I still remember the first time I dressed in clothing not socially marked as acceptable for a “boy” to wear. In the body of a seven-year-old, although my appearance in “feminine” attire strayed from social acceptability for a “male-bodied” individual, the threat my gender expression posed was merely excused. I was a child, not a “deviant.” As I aged beyond a perceived state of “childhood innocence” however, attitudes shifted dramatically into the negative, resulting in confrontations marked by physical, verbal, and psychological violence that repeatedly forced me to question my validity as a human being who existed outside the gender binary. Fearing a continuation of these violent consequences for defying the gendered expectations of the category of “man,” I began to self-police and constrict my own gender expression, effectively eliminating my visible “threat” to the gender binary throughout my adolescence and young adult life.
Since birth, the vast majority of us have been conditioned to only perceive our identities (how we understand our gender, sexuality, race, etc.) within the limited social constructs or categories provided to us. For instance, we are conditioned to accept “man” and “woman” as natural forms of gender, and simultaneously deny other gender categories as mere fabrications in comparison. While the gendered rules of the former (i.e. how to acceptably live as a “man” and “woman” in society) may not ideally correspond with how we internally desire to express our gender, most of us condition ourselves, whether unconsciously or not, to conform to the expectations that directly correlate with what it means to be a “man” or “woman.” While we may or may not feel entirely comfortable in adhering to these “rules of the category,” we tend to identify and express ourselves in compliance with them in order to more conveniently, securely, and advantageously navigate a society that enforces and polices their continuation and dominance.
Gender binary enforcement and policing is most often accomplished through regulation of the self. Many of us unconsciously “act” or “perform” how we have been conditioned to believe a “man” or “woman” should move, present, speak, or otherwise act, as determined by the social scripts the dominant society has marked as either “masculine” or “feminine.” We have become so conditioned since birth to perceive these gendered “performances” as natural, largely through societal, religious, and familial institutional expectations put upon us, in combination with the gendered expectations we place upon each other, that many of us struggle to look upon our gender as performance, and rather perceive and understand it as inherently natural. To many of us, binary gender is natural. We are not really certain as to why, we simply continue to assume and assert that humans can only exist as “men” or “women.” With a normalized legitimacy and a failure to question, the gender binary has managed to maintain relative dominance regarding how most humans perceive gender to socially function.
Many humans call upon sex (human anatomy) as a means of legitimizing the gender binary that has been forced upon us, conflating the existence of sex with gender identity, while also assuming that variances in sex beyond “male” and “female” simply do not exist. Intersex people, or those who do not fit within the rigid categorical understandings of “male” and “female,” are often ignored completely or simply marked as “defects” in the grand system of sex, or “mutations” for being lessor in number: a “majority rule” scenario that plays out anytime binary sex and gender are upheld as “natural.” While sex is certainly more complex than a two-category situation, its use to uphold binary gender rests on a faulty assumption that human souls must be limited in expressing themselves in certain manners solely based upon the fleshy structures they happen to inhabit. If a human soul happens to possess certain fleshy structures rather than others, why should this determine how that body should socially present, dress, act, speak, or otherwise exist? And why is it deemed “natural” that certain human structures can only do so in certain manners while others are to act in others? These questions allow us to understand gender (binary or otherwise) as a social and cultural construct rather than an innately “natural” means of existence. What really is “natural,” anyway?
The normalization of the gender binary in our current age has resulted in widespread disdain and violence being directed at trans people for merely existing. Susan Stryker states in her book Transgender History (2008) that “because most people have great difficulty recognizing the humanity of another person if they cannot recognize that person’s gender, the gender-changing person can evoke in others a primordial fear of monstrosity, or loss of humanness.” To be trans is perceived as a detachment from humanness; a departure from some flawed conception of “human nature”; although it really is only a disengagement from the binary position forcefully assigned and policed onto our bodies by a Western society which asserts that our bodies are our destinies. The violent policing of trans bodies, expressions, and existences, persists with the stringent upholding of the gender binary and its reliance on misunderstandings of sex. Stryker defines transphobia as a “gut-level fear [which] can manifest itself as hatred, outrage, panic, or disgust, which may then translate into physical or emotional violence directed against the person who is perceived as not-quite-human” due to their existence outside of (cis)gender normalcy.
