Variations on the Gender Binary: An Exploration of a Social Construct

In the dominant western worldview, gender is conceptualized as a binary construct which places individuals into gender categories based on biological sex. In this social context, there are typical characteristics that each gender is expected to express: men being dominant, strong, aggressive, and logical, and women being nurturing, passive, emotional, and intuitive. In addition to these expected characteristics, there are stereotypical gender roles that exist in order to maintain a social order and dictate the division of labour: men work in labour, agriculture, war, and positions of power, while women traditionally play care taking roles, such as running the household, raising children, or working in health care. These differences have often been considered to be natural, possibly even genetically encoded, and unchangeable. If these assumptions were true one would expect to see the same roles and stereotypes played out across all people and cultures; however, it seems that what was once thought to be biologically determined is actually acquired through enculturation from the moment of birth, and is more fluid than generally thought (Haviland, Prins, McBride, & Walrath, 2015. p. 206).

The mainstream world view regards gender as a binary construct made up of male and female genders and considers nonconforming individuals to be anomalous. In the past few decades this idea has been challenged in the Western world through increased awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, two spirit) movements. Outside of this worldview, one can find many examples of how the social-cultural environment surrounding individuals influences the development and expression of gender roles, as well as cross-cultural examples of gender expressions that fall outside of this binary.

Many anthropological records from around the world refer to gender traditions that do not fit within this binary construct. North and South America, India, Polynesia, Siberia, Africa, and Asia all have some form of gender variance as part of their cultural contexts (Lang, 1996. p.  184). After studying enthnographic records, anthropologist Anne Bolin developed a five form model of gender variance to create a typology in order to recognize similarities between cross-cultural gender paradigms. This model identifies hermaphroditic genders; two spirit traditions; cross gendered roles; woman marriage and boy marriage; and cross gendered rituals (p. 25-34). In her paper Bolin presents this definition of gender: “the psychological, social, and cultural domain of being male or female. Gender is a social construction and system of meanings with multiple dimensions including gender identity, both personal and social” (p. 24). This definition would benefit from being expanded in order to be inclusive of the gender pluralism that is present in cultures and movements that recognize various forms of femininity, masculinity, and androgyny.

One aspect of gender identity is the social identity that is expressed through the role that one fills in society. One example of how enculturation effects the development and expression of gender roles is the Ju/‘hoansi people living in the Kalahari Desert. Traditionally a nomadic hunter-gatherer society, the Ju/‘hoansi emphasized equality among all members of their society and did not differentiate between the roles of men and women. They raised their children without emphasizing differences in the authority of adult males or females and did not expose them to many situations which highlight a difference between the roles of either sex. In the late 20th century, many of the Ju/‘hoansi were forced into settlements where they took on horticulture as a mode of subsistence, as well as working as agricultural labourers (Haviland et al., 2015, p. 206-208).

This shift in mode of subsistence and way of life brought about a change in the dynamic between the genders: women mainly stayed home with the children while the men went out to work. This introduced gender roles more typical of industrialized society, which were quickly passed on to new generations of the Ju/‘hoansi. The young girls were given tasks such as taking care of their younger siblings while the boys would be taken away from the home to start working. This change shaped the girls’ behaviour into that of being passive, nurturing, and more typically female while the boys learned to play the “distant, controlling roles” (p. 208) that are more typical of adult males (Haviland et al., 2015, p. 206-208).

The example of the Ju/‘hoansi people illustrates that the traits that are typically considered to be gendered, such as being passive and nurturing or distant and controlling, arise out of the requirements of the social order, which can be affected by changes in the environment, mode of subsistence, economic status, and cultural practices. This modern case of a group of people shifting from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer society to a settled, food producing one may give hints at the early roots of the typical gender paradigm. Is it possible that as our ancient ancestors settled into villages and developed agricultural practices they also developed gender normative behaviour in response to the shifting cultural landscape? Has this early effect of settler culture been carried through the generational line and perpetuated through the colonial spread of westernized agricultural societies? One way to seek answers to these questions is to examine the impacts of colonization on the traditional gender paradigms that exist within the indigenous cultures of the American continents.

