Article by Tabitha Floyd
Artwork by Indira Falle
The roles of gender have been clearly laid out and enforced in our society and it’s something that many of us take at face value. However, if you dive deeper into our collective past you will find a diverse history of gender which exists outside of these modern binaries. As Billy Porter (who famously challenges society’s expectations of what a ‘real’ man should look and act like) explains; “There’s no better time for a new conversation about the damaging effects of a mainstream society’s oppressive, dismissive, and silencing stance on who folks are supposed to be based on.”
The gender binary is the definition of gender as two distinct sections; female and male. It is defined by the masculinity of men, femininity of women and, most crucially, that men are of the male sex and women are of the female sex. Society has also assigned character traits to these genders such as; men are strong and confident and women are gentle and nurturing, due to their reproductive values. This is a prevalent concept ingrained into our society and many people fear thinking outside of the two boxes within which most people define themselves.
The fashion industry plays a major role in enforcing these rules in our society. In ancient Europe the idea that women were impractical and frivolous was perpetuated and dictated by a new style of dress with laced up corsets and clothes that were virtually impossible to get into without help. Even now, when big skirts and extravagant fashion are less commonplace, there is a proven, so-called ‘pink tax’ where products targeted at women are more expensive. This can subconsciously reinforce the stereotype that women spend more money conforming to the patriarchal idealised beauty standard, as products aimed at them are often more frivolous and expensive. Before this, heels, wigs, makeup, and the colour pink were reserved only for men and boys but now we adamantly argue that they are for women. It wasn’t until the late 1800s when men stopped wearing makeup and it became perceived as a feminine concept.
In modern society’s view of fashion and who should wear what, there is also a clear amount of misogyny. Whilst women wearing traditionally masculine clothes has been normalized and embraced, men wearing more feminine clothes is still not as widely accepted. This is because of the conditioning that women and femininity are inherently weak and to be avoided whereas masculine traits are strong and are to be encouraged. Although men wearing traditionally “women’s” clothes is still widely frowned upon in western communities, there are many men challenging this, for example, Yungblud, Harry Styles and Jayden Smith all of whom have modelled skirts and dresses.
The history of the binary gender can be traced back to its origins in Europe. This was spread and forced onto other sections of the world through colonialisation. Despite the erasure of queer and indigenous history by the colonisers, there is a vast number of people living outside of the gender binary in both history and today. Most notably, many indigenous cultures' understanding of gender stretched far beyond just ‘male’ and ‘female’. For instance, some Native Americans identify as ‘two spirit’, which is the acknowledgment of strong female and male energies within one person who are thought to be the “’dusk’ between the male morning and the female evening.” Another example is in the land of Yoruba, which was part of North Africa. In times before the colonialisation of this area, gender was not an organising factor in their society which did not feature any hierarchical systems according solely to gender identity. Their society was easily distinguishable from European society by its inclusion of women in the public, religious, and economic spheres.
The current UK government is rolling back LGBTQ+ rights even as we speak. They are both refusing to acknowledge the existence of people living outside the gender binary, while fighting fiercely to take away their rights. Just recently, Boris Johnson’s cabinet leaked plans that will make it harder for British trans people to transition and impossible for non-binary people to get legal recognition. This is just another anti-LGBTQ+ action taken by his cabinet; not long ago, the prime minister blocked the bill to ban conversion therapy. We can only assume that these laws originate from a fear of the unknown and blatant ignorance from the MPs involved.
To conclude, while it often seems like non-binary and trans people are a new phenomenon, gender nonconforming behaviour has been around for a long time. There is arguably more in the global past to point us towards a more diverse understanding and interpretation of gender, than there is to keep us focused on our current rigid, binary gender roles.
Educational resources and Further Reading: