Written by / 作者：Mavis Tang and Julia Kim
Translated by /译者: Winnifred Jing
TW: Mentions of racism and homophobia
To understand the gender binary system and its implications on the Asian diaspora today, two XSP writers work to address its history and reflect on their personal experiences with gender and sexuality in this article.
What is the Gender Binary?
The gender binary is a system that enforces the idea of two distinct and opposite gender identities, what is perceived as “masculine” and what is perceived as “feminine.” The Western concept of the gender binary is one rooted in white supremacy and colonization, oppressing people of color in a very different way than it oppresses white people.
History of the Western Gender Binary
Many Asians and Asian Americans propagate the idea that queerness is a white, Western idea, but gender and sexual fluidity—the societal legitimization and respect for different gender and sexual identities—have historically been prevalent in Asia as well. Various Asian cultures value queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people as vital members to their society.
The pre-modern religions of Southeast Asia believed both masculine and feminine elements existed within a person. They did not portray “god” as a single, masculine deity; instead, the universe consisted of polarizing entities which include sky and earth, sun and moon, mountain and sea, life and death, and male and female. These opposing yet balancing forces are essential in holding the cosmos together.
Some gods even presented as both male and female, such as the Hindu god, Shiva, and the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Kuan Yin, who is is depicted to transcend the male/female binary and appear in whatever form is necessary to help people in need: sometimes female, male, or androgynous.
People who embodied masculinity and femininity also often held roles of religious authority in society. In Indonesia, these “male and female” persons are called “bissus,” priests of the Bugis people that continue to exist today. The bissus channel divine spirits in order to bestow blessings and are stewards of sacred manuscripts. They are typically “male-bodied” individuals who dress in both masculine and feminine clothing, jewelry, and makeup.
Korean shamanism similarly placed gender-fluid identities in positions of power, where the shaman “was always a woman, but not necessarily female.” Shamans, also known as mudang, were predominantly female according to most accounts; however, male shamans, called paksu mudang, could take part in the role of performing sacred rites and rituals while possibly also living as women outside of religious tradition.
The Western gender binary grew as the US and other imperialist nations forced cultural assimilation upon Indigneous peoples. The banning of cultural rituals and enforcing of cis-hetero standards functioned as a means of control, domination, and division. In India, British colonialism introduced the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 as a systemic means of implementing a gender binary. The act specifically targeted “eunuchs,” a stigmatizing colonial term that refers to individuals who do not conform to British ideals of masculinity. This law inherently ostracized the "kinnar" community, a once venerated community comprised of intersex people, asexual people, non-binary people and transgender people that had held important religious and governmental authority during the Mogul empire.
In the present day US, the gender binary is still used to oppress racial minorities by imposing gender-based stereotypes onto them to justify violence done to these groups. A white man murdered eight people, six of them being Asian women, in the Atlanta Spa Shootings on March 16, 2021. The police defended the man’s claim that the killings were “not racially motivated” but a way for the shooter to “eliminate [his sexual] temptations.” What the shooter’s “temptations” were really rooted in was the sexualization, hyper-feminization, and fetishization of Asian women, a violent result of Western imperialism and colonialism in Asia. The Atlanta shootings and the rise in anti-Asian hate incidents throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — almost 70% of which were committed against Asian women — are only recent examples. Misogyny-affected individuals of color so often live at the overlapping of oppressions caused by racism and sexism, forced into exploitative stereotypes as they inherently do not fit into the white gender binary.
Our Personal Reflections
Julia: To me, womanhood is defined as identifying yourself and navigating the world as a woman. “Womanhood,” for women of color, however, is directly antithetical to the gender binary as the binary is rooted in whiteness. I always felt a disconnect from the expression of womanhood placed onto Asian women by society as I felt it forced me to conform to racist stereotypes. The hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian women is a racialized and gendered stereotype that forces us to conform to strict, oppressive forms of gender expression while actually leaving us displaced from womanhood.