European colonizers intentionally sought to eradicate, what academic and researcher Scott Morgensen refers to in Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization (2011) as “Indigenous possibilities” that challenged the boundaries of white European masculinity. The earliest colonizers in the Americas looked to the existing sexual and gender variance of Indigenous people as a means of marking them as racially inferior and uncivilized: a justification for a forever unjustified genocidal conquest. Targeting Indigenous gender and sexual variance was done to “teach both colonial and Indigenous subjects the relational terms of colonial heteropatriarchy.” European colonizers marked Indigenous gender and sexual variance as inferior for the purposes of asserting their white cisgender heterosexual manhood as the pinnacle of human existence. Those who were marked as living outside the limited Western understandings of gender and sexuality violently imposed upon Indigenous cultures “became targets of violent efforts to reconfigure Indigenous society in colonial and masculinist terms.” White European colonizers forcefully recruited Indigenous men to “defend colonial sexual morality in their own and all Indigenous people’s lives.” Through this violent colonial project, white European men reproduced their ideologies of gender and sexual “normalcy” in Indigenous men to become its new protectors, enforcers, and replicators.
This forced replication of Western sexual and gender understandings has carried onward into our contemporary era, with a large subset of the population still subscribing to these white supremacist binary-based ideologies. In Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country (2006), Brian Gilley emphasizes how both academic scholarship and colonial-era sources have documented gender diversity within Native American societies as a “fundamental institution among most tribal peoples,” adding that their “ideas about gender did not employ the gender-binary, bodily-sex-equals-gender view commonly found in European society.” However, as a direct legacy of colonialism, these traditions have largely disappeared in contemporary Native American societies where “sex and gender difference” are now widely perceived “as not pertinent, necessary, or desirable,” contrary to historical realities. A research project by PBS documenting gender-diverse cultures throughout the world, stated that “on nearly every continent, and for all of recorded history, thriving cultures have recognized, revered, and integrated more than two genders.” Yet, gender and sexual diversity remain under constant attack today as a legacy of Western colonial agendas which continue to assert white cisgender heterosexual maleness as the pinnacle of human existence.
Transphobia and hostility towards those who do not meet the “rules of the binary,” as established through white supremacist colonialist agendas, permeates society today as a destructive force maintaining the status quo that ultimately prioritizes the white cisgender heterosexual male experience over all others. Trans people are still targeted for simply existing in society, facing extreme adversity for “defying” these colonial agendas. Queer and trans people of color endure the most hostility, violence, and difficulty navigating society as a direct colonial legacy and exemplification of the power of violent oppressive social conditioning that seeks to continue to uphold white supremacy. When one assumes cisgender and heterosexual existence to be “normal,” their actions and words based on this belief ultimately serve the agendas of European colonizers. This is especially true of cisgender heterosexual men in various communities who assert their toxic masculinity as the universal norm of human existence from which all others are to serve him. Cisheteropatriarchy holds its roots in colonialism, and dismantling and unlearning these Western agendas forced upon us is a necessary action in the liberation of all oppressed peoples. If we are to obliterate white supremacy, a key component of that necessary project is recognizing and dismantling transphobia as an ongoing destructive phenomenon directly rooted in colonialism.
In our tumultuous world today we must continue to ask ourselves why things are the way they are in society, rather than simply assuming them to be everlasting truths. Asking whythings are the way they are allows us to determine whose agendas the status quo is upholding, understand why deconstruction of the status quo is necessary in the liberation of the oppressed, and build a more inclusive world for all humans. The world doesn’t have to be this way, and although it may seem as though the systems the dominant society upholds and conditions us to believe are natural are to the benefit of the people, this is deceptive. Understanding why gender in our current age largely functions as a binary of “man” and “woman” allows us to recognize it, not as an everlasting truth, but as a social construction, and more specifically, a violent colonial importation that was executed by colonizers with intentionality.