Gender is an issue that has left many with a poor taste in their mouth and a sense of confusion. To some it is very clear, there are two genders, man and woman. To others, gender can have many different understandings. 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. There are many ways to identify this such as: anatomy, chromosomes, hormones, and sexual organs.
A person born with XX chromosomes as well as female reproductive organs is biologically female. A person born with XY chromosomes and male reproductive organs is biologically male.
There are people born who are not either of these classifications. You can be born with more complicated chromosomes; you can also be born with sexual organs that are deformed, or mixed together. These people are biologically, scientifically, not male or female. They are a combination and in a grey area. 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 the understanding of how socialization affects identity is not often taught to the general population. In short, a person’s identity is shaped partially by biology and partially by their environment, such as their upbringing and their 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 almost natural.
An example of a simple social norm is hair length. There is nothing in our DNA that suggests men are supposed to have short hair and woman have long hair. This is a social norm in the West, it has not always been the case, and in many parts of the world hair length is not gendered in this way. Who has long or short hair, or if it even matters, has changed over history. It evolves and isn’t related to biological gender.
Hair is only one example, the majority of what makes someone a “man”, or a “woman”, or anything else they can use to identify themselves with socially, is loose and can change.
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 loose. They do not belong inherently to either biological gender.
In ancient Egypt men wore make up, in modern Egypt it is woman.
In some Canadian indigenous tribes it was woman 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 practiced pederasty in which they kept a sexual and academic relationship with a teenage boy. This allowed the boy to gain wisdom transitioning into adulthood and the old men benefited because at the time young boys were seen as the sexiest and most desirable 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 related to biology. For example, most men are stronger and larger than most woman, for this reason men have typically been warriors and hunters. Due to men being stronger and larger, it is logical that norms and narratives would establish to reinforce this. This is still a social gender norm because it only exists in comparison to the female image and the concept of a warrior is made up. A social norm such as men being warriors is rooted in real life circumstances and limitations, but ultimately it is not connected directly to our DNA.
Most people identify themselves traditionally. For example they are biologically male, and the way they see themselves, and how they act, aligns with how “men” are socialized in their community to act at that point in time. They like blue instead of pink, they have short hair, they dont wear skirts, they like cars and sports 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, they want to play with dolls etc,. I’m using simplistic cliches for the examples but what makes someone a male or female in their community can vary greatly. A person can be born biologically a man, but personally feel nothing the way that “men” in their community are supposed to feel, or they do not act in ways that “men” typically act in their society.
A person can be born biologically a man, but for many different reasons, identify personally with the attributes that woman typically have in their community. This would be someone who is a “female” man, or a feminine man.
Many people identify as transgender. They don’t feel 100% male or 100% female, they feel like neither, or an ambiguous mix of both. They might be born biologically a man, but their personality and behavior is nothing the way a “man” typically is suppose to be in their community. They are socially not a “man.”
Understandably, when considering the social aspects of identity, it can get messy and confusing.
A person can be born biologically a man, but identify as a female and dress as a female, and be biologically gay but socially straight.
Or a person can be born biologically a female, and identify mostly as a female, but feel kind of butch and tomboyish her whole life. She is straight, desires men, but dresses and looks very masculine.
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.
Gender is complicated. Understanding it can be a headache. It can be cringe inducing when people seemingly pull genders out of thin air and create new terms out of the blue. However digging through the confusion and internet silliness we do find ourselves arriving at a rational and reasonable understanding.
Biologically there are three types of gender: male, female, and intersex.
Socially there are male and female attributes attached to biological men and woman, but these are loose, evolving, and not connected directly to our biology. We as a community of people imagine who we are in ways we call norms, but these norms shift, change, and are arbitrary.
Simply put, if you feel you align with the norms your community expects of your biology, then you are cisgender, if you feel these norms are not who you are as a person, then you are transgender.
People’s identities are complicated. They can be both healthy and unhealthy. Some people suffer from mental illnesses, some had confusing or difficult upbringings, some were raised in positive environments. 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 May 2017)