Why the history of the gender binary matters to the future of design

4 min read
Alex Chen
  •  Jun 11, 2021
Link copied to clipboard

Inside Design will commemorate the year’s cultural moments and holidays through the theme of ‘Looking Back for a More Inclusive Future.’ Each month, we will explore the intersection of design and history through commissioned illustrations and articles. In observance of Pride Month, Alex Chen discusses the political history of the gender binary and how understanding it unlocks our ability to innovate for a more inclusive future. Illustration by Carmela Caldart  (IG: @carmelacaldart).

Content warning for non-graphic mentions of settler-colonial violence against Indigenous peoples and policing/medical violence against queer, trans, and intersex people

A few years ago, I attended a design conference where Google demo-ed their machine learning engine. Using the webcam on her device, the presenter trained the machine to recognize images of her right hand as “right” and left hand as “left.” The AI then recognized any new images as “100% right” or “100% left.” On a whim, I called out, “What happens if you raise both of your hands?” The crowd’s gasps led me to believe this was a new and exciting idea for them. The presenter raised both of her hands and the AI responded, “50% right, 50% left.”

Rather than trying to understand new data, the computer’s response assimilated the hands into the closest binary it knew. While technically accurate, it assigned the values as mutually exclusive: Though on their own they are seen as whole, they cannot be whole together.

This is what machines do when they encounter something they cannot understand. This makes sense, because this is what we as humans programmed it to do. As an androgynous nonbinary person, I experience that sort of 50-50 attempt nearly every time I go out. Instead of Left and Right, people try categorizing me as “100% male” or “100% female.” Maybe a tired service worker gives me an awkward, “What would you like, sir? Er, ma’am?” or a curious child asks “Are you a boy or a girl?”

While socially awkward or uncomfortable on the surface, they denote a more structurally oppressive truth: society suppresses any personality, intellect, or physical characteristics that stray from the bio essentialist gender binary—male and female. It may feel silly reading that statement in the era of drag going mainstream, trans politicians being elected to office, and pop culture gifts like Pose and Lil Nas X, but modern Western society has so ingrained the concept that even members of the queer community unwittingly enforce the binary. (Those who are great at inclusivity have simply done the work to be better at it.)

I believe that people, unlike machines, can understand and honor a full spectrum of gender diversity beyond the lens of 100% male or 100% female and create a more inclusive future—we just need them to catch up to the LGBTQ+ community and commit to learning why and how the gender binary was enforced in the first place.

Looking back 

The ways that each culture defines gender norms and structures are unique. Historically, the U.S. enforced a rigid gender binary to support its relentless growth, eliminating any traces of those that threatened its perception of normalcy.

Prior to colonization, many Indigenous cultures valued queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people as integral members of society. Alok Vaid-Menon touches on this in their book Beyond the Gender Binary: “[We’re] part of a legacy that’s greater than ourselves, and through learning history we’re less lonely.” For example, the Lakota, Mohave, Crow, Cheyenne and other First Nations considered Two-Spirit people as spiritual and cultural leaders.

However, in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz details that the initial colonization and subsequent westward expansion of the U.S. was established through violent land theft, genocide, and forced cultural assimilation. At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. replicated this tactic as imperalist missionaries tried erasing Hawai’i’s Mahu and the Phillppines’ Bakla people through banning cultural rituals and enforcing strict cis-hetero standards.

As industrialization took hold in America, these standards became increasingly controlled to benefit white men’s economic interests and continually strip opportunity from Indigenous, Black, and working class women. As Angela Davis points out in Women, Race, and Class – the definition of gender evolved from separating productive and domestic spheres of influence, emphasizing femininity “as nurturing mothers and gentle companions and housekeepers.” Fathers, husbands, brothers, institutionalized their daughters, wives, and sisters who did not fit the mold under the guise of hysteria. Babies went from wearing the same home-made dresses regardless of gender to families having to buy their sons pink outfits from Earnshaw’s Infants Department. By the mid-1900s, the law tied gender to consumerism: If people did not wear at least three clothing items of their “proper gender,” then they must be arrested.

As health care professionalized, too, it became another avenue to punish and pathologize those who did not fit neatly into the binary. At least since the 1950’s, doctors performed harmful “gender normalizing” surgeries on intersex infants to make their bodies appear more “female” or “male.” Psychologists defined both gay and trans identities as mental disorders but couldn’t agree on the nature or cause of disorder for decades, finally de-pathologizing homosexuality in 1973. Only as recently as 2018 did WHO de-classify being transgender as a mental illness.

For a more inclusive future

The brief history above shows us that non-binary genderfluidity has always existed, it’s just that those in power have forcibly erased or suppressed any traces of nonbinary existence whether during colonization, the Holocaust, the HIV/AIDS crisis, bathroom bills, workplace discrimination policies, and more.

In tech, we always talk about innovation, which industries we can disrupt as the next big thing? I can’t think of anything more disruptable than our cultural approach to gender. We reinforce the binary through gender-swap filters. robots like Sophia, and gender pickers that make you decide between “male” or “female.” And while social media platforms like Tumblr and TikTok have helped to connect with one another and amplify our presence, these very platforms have also played a role in censoring them.

Honoring gender diversity doesn’t mean making everything gender-neutral. I don’t believe in forcing gender fluidity on everyone or eliminating the concept of gender altogether. I simply want to cultivate more creativity, imagination, and choice into our practice. For example, those gender pickers: Do you even need to ask for gender? What will you do with that information? Is it for healthcare, legal, or census purposes? Can you make the question optional? We often ask for gender data when creating a user profile when it doesn’t actually add that much value.

As designers, we can use our creativity to go beyond 100% male and 100% female. We can imagine worlds outside of what Earnshaw’s Infants Department laid out for us and, instead, introduce choice and agency for all. Where to start? Look to our Queer and trans leaders, who know our existence is not only acceptable but worth celebrating, and we have done so for many years. As proof, just admire Chicago Drag Excellence or browse the butch archive: Both excellent examples of gender performance fluidity and freedom. Designers can look to the Queer Design Club for both inspiration and support. Gender is not rigid and neither are we.


Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard