At birth, infants are assigned a sex, and they are expected to move through life with a corresponding gender identity. Western societies tend to take for granted that there are only two sexes—male and female, which is referred to as the gender binary—and that a person’s gender naturally matches their sex. But it is more complicated than that.
People assigned male at birth may later identify as a different gender; the same goes for people assigned female at birth. Some people may feel their identity is a blending of female and male, whereas others may identify with neither. Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose assigned sex and gender are different (trans means different). This includes a variety of identities, including genderqueer, non-binary, trans woman, and trans man. Cisgender refers to people whose gender and assigned sex are the same (cis means same).
Gender diversity can be found around the world. There are numerous examples across history and cultures where gender is approached as multiple possibilities rather than two separate boxes, where individuals self-determine their gender rather than have it imposed on them.
Through colonization, Western ideas about gender have spread, forced on peoples who traditionally held a broader view. But many cultures are reinvigorating their traditional ideas of gender. Some First Nations in Canada have adopted the term two spirit to describe individuals who have both a masculine and a feminine spirit or who have a trans identity.
The gender binary has led to discrimination and violence against people whose identities don’t fit neatly within it. It can also hurt those who are comfortable with their assigned gender identity, but express their gender in unconventional ways or resist sexist stereotypes. An individual whose appearance or behaviour doesn’t conform to gendered expectations is put at risk of emotional and physical violence in a society with a rigid system of gender. Most of the victims of this kind of violence are trans women of colour, who experience compounded marginalization at the intersection of race, gender, and class.
Gender roles—the way that society thinks men and women should feel and act—also create harm when they limit people’s choices. Often girls are encouraged to be meek rather than assertive, focus on their looks rather than their capabilities, and repress rather than explore their sexuality. Women are expected to be the family caregivers, preparing meals, cleaning the home, and tending to their children and their partners. Gender roles produce relationships based on men’s dominance and women’s submission, leading to issues including sexual harassment and partner violence.
A more expansive understanding and acceptance of different gender identities, expressions, and roles can reduce gender oppression and prove liberating for everyone.