We have previously spoken about how migrants, trans+ and non-binary people are all being scapegoated by the Government and society in order to distract from policy failures and austerity. An environment of hatred and hostility towards trans+ and non binary people, coupled with anti-migrant hatred, is detrimentally impacting people from the Global South who are seeking asylum in, or are moving to, the UK.
For Non-Binary Awareness Week and International Non-Binary People’s Day, we wanted to write a blog on how White supremacy is foundational to the enforcement of the gender binary.
But before we do this, it is important to familiarise ourselves with some definitions:
Sex: a person’s sex characteristics, including their genitalia, but also chromosomes, hormones and secondary sex characteristics such as breasts and facial hair.
Assigned sex at birth: when you are born, the doctor takes a look at your genitalia and decides your sex based on this fact.
Intersex: a person whose sex characteristics are ambiguous or do not fit neatly into the characteristics defining male sex or female sex.
Gender: someone’s conception of self.
Gender binary: the idea that there are only two genders: man and woman.
Cisgender person: a person whose gender identity corresponds to their assigned sex at birth.
Transgender person: a person whose gender identity does not correspond to or align with their sex assigned at birth.
Biological essentialism: the idea that gender is only based on someone’s assigned sex at birth.
Non-binary person: a person whose gender identity does not correspond to or fit neatly with manhood or womanhood. This can include people whose gender is neither man or woman, whose gender is both man and woman, or whose gender is expansive and exists beyond the categories of man and/or woman.
The sex binary
Before we talk about the construction of the gender binary, it is useful to speak about the construction of the sex binary. The idea that there are only two sexes, male and female, and that everyone fits neatly into either the female sex or the male sex, is demonstrably false.
Intersex people exist and have always existed. Someone can have XX chromosomes and typically male genitalia, or XY chromosomes and typically female genitalia, or even XXY chromosomes, or ambiguous genitalia, or either levels of testosterone or estrogen that do not correspond to the expected amount that someone possessing their genitalia would typically have. Some people with XY chromosomes have less facial or body hair, or less testosterone, and some people with XX chromosomes may have more facial or body hair, or smaller breasts. Basically, sex is scientifically a lot more complicated than we are taught to believe, because a lot of us will fall somewhere on the spectrum, never neatly female or male, even if we do not identify as intersex ourselves. And this is because the sex binary is a White man’s creation: it was always meant to exclude communities (even White communities) that do not fit neatly into its boxes. That is why even today, BIPOC women continue to be penalised for failure to fit into categories that have no real innate importance. For example, Caster Semenya was penalised for her body’s high levels of testosterone production, yet this has no bearing on her gender identity.
The history of the sex binary
The construction of sex as a concept has always been rooted in White supremacy. Before the Enlightenment, sex was viewed as dualistic: “males and females were viewed as different forms of the same sex…the vagina was understood as an interior penis, the womb as a scrotum, and the ovaries as testicles”. After the Enlightenment, White males and females began to be viewed as two dichotomous and distinct sexes, with differing brains, skeletons and nervous systems, and it was these differences that justified and explained the different gender roles and social entitlements of man and woman.
This White conceptualisation of sex then came to justify racism. It was argued that the greater the differentiation between males and females within a race, the higher up in the racial hierarchy that race would be. Western scientists of the time argued that in White people, the male and female sex were highly differentiated, but that in other races, males and females were not as differentiated, and therefore these races were deemed to be inferior, uncivilised and lagging behind. Sexual differentiation was seen to be a marker of civilisation that could only be accessed by White people, who they believed had “evolved” beyond primitivism. For instance, White colonisers deemed the genitalia of Black women to be animalistic and hypermasculine, and therefore indicative of savagery.
The gender binary
So how does the construction of sex determine the construction of gender? The gender binary, the idea that there are only two genders, man and woman, does rest considerably on the idea of the sex binary. This is because Western scientists believed that it was binary gender roles that helped White people to develop sex differentiation between males and females, and that the reason that non-White people had not developed sex differentiation, was because they did not have binary gender roles. Western scientists believed that if they imposed their idea of gender onto non-European people, they too would be able to “evolve” into a sex-differentiated race. But also, it is worthwhile remembering that Western ideas of gender also then go on to inform and maintain certain sex-based categorisations: in other words, “cultural ideas of what a man or a woman should be, dictate how we define and divide biological sex”. This means that our understanding of sex determines our understanding of gender, and vice versa.