In the chronicles of the first Spanish conquistadors who arrived in the new world in the early sixteenth century, there are frequent reports of effeminate men who blended the social roles of males and females, wearing women’s clothing and engaging in sexual relationships with men. Due to the way such behaviour was perceived in the cultural context from which these new world explorers came, they viewed these individuals as sodomites and considered their behaviour to be “devilry” (Lang, 1996, p. 183). In Spain at this time, sodomy was considered to be a grave crime and the conquistadors treated it as such. One record shows a group of these gender nonconforming individuals being ordered to be torn apart by dogs (Lang, 1996, p. 183).

Anthropologists who studied the indigenous cultures of the Americas labelled these gender nonconforming individuals as berdache, a term derived from the Arabic word berdaj, meaning male prostitute (Lang, 1996, p. 184). Although the original colonizers and early anthropologists focused on the sexual orientation of these individuals, it was not the affinity towards same sex intimate relationships that was the defining factor of a gender variant individual, but an early interest in the work and daily activities that traditionally belonged to the opposite sex. This suggests that gender is not as much about biology or sexual orientation as it is about the role that one plays in society (Lang, 1996, p. 185).

Using the term berdache to refer to gender variant individuals in North American indigenous cultures highlights the problematic worldview that has served to undermine the legitimacy of gender nonconforming traditions. The term berdache was later rejected in favour of the term two spirit, which was decided on in order to unite indigenous queer populations, and encompasses all individuals who hold both male and female energies within themselves (Lang, 1996). Gender variance was one of many aspects of indigenous culture that was heavily impacted by the effects of colonization. Claiming the term two spirit was one aspect of cultural revitalization that has helped in deepening the connection to traditional ways of being for indigenous individuals who fall outside of the post-colonial western gender binary.

Many cultures have the language to accommodate three or more genders and even the flexibility for one to move through multiple gender expressions over the course of one’s life (Lang, 1996, p. 185). Allowing space for gender variance helps to mitigate the need for the type of gender reversal that typically exists in western cultures (Lang, 1996, p. 193). Within the gender binary paradigm, individuals who do not feel they fit in with the gender they were assigned at birth, based on their physical sex, often feel that they must undergo hormone therapies and surgeries in order to fit into the cultural construction that matches the opposite gender. Individuals with gender dysphoria often suffer traumas associated with damaging societal constructs that demand them to comply with the gender binary.

In order to live in a more balanced world, we would do well to look outside of the western gender paradigm and take note of cross-cultural constructions of gender and integrate a more holistic view of gender as a spectrum of expression. In doing so, we may relieve the pressures that are placed on all people to abide by socially constructed expectations of gendered behaviour and allow more complex and authentic expressions of our humanity. The world is full of over 7 billion people and each of those individuals has a unique gender and sexual identity (Ramet, 1996, p. 14). The extent to which these individuals are free and able to explore all aspects of their unique identity depends on the cultural context that they are born into and surround themselves with as they grow. Like all aspects of culture, gender is learned, shared, based on symbols, dynamic, and integrated into every part of our world. As our global culture changes, our worldview of gender will change with it.


Bolin, Anne. (1996). Traversing Gender: Cultural context and gender practices. In S. P. Ramet (Ed.) Gender Reversals & Gender Cultures (pp. 22-51). New York, USA: Routledge.

Haviland, William A., Prins, Harald E. L., McBride, Bunny, & Walrath, Dana. (2015). Social Identity, Personality, and Gender. The essence of anthropology. (4th ed. pp. 200-221).  Boston, USA: Cengage Learning.

Lang, Sabine. (1996). There is More Than Just Women and Men: Gender Variance in North American Indian Cultures. In S. P. Ramet (Ed.) Gender Reversals & Gender Cultures (pp. 183-196). New York, USA: Routledge.

Ramet, Sabrina P. (1996). Introduction. In S. P. Ramet (Ed.) Gender Reversals & Gender Cultures (pp. 1-21). New York, USA: Routledge.