Gender division exists so commonly in society that most people assume that a binary system of divided genders is normal, and even preferred. Unfortunately, it is much too easy to believe exclusively in a binary society, as genderism is reflected in the world around us: from attire, family roles, behavior, media, and the products we pick up on the shelves, most of our environments are built to support a binary society. Leaving the arguments at the feet of those few that still believe the earth is flat, most people have accepted the fact that human beings are a species of creatures called the homo sapiens. We evolved from a long line of apes to become the sentient beings we are today, with a vast array of integrated personalities, languages, expressions, and cultures. As the arguably dominant species of animal on the planet, we have taken it upon ourselves to dictate the functions of both our society and our world. For example, since our species predominantly communicates by oral language, most of our systems within our society and the world that we have built have a basis in such; teaching, singing, conversation, etc.
A lot of what we consider to be basic definitions of what we consider to be “human” have been deeply embedded into the way that we make our world function. These basic elements of our definition of “human” can include culture (art, music, attire, etc.), a sense of identity or sentient ability, or at the most basic level, to at least belong to the species of homo sapiens. A sense of identity, however, is one of the key elements that most people believe are an important aspect of what it means to be human. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Personal identity usually refers to certain properties to which a person feels a special sense of attachment or ownership,” and can also include, “ethnic or national identity, which consists roughly of the ethnic group or nation one takes oneself to belong to and the importance one attaches to this.”
One of the most prominent properties within personal identity is gender. But why is gender such an integral part of our identity? We have only recently began to realize the difference between “human” and “person”, which most of us were encultured to have known as one in the same thing. We have begun to recognize this difference starting with the recognition of other intelligences that may not be “human”, but still “persons”. Porpoises, for example, are now officially categorized as “non-human persons”, as a result of having a sense of sentient ability, individual identity, and language. It can be argued that we share this planet with other non-human persons, or sentient beings with cultures and intelligences of their own. When we look at these creatures, what are some of the things we observe of their cultures, the way their “society” functions? Are they aware of the difference between their sexes, and does this influence their behaviors? Within our species, there are more similarities between the sexes than there are differences. The human being is considered a fairly androgynous species; the only real recognizable difference between the accepted “male” and “female” sexes are inverted and everted genitalia, as well as a general (but not always) difference in certain hormones. Even characteristics such as breast size, facial hair, and body shape can vary greatly between people, regardless of what sex they were assigned. For example, there are ciswomen that have little to no breast tissue, or have facial hair; on the contrary, there are cismen that have breast tissue, and cannot grow facial hair. And yet, as we leave the womb, the “F” or “M” mark on our birth certificate is considered a significant, if not the most significant, defining factor in who we become and how we navigate our human world. But this categorization is not limited to our species, as most scientists have come to observe other species within the context of “sexes” as well.
As stated, we are the dominant species of this planet, and mold reality so that it may fit within our context of understanding – our human context. Yet, even our notions of what determines a male and female of a selected species are limited to our own biased conclusions. In a recent observation of lions, it has been found that lionesses have been developing manes, a characteristic we have associated with male lions. “Sometimes lionesses grow a mane and even behave a bit like males,” writes Karl Guber of the New Scientist. The article goes on to suggest that a hormone imbalance was likely with the selected few that were observed to have grown manes. However, male-pattern behavior within lionesses is not uncommon. The observation is this: gender is considered an essential part of a human identity. Because we are the dominant species on this planet, we implement this method of categorization into the organization of all living things. But science knows that the binary system of gender segregation is equally as wishy-washy a concept in the animal kingdom; there are many species that can grow or replace necessary sex characteristics if the need arises, asexual species such as hammerhead sharks, and as illustrated by the “male”-like lionesses, a wide variety of ways a species may behave, all of which are not limited to the sex they were assigned. Within our own species, the appearance of our genitalia can vary greatly between the sexes, so much so that we’ve fashioned a category of “intersex”, made for human beings that do not meet the binary requirements to be considered either by society.
Categorizing behaviors under a binary male-or-female scope has limited our ability to perceive greater truths of not only our human identity, but the world identity. Recently, as more and more non-binary identified individuals emerge to represent themselves, our understanding of gender has turned on its head. “Boys” no longer have to be exclusively identified with masculinity. “Girls” no longer have to be exclusively identified with femininity. “Non-binary” individuals can identify with either, or neither, or both. Yet still, these labels are made to assert a sense of gender (or to define a lack thereof, such as graygender; still, this is a term made to fit within the context of a society that considers “gender” an important identity marker).From a biological standpoint, the recognition of opposing sexes exists to encourage procreation. In a species that requires two different sex organs to interact, both sexes need to be able to recognize one another in order to court. At the basic level, many species have developed behaviors or attributes to display in order to signify their assigned sex and attract a mate. In the human being, this was obviously a necessary means to conceive offspring. But this biological foundation has followed us into modern society, where many other primitive notions have been abandoned. This began with an integration of gender display into our cultures, where we began to dictate the role of each sex within the context of a forming society. With culture came spirituality and religion, a human system formulated to regulate civilization. It was within culture – religion, art, education – that the binary system was completely integrated and echoed in society. We needed roles to dictate to others, and the separation of binary genders was convenient.
Today, however, humans hardly have the evolutionary need to procreate, and religion is considered an inadmissible (if not archaic) means of governing. However, these are only two aspects of the progression of the binary. It can be argued that part of the reasons humans require a means of sex and gender categorization, and why we consider it to be an important piece of identity, is the fact that the homo sapien is a sentient being reliant on the interpretation of visual information. This skill was absolutely necessary in the survival of our species, as it enabled us to recognize predators, mates, prey, fellow tribespeople, and competition. The dictionary definition of stereotype is this: “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.” Early humans needed stereotypes to quickly reach conclusions about their environment, so that they may survive. In essence, stereotypes are so convenient and comfortable for humans to understand other humans as a need to protect themselves. Perhaps this is where the gendering of behavior has come from; as a species, we needed to recognize mates, and attributing or adopting certain behaviors made us recognizable as either male or female. But we are no longer a primitive species, and looking at the reports of a great many other species of animal on this planet that does not adhere to gendered behavior, it is time to begin to implement the idea that most of our behaviors are not inherently gendered, and that our own psychology and culture is responsible for the gendering of these behaviors.
The true source as to why gender is an essential part of our human identity has yet to be found; we only know that human beings have a sense of gender identity, which is separate from whatever other behaviors make up their personality. And as an advanced society, I believe it is time to recognize this, and give freedom for those that do not abide by gender norms and expectations without having to sacrifice their humanity. “If we hear someone described to us who we’ve never met, we’ve already unconsciously made assumptions about that person based on the pronoun used to describe them.”
As a society it is time to address the collective assumptions we have about gender. Some ways that we can move forward as a society and accomplish this is by adopting “gender courtesies” in our language, such as inquiring a preferred pronoun (as one would inquire about a name) or refraining from assuming something about someone based on their presentation or gender identity. Another way is to ensure that young children (as well as adults) have an opportunity to explore their identities to the fullest, including their gender identity. “We must avoid, at all costs, diminishing the dignity of any individual to a stereotype or a problem, said Rev. Justin Welby of the Church of England, “It may be best to avoid labels and assumptions which deem children’s behavior irregular, abnormal or problematic just because it does not conform to gender stereotypes or today’s play preferences.” As a species, we are beyond the use of stereotypes. In order to preserve our humanity and our identities, we must begin to understand when a system has become archaic, and implement new ones.
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