You probably already know what sex is (and no, not that kind of sex): the classification of a person (or plant or animal) based on whether their anatomy and chromosomes are what we identify or classify as male or female, from a physiological perspective. What, when you were born, brought a doctor or midwife to holler out, “It’s a Girl!” or “It’s a Boy!” as if that were somehow the most important thing there was to know about you.
It’s typically assumed that sex and gender are the same thing. They’re not.
What the heck is gender? Gender isn't about biology or science. It is a man-made set of concepts and ideas about how men and women are supposed to look, act, relate and interrelate, based on their sex. Gender isn’t anatomical: it’s intellectual, psychological and social (and even optional); about identity, roles and status based on ideas about sex and what it means to different people and groups. As part of that set of concepts is also the idea -- even though we know by now it's flawed -- that gender is only male or female in the first place. Like sex, gender is often presented as binary: as being only one thing or the other, without any overlap or grey area in between. When we talk about sex, we’re usually talking about what is male and what is female based on chromosomes and/or reproductive systems: when we talk about gender, we’re talking about what is considered masculine and what feminine, man or woman, or other kinds of gender altogether either outside those two terms, mixing them or expanding those ideas and feelings. If our doctors or midwives were to call out our gender at birth, rather than our sex, they would instead be shouting “High heels!” or “Sneakers!”
Making sense of gender – and the roles and status based on gender -- can sure get complicated, especially because of what a big deal gender is in our world, how it effects everyone’s relationships and personal identity, and how varied – yet pervasive – ideas about gender can be.
While many intersex bodies at birth look like anyone else’s, some intersex people are born with what are called “ambiguous” genitals -- those which cannot easily be typed as male or female (so are some XX's and XY's). Many infants born with ambiguous genitals are given surgery at birth or nonelective hormone therapy to “correct” the variation, rather than simply accepting it as a normal variation, which is what intersex is. Some intersex people may WANT surgical or hormonal adaptations. Plenty may not. Those who had corrections done at birth or in early childhood, or those who did not have ambiguous genitals, may not even be aware they are intersex, though they may have a feeling that there is something different about them. As growing and grown people, intersex individuals may look slightly different than we’d expect someone sexed a certain way to look, but most look just like anybody else. If you suspect you may be intersex – either in terms of having concerns about your sexual development, your general appearance, if you’re experiencing what seems like a serious delay in the onset of puberty, or just have a profound feeling that your sex doesn’t “fit” you in a way that feels right, talk to your doctor. Intersex conditions don’t always require medical treatment, but a lot of intersex people just feel better knowing in terms of forming their own identity.
Say “female” or “feminine” and a given group of people are likely to define that pretty similarly, in terms of appearance and behavior, just as they would if you said “male” or “masculine,” despite the fact that those things differ with incredible variance globally and individually. In many ways, the spectrum of gender is much like the spectrum of sexual orientation. Very few people are at the outer edges of the spectrum of what is traditionally or currently defined as “male” and “female” -- most of us are somewhere in the middle, with a variety of qualities in terms of our appearance, emotions, behaviors, interests, goals and strengths. Whether we live in one area or another, go to this country or that one, live in this or that period of history, have this set of rights or that, or identify ourselves this way or that way, our chromosomes under a microscope, or our genitals and reproductive systems, will always look the same.
On the other hand, what our gender roles and status are, and how we identify and perform our gender, can be radically different depending on whether we’re living in ancient Greece or modern-day New York City, whether we have the right to vote, work or get a fair trial or not based on our sex, and what strengths and weaknesses, privileges or punishments we or those around us may attribute and assign to our sex. Gender is someone deciding that we’re masculine or feminine – or gendernormative: people's ideas about what's “normal” for what our sex is -- not based on what’s between our legs, but based on how we dress, what our job is or interests are, or even based on what our favorite colors are. Ideally, someone deciding what gender we are would be about what gender we tell them we are and identify as ourselves based on what we feel our own gender is for ourselves. But for the most part, we don't frequently live in that world yet.
