A binary is any system that’s split into two separate parts. In terms of sex, gender and sexuality, our culture supports a number of binaries for classifying people into one of two distinct options, and each of these binaries is tied to the others. In a binary outlook on the world, someone is either Option A or Option B, and those are the only choices.

Many times it is expected that the two separate parts of any binary are opposing; black is the opposite of white, men are the opposite of women, and good is the opposite of bad.

The Sex Binary

The sex binary is the classification of all people as either male or female.

Examples of this binary can be found on government issued IDs or legal or medical documents with either an M or an F as options for sex.

The Gender Binary

The gender binary classifies all people as either men and masculine or women and feminine. People assigned male at birth are expected to identify as men and have an expression that is masculine. In the same way, people assigned female at birth are expected to identify as women and have an expression that is feminine.

This can be seen in the marking of most public restrooms by depicting the men wearing pants and women wearing dresses, or in clothing stores where there is a men’s section and a women’s section with gender-coded clothing (Infants may even be color-coded with blue or pink based on the sex they were assigned at birth!).

The Sexual Orientation Binary

The sexual orientation binary presumes that one is either sexually attracted to men, or they are sexually attracted to women.

A man who is known to have a sexual history with women is often assumed by others to only be attracted to women.

This binary often assumes that all people are heterosexual or homosexual--which is still limited and inaccurate.

The Romantic Orientation Binary

The romantic orientation binary, as you might expect, presumes that a person is either romantically attracted to men, or they are romantically attracted to women.

A woman who has a dating history with men is often assumed to only date men.

Again, the expectation is that all people are straight, but even when we consider that some people are attracted to the same sex and gender, Romantic Orientation and Sexual Orientation Binaries still fail to include many sexual, romantic and gender identities.

Linked Binaries

In the dominant worldview of Western culture, each binary is tied up with all the others. When an infant is assigned the sex female at birth, they’re presumed to identify as a girl and grow up to identify as a woman, who will have a feminine gender expression, and be sexually attracted to and romantically attracted to males/men. Infants who are assigned male have a corresponding experience.

Is that all there is to it?

No! While this model of thinking works for a lot of people, it is not accurate or complete for many others. Instead, it marginalizes—excludes and ignores—vast numbers of people. Sex and gender based assumptions hurt everyone.