Whiteness felt integral to the gender roles I was expected and pressured to fulfill. White supremacy constructs whiteness as normative and central to identity and is reproduced through social norms, media representations, and daily interactions. The gender binary is similar as it reinforces white-focused gender norms onto people of color in order to further limit and oppress us. Even if I do present “masculine” or “feminine,” as an Asian person, I will never be afforded the same status and/or power as a white person of that gender. Growing up in predominantly white areas, I never felt the same type of connection and security in being a woman whilst being surrounded by white women as I felt I was treated so differently from them as an Asian girl with distinct facial features and a cultural background even though I was still technically a “girl.”
In that sense, I feel I have always been non-binary. On one hand, I identify as gender non-conforming and non-binary because I do deal with gender dysphoria and I never truly felt comfortable with gender roles regarding womanhood. On the other hand, in understanding my unique relationship with the gender binary, I have realized I cannot fit myself within a racist binary system that has always felt out of my grasp. Being non-binary is an identity in which I’m able to feel fully present in all aspects of myself as both Korean and queer. The gradual shift I took from she/her to they/them pronouns as well further solidified the idea to me that there are no limitations to expressing my gender identity and that pronouns are a matter of feeling the most comfortable within your own space. These parts of my identity continue to communicate more than my gender but how I express myself and navigate the world in all my complexity.
To define yourself with a racist, colonialist system often results in confusion about your culture and your identity. In understanding the gender binary’s roots in Western imperialism, I feel as though I’m able to transcend beyond its limits and recognize wholeness within myself as Asian and non-binary. It still remains difficult to firmly connect all aspects of myself, being non-binary but also a daughter and a sister, but I’ve slowly learned to not force definitive labels on my life and instead establish an openness and fluidity towards the people and the communities that I care for.
Mavis: Even though Asian cultures have traditionally been accepting of gender fluidity, Western imperialism has changed the tolerance of “otherness” in Asian countries. Since I was very little, I have been seen as a “tomboy” or “androgynous” or whatever term that could be used to describe me being “incorrectly female.” All the comments I received from family members were always about how not lady-like I was because I didn’t like to wear dresses or play with “girly” toys. At the time, I lacked the language to speak up for myself and about the way I felt about gender, so I made up excuses and desperately looked for potential role models that could help explain my gender expression.
After gaining more knowledge of gender roles, I experimented with they/them pronouns and felt a connection to the non-binary aspect of my identity that was previously not acknowledged. On the other hand, to me, gender exists not only in how I feel, but also intersects with my other identities. I will always be a Chinese daughter to my family members. This is also an identity that shapes who I am as a person and the way I navigate the world. Despite my resistance to the stereotypical expectations forced onto me, I remain immersed in my role as a Chinese daughter, which is a role I take pride in. This is an identity that extends beyond the constraints of gender roles, because it inherently describes a relationship that has an impact on more than just myself. To me, the word “daughter” is a simple word that holds complex meanings.
I believe that we feel before we find the words to describe our feelings, and that no words can fully portray how we feel. The gender binary offers too simple of an explanation for a complex feeling while simultaneously asking us to restrict ourselves within the box. By experimenting with different pronouns and eventually moving past the gender binary, we get closer to the term that best reflects who we are and live life without placing restrictions onto our identities.
I think I will forever experience tension in terms of expressing my gender, mostly because I think gender roles will remain in effect during my lifetime. That is beyond the scope of what I can do as an individual. However, I see this tension as something I could use to more critically examine the world I am in and the way I live my life. Do I want to choose courage and authenticity over others’ comfort? What does that mean to us as a community? This mindset transcends the context of gender binary—it could be about how we navigate the world—despite the pushback, we continue to fight.
The gender binary is a rigid system that opens up a disconnect in people of color from who they are and the gender expression they’re forced to conform to. It’s critical to understand the binary’s relationship with white supremacy and colonialism and how forced assimilation has tried to misshape our identities in order to further exploit and oppress us. We are complex individuals, and we deserve to navigate and take up space in this world in our own unique ways as human beings not bound by narrow ideas of gender and race.