It’d be tough to find someone who hasn’t been exposed to gender roles and status. Maybe growing up you heard that “real” boys weren’t supposed to play with dolls or “good” girls weren’t supposed to sit without crossing their legs. Maybe you’ve experienced how much emphasis is put on how women look or on how much money men make. You may have gotten the message that only weak men cry or only hysterical women yell, that women are “natural” caretakers and men are “natural” providers or fighters. Perhaps you’ve heard snide remarks about male nurses or female construction workers. In your family or community, there may be certain duties assumed and assigned for members of your household based only on gender. In the media, you may notice that women are often presented and marketed to as being concerned primarily with romance, family and appearance, men with sex, money and sports. Those are all about gender roles.
If you’ve studied history, you’ve probably seen how women have had to fight for the exact same rights men have, such as voting and fair pay; if you are aware of global issues, you know how many women worldwide are still viewed as property or are required to be submissive and/or subservient: these things are about gender status.
When it comes to sexual behavior, expectations, relationships, gender roles, status and identity often have a starring role. Many people decide who they will and will not date or sexually partner with based on gender as well as sex. Often, “feminine” men are often assumed to be gay, “macho” men assumed to be heterosexual; “masculine” women are often assumed to be lesbian, and “femme” women heterosexual, even though none of those assumptions may be correct. Sex and gender are required components of the concept of sexual orientation: what sex and gender we are or identify with, and what the sex(es) or gender(s) of those we are sexually and romantically attracted to may be.
Gender – both how we identify with it and how others identify us through the lens of gender – can also play a part in the way we’ll have any sort of sex, how we present our sexuality to others, how we feel comfortable or uncomfortable in our sexual behaviour and attitudes, and how we might expect the dynamics of our sexual relationships with others to be We can all see this a lot in opposite-sex relationships, where there are so many assumed norms and roles between men and women: about who should be doing the asking out, taking sexual leadership, claiming sexual responsibility, setting sexual limits and boundaries, being “outwardly” sexual, even about what is the “right” way, in terms of gender, of having sex at all, such as ideas that it’s not “manly” for men to enjoy receptive anal sex or not “feminine” for women to ask for sexual activities through which they have an orgasm when their male partner has had his. Queer people, relationships and community are not automatically immune from typical gender roles either: lesbians are often -- some voluntarily, but some involuntarily -- divided by appearance and behavior into binary butch and femme categories which are often expected to mimic traditional male and female gender roles (even though many gay women who use butch and femme will often voice that that's not the way they experience those roles); butch is also often used among gay men to define a traditional gender role, as are terms like daddy or twink, top and bottom. Often, we hear people asking about a given same-sex relationship, “Who’s the man?” when there’s no man in the room.
While many young adults now see themselves as being more flexible when it comes to gender than their parents or grandparents, some studies and a lot of behaviors have shown that, despite what we might think, many “traditional” or stereotypical gender roles and norms are still assumed. A Kaiser Family Foundation study from 2002 on gender roles found that most teens think asking someone out initially, making the first move sexually and providing condoms is male behavior, and that saying no to sex, setting and enforcing sexual limits, and bringing up or providing birth control are female roles. Most teens in the study agree that it’s a good thing, based only on gender, for a young woman to abstain from sexual activity or be a virgin, but didn’t feel the same way about young men.
But some of us have, at one time or another, experienced what is called gender dysphoria: discomfort with our sex and/or gender identity and/or the gender norms and roles out and about in the world. You may have found that certain clothing picked out for you by parents conflicted with your gender identity: not all girls like ruffles; some boys prefer sparkly shoes to sneakers. As a young boy, you may have wanted a doll for a toy and were told that wasn’t okay, or perhaps as a young adult male, the idea of things like sexual initiation (or uncontrollable libido or sexual dominance) don’t fit your own gender identity. Growing up having been assigned female sex, you may have found that your world changed drastically during puberty, when you had more visible “markers” of clearly being female, and were perhaps told that certain activities you once enjoyed were no longer appropriate for you. You may have once been comfortable with more stereotypical gender identities, but now feel a new discomfort. For instance, someone who felt like traditional gender status or roles fit them fine once may feel differently the first time they face job discrimination based on their sex or gender, or when sexual relationship problems crop up because of those roles, like the assumption that women need to be the only ones taking responsibility for birth control or safer sex, or men the only ones to sexually initiate. You may even feel funny in being gendernormative, because you have a hard time figuring out if you’re really being you, or just identifying with that you’ve been told you’re supposed to be.
