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Gender  
 
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The theory that gender relations are socially constructed categories of meaning has opened up a number of new areas in lesbian, gay, and queer studies.

The Binary Model of Gender

Traditionally, the division of human beings into two genders based on the biological differences between males and females has been viewed as one of the most natural, common-sense categories of identity. In this binary model, "sex," "gender," and "sexuality" constitute a unified whole.

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Thus a biologically sexed male is assumed to be innately masculine, with appropriately masculine appearance, character traits, and behaviors, including feelings of sexual attraction to people of the "opposite" sex--that is, to biologically sexed females, who--just as "naturally"--display appropriately feminine appearance, character traits, behaviors, and (hetero)sexual preference.

By positing an irreducible difference between male and female genders, this polarized binary system reinforces the belief that men and women exist in a complementary yet mutually exclusive relationship to one other.

Distinguishing between "Sex" and "Gender"

Since the 1970s, however, this common-sense view of human identity has come under increasingly sophisticated analyses as feminists began distinguishing between "sex"--which refers to an individual's biological (chromosomal) classification as male or female--and "gender," or the social and psychic meanings cultures assign to these biological differences.

Together, sex and gender constitute what Gayle Rubin describes in her influential 1975 essay, "The Traffic in Women," as the sex-gender system, in which "raw biological sex" is transformed into nonsymmetrical, binary gender relations where the masculine occupies the privileged position.

Based on biological capabilities (or "sex"), each human being is at birth appointed to one of two gender categories; this gender identity is continually reinforced and naturalized through language and social structures, such as kinship relationships, religion, education, and the media.

Masculinity and Femininity as Social Constructions

According to Rubin and other contemporary theorists, then, masculinity and femininity are not innate, essential categories of human existence; they are, rather, social inventions, constructed categories with specific meanings that vary across cultures and historical periods.

This distinction between anatomical sex-based male-female differences and the gendered, socially determined meanings ascribed to these biological categories provided feminists with an important tool in their theoretical and political analyses of the relations between women and men.

By refuting the commonly held belief that masculinity and femininity are innate categories, the sex-gender system enabled feminists to argue that, because male dominance was not based on biology but on culturally imposed and enforced norms, it could be changed.

The Challenge to the Binary Model of Gender

Despite the importance of this theoretical breakthrough, the resulting emphasis on binary gender relations could not fully account for twentieth-century Western concepts of identity, and in the late 1980s, this dualistic model was challenged both by self-identified feminists of color and by theorists working from an antihomophobic perspective.

Norma Alarcón's argument in "The Theoretical Subject(s) of This Bridge Called My Back and Anglo-American Feminism" (1990) summarizes objections made by Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, and others.

She maintains that Euro-American feminists' continued reliance on gender as the central axis of analysis limits their work in two ways: First, their emphasis on gender-based oppression prevents Anglo feminists from recognizing the complex, multiple ways ethnic, cultural, and class divisions make any description of female identity inadequate; second, their attempts to delineate specifically feminine forms of consciousness reinscribe conventional male-female configurations of identity.

According to Alarcón, even when Anglo feminists began exploring the differences among women, these women were still defined primarily in opposition to men, thus reinforcing the heterosexist structure underlying Western cultures.

Similarly, Rubin and other theorists interested in challenging twentieth-century Western cultures' heterosexism and argued that, given the relational nature of male-female gender categories, analyses focusing exclusively on gender support the presumed naturalness of heterosexuality.

As Rubin asserts in another highly influential essay, "Thinking Sex" (1984), although gender and sexuality are intricately related, they are not interchangeable. Instead, they represent different axes of analysis and must be treated as such.

The Impact on Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Theory

These objections to feminism's restrictive concepts of gender, coupled with Michel Foucault's historicization of sexuality, have had a significant impact on the development of lesbian, gay, and queer theory as distinct fields of study.

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