On Gender

What do we mean by “sex” and by “gender”? 

The words sex and gender, though often (incorrectly) used interchangeably, are defined differently.

  • Sex: The biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.
  • The socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers to be appropriate for men and women.
In other words, the terms “male” and “female” refer to sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories.  
When we look at how sex and gender are defined in societies across the world, sex characteristics do not vary substantially, while the roles seen as appropriate for each gender often vary greatly.

For example – sex characteristics:

  • Women menstruate while men do not
  • Women have developed breasts that can lactate while men don’t
  • Men have testicles while women do not

For example – gender characteristics:

  • In most countries, women earn significantly less money than men for similar work
  • In Saudi Arabia only men are allowed to drive cars
  • In most of the world, women do more housework than men
The problem is that not only do most people use these words interchangeably, most of us have been taught to think that sex and gender should match. As a result, anything that doesn’t follow this rule is deviant and something to be afraid of. You can read more about transgender oppression in my page about Privilege (under the Equity 101 section), under the heading “cis privilege”.
Transgender versus transexual

Conversations with otherwise informed and progressive people have shown me that there is a lot of misconception, confusion and ignorance with regards to transgender people. As I discussed in my explanation of sex and gender, part of the problem lies in the way most of us are trained to expect sex and gender to match. Just as some people believe that they have the right to prevent people from expressing their true sexual orientation, society often sees transgender expression as wrong, as something that must be prevented. The discomfort that is caused when witnessing a person whose sex and gender don’t match can be too much for some to handle. In order to accept transgender, people need to transform their way of thinking about sex and gender to something along the following lines:

There are no specific characteristics that define men and women. Therefore, each person should determine the components of their own gender. If a person’s sexual organs don’t coincide with the societally-determined corresponding gender, then that is fine (and none of my business, actually). It is a person’s embodiment of their own, individually-perceived gender identity  that matters, and that truly allows them to be happy.  

Here are some helpful definitions:

Gender Identity – The sense that a person has of themselves as male or female. This is separate from the physiological and biological characteristics of one’s body, such as chromosomes, hormones, external genitalia and internal reproductive structures.

Transgender – An umbrella term for anyone whose gender identity (sense of themselves as male or female) or gender expression differs from that usually associated with their birth sex. Many transgender people live part-time or full-time as members of the other gender. Technically, anyone whose identity, appearance, or behavior falls outside of conventional gender norms can be described as transgender. However, not everyone whose appearance or behavior is gender-atypical will identify as a transgender person. 

There are several categories of transgender people:

  • Transsexuals: Transgender people who live or wish to live full time as members of the gender opposite to their birth sex. Biological females who wish to live and be recognized as men are called female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals or transsexual men. Biological males who wish to live and be recognized as women are called male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals or transsexual women. The process of transitioning is called sex reassignment or gender reassignment, and may involve medical interventions, such as hormones and surgery, in order to make the person’s body as congruent as possible with their preferred gender.
  • Cross-dressers wear the clothing of the other sex. They vary in how completely they dress (from one article of clothing to fully cross-dressing) as well as in their motives for doing so. Some cross-dress to express cross-gender feelings or identities; others crossdress for fun, for emotional comfort, or for sexual arousal.
  • Other categories of transgender people include androgynous, bigendered, and gender queer people. Exact definitions of these terms vary from person to person, but often include a sense of blending or alternating genders. Some people who use these terms to describe themselves see traditional concepts of gender as restrictive.

Gender queer – a useful way to describe someone who identifies somewhere in between “man” and “woman”

Gender neutral pronouns to be aware of: 

  • One example of a gender-neutral pronoun that is used is “ze” and its variations:
  • ze walked, I talked to zir, I went with zem (plural), zir house is large, zes are coming (plural)
Gender versus Sexuality

Gender identity and sexual orientation are generally experienced as two different things. Sexual orientation refers to one’s sexual attraction to men, women, both, or neither, whereas gender identity refers to one’s sense of oneself as male, female, or transgender. Because they are two separate ideas, sexual orientation does not usually change after someone transitions to their preferred gender. In other words, people who are attracted to women prior to transition continue to be attracted to women after transition, and people who are attracted to men prior to transition continue to be attracted to men after transition.

You can find more resources on this subject, and on providing support for transgender friends or family, here

Intersex People

Many cultures around the world are highly committed to the idea of two sex categories – male and female. Language itself denies other possibilities -words to describe any person who does not fit into one of those two categories are fairly recent and unknown developments. (In fact, the spell check on my computer seems to think that intersex is not a word).

However, the intersex body is a reality that has led some people to describe five separate sexes. Here is an excerpt from The Intersex Society of North America’s “What Is Intersex” page:

‘Intersex’ is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.

Though we speak of intersex as an inborn condition, intersex anatomy doesn’t always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.

One specialist in the study of congenital sexual-organ defects has suggested that intersexuals may constitute as many as 4% of births. Convention says that any body which does not fall into either the male or female definition should be changed to fit in to the binary. As scientific knowledge grows, it has become easier to create this change. This need to discipline the “deviant” intersex body is backed up by claims that intersex children will suffer devastating psychological problems at the hands of societal convention. As a result, the scientific community and other officials in charge have ignored the possibility of one day allowing a society in which intersexuality goes unimpeded.

However, this means that the large body of case histories compiled before surgical intervention became common practice have been ignored. Almost without exception, these reports describe children who grew up knowing they were intersexual, although they did not advertise it, and adjusted to their unusual status. None of these cases ended in psychological problems or suicide.

Some of the above was adapted from an article by developmental geneticist Anne Fausto-Sterling, entitled The Five Sexes.


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