms —> Hypermasculinity —> Homophobia
A Brief Explanation
The heavy influence of the gender binary on the performance of gender — dictated by gender norms — leads to hypermasculinty. At a young age, boys are told to be tough, discouraged from crying, and taught that femininity is bad, embarrassing, and synonymous with weakness. For this reason, there is a distinct separation between acceptable and unacceptable emotions. While sadness, especially accompanied by tears, is reprehensible, anger — even accompanied by violence — is commendable. Because masculinity is required and reserved for men and boys, anyone defying these rules is an outcast. Men and boys are expected to dominate women and girls, and exhibit specific behaviors, while girls are expected to be fragile and submissive, thus creating the world of heteronormativity and homophobia.
Binaries are a part of a complex system that is replicated in many areas of our lives, from gender to politics. At what point will our value for diversity and social inclusion outweigh the need to define and categorize people? There is a need for more seats at the table, and space for the people currently marginalized. Do we have more to gain from greater participation that is reflective of the population than we do from ostracizing moderates and nonconformists? It’s up to us to decide whether or not we’ll break the binaries we feed, familiarize ourselves with the spectrums that exist, and get comfortable with the discomfort that may come from making this necessary change.