It’s not exactly accurate to say you can pick your gender roles and status. You may be able to in your own home, or in a given relationship or community, but out and about in the world we don’t always get a whole lot of choice. How we appear and what our gender is thought to be dictates much of our status and our roles. Few of us can completely escape or ignore those mandates or status. For instance, women can’t just decide we’re going to be paid more by the hour as a class than we are; men can’t just decide that strict ideas about masculinity won’t be applied to them. So, it’s common for our gender identity –and how we present ourselves—to be largely or entirely gathered from, and interpreted through, overt and covert messages we’re all bombarded with from a very early age which tell us how we should be valued (or value ourselves), act and appear.
But you CAN choose a great deal of how you present your gender (how you behave, groom, dress and carry yourself) and how you identify (what you call yourself and what that means to you).
Some people assume that certain types of gender presentation are a given: you’re born male or female, so you look a certain way or act a certain way, and any appearance or behavior outside expected norms are deviations, instead of variations. Many assume that you either accept or deny being “male” or “female,” rather than realizing gender roles and presentation are active -- not passive -- choices we all make. Those assumptions and assertions cause very real problems for many individuals and groups: from more benign matters like just being called Mr. instead of Ms., to the overt violence of hate crimes (such as rape or the murders of gay men). The collective cultural notion, for instance, that men are physically “stronger” than women has caused numerous social and interpersonal problems for men and women alike (as well as simply being untrue). The notion that anatomical or genetic sex must and automatically does “match” socially dictated gender identity and presentation creates a world of confusion, conflict and imbalance for many of us, and for some, big emotional and interpersonal torment.
Challenging cultural gender roles, status, and assumptions isn’t always easy, quick or successful, even when we just want to change them in our house, our relationship or our own head, rather than changing them worldwide. But often, it’s far less uncomfortable long-term to live with the discomforts we may experience when we alter, reinvent, challenge or defy assigned gender roles positively than when we try and live out roles which we don’t want to, which don’t feel true to us or which we can’t or don’t want to support.
You get to -- and should -- explore, challenge and ultimately decide whatever gender identity suits you best, whether it’s a good fit and match with existing cultural gender roles or it isn’t, and even if the rest of the world isn’t ready for you yet. Just like that glass slipper in Cinderella, if the shoe doesn’t fit? Don’t wear it. You can still go to the ball, and insist on wearing whatever you want when you go.
Like most aspects of identity, as you continue into and through your adult life you’ll likely find that your personal gender identity -- and your feelings about gender -- changes and grows, and becomes more clear (and more murky!) with time and life experience. Likely, you’ll find that the older you get, the more you live in the world and your own skin, you realize that gender isn’t anything close to binary, but like most things, is a wide, diverse spectrum, a varied, veritable genderpalooza.
Plenty of people may find that gender roles, status, and expected behaviors -- and how they do or don’t coincide with our assigned sex -- don’t suit us and can create problems, challenges, and even a world of frustration. For some of us, those disconnects are even more problematic or traumatic.
Many trans gender or genderqueer people are considered to cross-dress, but when you’re trans or genderqueer, those “opposite sex” clothes aren’t opposites at all, so it isn't accurate to refer to a trans person or someone genderqueer dressing for their own gender identity as crossdressing. Too, many women in history – like Joan of Arc or Cathay Williams -- have crossdressed to preserve their safety, or to engage in pursuits in which appearing or being known as women would endanger or exclude them.
With any or all of these terms of other language, know that none of this is writ in stone. Any kind of language or terminology can tend to change or shift over time, and we may not all always agree on what a given term means. If you feel like these terms mean different things to you, or like you don't like them and would prefer your own terms, by all means, you get to come up with alternatives which feel best for you.