Fundamental to the White gender binary was the distinction between the private and public sphere, as informed by pseudoscience or race science. Because of their alleged different brain size, White women were deemed to be too emotional and not rational enough, and therefore their duty was to be homemakers and reproductive vessels. White men were deemed to be rational, and suited to the public sphere. Western scientists also believed that if the distinction between the public and private spheres was blurred (for instance via masculinised White women being able to vote or participate in sports), men would become feminised, and this would lead to an evolutionary regression back to primitivism (a lack of sex differentiation). And it was also believed that White men would reach their evolutionary potential through machismo and militarism, which in turn justified imperial conquest.
The White gender binary has been imposed onto non-Western people via continuing processes of either direct or indirect colonisation. While many pre-colonial societies surely did not approve of gender variance, in many pre-colonial societies however, gender was not binary, and there are numerous documented examples of gender variance and gender nonconformity. In many pre-colonial societies, individuals who lived outside of the binary as a “third sex” or “third gender” were often considered sacred and revered by the community, such as the Hijras of India, the Mahu of Hawaii and Tahiti, or the Two Spirit people of the “Americas”. Hijras and Two Spirit people now face demonisation. Gender for the Dagaaba tribe of Ghana, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast was assigned based on “energy”, not anatomy. Some communities also continue to recognise the existence of five genders, such as the Bugis people of Indonesia.
White colonisers attributed gender non conformity and gender variance to non-European people, even to those who fit within non-European gender norms, since the appearance and social roles of non-European people did not fit within the Western gender binary. In Qajar Iran for instance, men were often beardless, while the moustache was considered to be a sign of women’s beauty. White colonisers demonised this non conformity as “savage” and “degenerate”, in order to justify colonialism and deny non-European people of self-governance. They then went on to criminalise this non-conformity and subject colonised people to forced assimilation into Western gender systems. Meanwhile, within Europe, queerness was demonised and blamed for “decline”: it was seen as a symptom of primitiveness that still “lingered in the white race”, and that could be eradicated via eugenics and the enforcement of the gender binary, in order to achieve the highest stage of human evolutionary development. As Alok V Menon writes, “racism is foundational to gender norms and gender norms are essential to racism. Gender is a racial construct; race is a gendered construct”.
How do we liberate ourselves from the racist prison of gender? We have to be wary of biological determinism.
Biological determinism is the idea that LGBTQ+ people are the way they are because of an innate genetic or physiological biology. Arguments for LGBTQ+ acceptance that centre on LGBTQ+ people being “born this way” or having a “trans or gay brain” actually validate the nature versus nurture binary, which has eugenic roots. But this binary is reductive, since “it’s impossible to isolate the body outside of environmental factors”. Our anatomy, brains and identities are continuously formed in relation to environmental and social factors. This is normal. This nature versus nurture binary has also been used historically to subject queer people to horrific invasive procedures and operations in an attempt to “cure” them. As Michael Paramo writes, “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”.
The ways we define sex and gender today are not natural or universal, but rather are intimately bound up with white supremacy. Our understandings of both sex and gender are informed by White knowledge systems that can be traced back to the colonial period. These knowledge systems demonised and attempted to erase gender variance or anything that did not fit neatly into Western understandings of sex and gender.
Some Black, Indigenous and POC non binary individuals assert their gender as a rejection of these colonial legacies, but also as a defiance or interrogation of the categories of womanhood and manhood that were never designed to include them in the first place. The stories of BIPOC non binary and gender expansive people are the stories that we must be centering, since gender cannot be understood without race. We must decolonise gender if we are to defy white supremacy.
The reason you do not fight for me is because you are not fighting for yourself fully…I have an unshakeable and irrevocable sense of who I am, because I am divine. I come from people who were exterminated and targetted by colonists, because the gender binary was superimposed on Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Colour by European colonists. And the reason that they targetted us is because they knew our power. So the reason that there’s so much animus against me is because of my power…
I don’t think the majority of people are ready to heal, and that’s why they repress us, as trans and gender variant people, because they’ve done this violence to themselves first…They’ve repressed their own gender non-conformity. They’ve repressed their own ambivalence. They’ve repressed their own creativity. And so when they see us have the audacity to live a life without compromise… and create our own beauty, instead of saying “thank you for teaching me another way to live”, they try to disappear us, because they did that to themselves first.Alok V Menon
References have been included as hyperlinks. The majority of sources are Alok V Menon’s book reports, which you can find via their Instagram account.