To some it is obvious, there are two genders, man and woman. To others, gender can have a more nuanced understanding. Who is correct?
The important difference that is often neglected is that there are two entirely different meanings of the word gender. There is biological gender and there is social gender.
Biological gender, also known as natal sex, is the gender that you are born with physically. The way to categorize this is by analyzing the anatomy, chromosomes, hormones, and sexual organs of an individual.
A person born with XX chromosomes and female reproductive organs is biologically female. A person born with XY chromosomes and male reproductive organs is biologically male.
There are people born who do not fit into either of these classifications. Some are born with more complicated chromosomes. Some are born with sexual organs that are deformed or mixed together. These people are biologically, scientifically, not male or female. They are a combination. These people are biologically intersex.
So there are three rudimentary biological genders: male, female, and intersex.
There is also social gender.
The study of sociology and learning how socialization affects identity is essential to understanding social gender. In short, a person’s identity is shaped partially by biology and partially by their environment, such as their upbringing and society. The norms and social rules of a society define how people see themselves and how others interpret them. These rules are not typically taught, but are indirect and feel natural.
An example of a simple social norm is hair length. There is nothing in our DNA that suggests that men must have short hair and woman have long hair. This is a modern and current social norm in the West. In many parts of the world hair length is not gendered in this way. Hair is only one example, much of what makes someone a “man” or a “woman” is defined by loose and changing social norms.
The clothes you wear, the way you talk, the jobs you have, the roles you play in society, how much you are respected or admired etc., these are all fluid. They do not belong inherently to either biological gender.
In ancient Egypt men wore make up and in modern Egypt it is women.
In some Canadian indigenous tribes it was women that had the most power and respect. In modern Canada this relationship flipped and men became the dominant decision makers.
In ancient Greece elderly men often kept a sexual and academic relationship with a teenage boy. This practice, called pederasty, allowed the boy to gain wisdom while transitioning into adulthood. Teenage boys at the time were viewed as the most desirable and sexy members of society. In modern Greece, and in much of the West, young boys are no longer sex icons, but rather young adult woman.
Some aspects of socialized gender, like hair length, are completely arbitrary and can change rapidly. Other aspects of socialized gender stem from more direct roots and can be closely connected to biology. For example most men are stronger and larger than most women and for this reason men have typically been warriors and hunters. Due to the physical capabilities of men it is logical that norms and narratives would establish to reinforce this. This is still a social norm because it only exists in comparison to the female image. So even though it is logical that men were warriors it is still based in a social framework and context.
Most people see themselves in ways that are fairly straight forward. For example a person might be born biologically a man, then the way they see themselves, and how they act, aligns with how other “men” are socialized in their communities to act at that point in time. They like blue instead of pink, they don’t wear skirts, they play sports, they have short hair, etc.
Some biological men do not identify with these norms. They don’t like blue, they don’t want short hair, they feel more feminine, and they want to play with dolls. These examples are simplistic cliches used to illustrate a point. What actually defines someone as a “male” or “female” in any given society can be complex and vary greatly. A person can be born biologically a man but personally feel nothing the way that “men” in their communities normally feel, or they do not act in ways that “men” typically act in their society.
Many people identify as transgender. They might be born a man or woman but they sure don’t feel like it. Some feel like the opposite gender, such as a woman who identifies with socially masculine characteristics. Often a transgender person feels like a combination of both genders. Transgender people can have various gradations of feelings, experiences, ambiguities, and mindsets. There is no clear definition or limitation, it is fluid and subjective.
When considering the social varients identity, it can get messy and confusing.
A person can be born biologically a man, identify and dress as a female, and then desire other men. They are technically a homosexual but may feel as if they are not.
Or a person can be born as a woman, identify mostly as a female, but feel kind of butch and tomboyish her whole life. She is straight, desires men, but dresses, looks, and acts very masculine.
Another person might be born as a man but spend their entire life wishing that they were a woman. One day they have sex change surgery, remove their penis, take female hormones, and transform their body. They were born as a man, then through surgery became not only socially feminine, but biologically too.
Or perhaps you have someone born who isn’t biologically a man or a woman, they are intersex with a deformed sexual organ. Their parents raised them as a boy out of choice. The person now identifies as a male socially, looks like a male and acts how you would expect a male to act, but biologically isn’t fully a man or a woman.
This distinction between social and biological gender is helpful. It requires both nature (your genes) and nurture (your environment) to create an individual. Our bodies are born in a certain way but our minds are running on software that is very fluid. Over time and across various cultures different identities and social norms have evolved and changed.
Simply put, if you feel you align with the norms that your community expects of your biology, then you are cisgender, if you feel that these norms are not who you are as a person, then you are transgender. Being transgender is not bad, or even wrong. It is simply another way to experience consciousness that is less limited by the traditional social norms that govern our society.
Identities are complicated. There is no one reason that a person is or isn’t the social gender attributed to their biological gender. There is also no reason that a person needs to change who they are to become what society expects of them. We need to understand that gender is more complicated than we thought 100 years ago. There are many types of people, who are who they are for a multitude of reasons, and who deserve what every person in a society deserves, dignity, respect, and a space to call home in our shared community.
By Daniel Govedar (Posted Oct 2016) (Updated Mar 2018)