1) Try not to assume someone’s gender identity only based on appearance or behavior. Call others what they want to be called, identify them as they want to be identified, and find that out by either asking or listening attentively for their own cues. Many women don’t like being called “Miss, Ladies, Honey, Ma’am or Tranny.” Some people don’t dig gender identifiers at all, and just like to be called their names. When in doubt as to someone’s gender or how someone prefers to ID, just ask.
2) Turn the switch in your brain that makes you say things like “All men are jerks,” or “Women just want money,” or “She looks/acts/sounds like a boy.” There are NO sex or gender absolutes, and the less we fall for or support them, the less power they have to keep everybody down.
3) Nix staring and whispering. When someone looks or acts in a way which you think is incongruent to their sex or gender, check yourself out. Think about WHY you think that way, where those ideas come from, and if it’s reasonable or positive. Take a few minutes to wonder how much the criteria you’re thinking about even matters. It’s okay to be curious or confused and to ask respectful questions. What’s not cool is making someone else feel unsafe, insulted or demeaned because you’re uncomfortable with your own lack of knowledge or understanding (or insecure about your own gender identity).
4) Be a gender outlaw. If there’s something in your school that is unfairly closed to a given sex, gender or gender identity, that is based on gender appearance, that excludes others on the basis of sex or gender when it just isn’t reasonable or fair, question it. If in your relationships, you have a partner who is clearly holding you to a gender role or status that isn’t okay with you, or which you aren’t interested in meeting, speak up. Challenge sex and gender issues directly when need be, and gather your forces to do so. Write letters. Engage discussion and awareness. Be visible. Don’t accept gender norms, roles or status at face value (even if they are just fine for you): question.
5) Work on tolerance and compassion. You don’t have to agree with someone or understand where they’re at to be kind, humane, accepting and fair. Imagine yourself walking a mile in another person’s shoes, including the blisters you’d wind up with in their heels.
We’re all lucky, in that some aspects of gender have become less binary, less limiting, and less strictly enforced than they have been through much of our known history, even though we still have a long way to go. Gendernormativity is becoming more of a choice than a mandate for many. Even though, as a culture, our progress is slow, people coming of age now are often given more latitude when it comes to gender identity -- and what’s expected due to assigned sex -- than in generations before. Just a hundred years ago, for instance, women who did something as simple and surface as wearing pants or cutting their hair short, or who made bigger strides, like directly challenging higher male gender status could nearly always find themselves victims of intense violence, social isolation or even execution.
We could certainly still stand a lot of improvements. Women are still greatly oppressed as a class – in every way from limitations to how we present to our victimization as a group via rape -- based on nothing but sex and gender. Men who have shrugged off or challenged their gender roles or presentation are still often met with disdain, aggression and violence, and many men have been reared to instigate violence or aggression to uphold a gendered status quo. Many trans gender, trans sexual, genderqueer or crossdressing people, of all genders, are isolated, cast out of homes and communities, abused, sexually and/or physically assaulted and even murdered based on nothing but their gender identity and appearance.
A lot of us would be safer, happier, healthier and more whole if sex and gender -- and very rigid ideas about them -- weren’t such big deals in the world. But for now, it still is to a great majority of people, and a very limiting view of sex and gender is accepted, supported and encouraged in numerous ways. So, gender identity tends to be pretty important, as does the sex we’re born with or assigned. Our challenges based on those things may be great or small, but a rare few of us will have none.
Like anything else, it is only one part of you, a whole person with a million facets. How you identify and what genitalia or chromosomes you were born with, gets to be only as important and relevant to YOU, alone, as you want it to be. Even if you can’t identify and present exactly – or at all - like you’d like to out and about yet, what goes on in your head is all yours, the relationships you’re in and the roles you accept and live out in them is up to you, and the way you choose to define yourself – and the latitude you give others around you in their gender identities -- is your choice.
Excerpted and adapted from S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College Want to read the whole chapter and more of the book? Nab a copy for yourself!