What is gender?

Gender is a complex concept describing how a person sees and presents themselves. This includes many different components, all of which exist on a continuum. We will touch on five of these components and some of the more common expressions of each.

Sexual Orientation (Who turns you on)

You’ve probably heard of this one. Sexual Orientation describes who you are physically attracted to. Some common terms are heterosexual or straight, which mean someone is attracted to the “opposite gender.” A few more are homosexual (attracted to the same sex), gay (homosexual, sometimes specifically men), and lesbian (women attracted to women).

The term “opposite sex” makes less sense when someone is neither male or female. This is why it’s sometimes easier to just say who a person is attracted to. If you must have some taxonomy, someone attracted to women may call themselves gynesexual. Similarly, those attracted to men may use the term androsexual.

However, it’s quite common for people to be attracted to multiple genders. Being attracted to more than one gender could make you bisexual, pansexual, or omnisexual. Some are attracted to mainly one gender, but are open to suggestions. They can add -flexible to whatever prefix they identify with usually, as in heteroflexible. It’s also normal for someone’s sexuality to change over the course of a lifetime.

There are also those who aren’t physically attracted to anyone. Many of these people fall somewhere within the asexual spectrum (or ace spectrum). For instance, Demisexuals include people who only experience sexual attraction with someone after forming a strong emotional bond with them. Others who experience low (but some) amounts of sexual attraction may prefer the term Gray-Asexual, Gray-A, or Grace.

Note that abstinence–purposely choosing not to have sex–is not the same as asexuality. This is because sexuality isn’t simply a choice, behavior, or lifestyle. It’s something much more complicated and internal to each person.

Romantic Orientation (Who you love)

Now, just because asexuals may experience little to no sexual attraction, this doesn’t mean they don’t date, love, or enjoy being emotionally intimate with others. The desire to be part of a romantic relationship constitutes someone’s romantic orientation.

This comes in all the varieties that sexual orientation does (switch out “sexual” for “romantic” in the terminology), but the two don’t always match. Some asexuals have romantic interests. Pansexuals can be mainly gyneromantic, and even the straightest man could be biromantic. As with sexual orientation, romantic attraction isn’t necessarily a choice and can fluctuate over time.

Biological Sex (What you have)

Someone’s biological sex describes the physiological markers of their gender. This may include the form of a person’s genitals, secondary sex characteristics (like breasts or facial hair), a person’s chromosomes, sex hormone levels, and other factors.

When children are born, they are often called male or female by the attending physician. Official records call this the sex of the baby. Since this is outside of the infant’s control, it’s often called their assigned gender. The idea that someone can only be one of two static options–male or female–is called the gender binary, which is both inaccurate and problematic.

For example, roughly 1 in 2000 babies born in the United States are born intersex, or with reproductive systems that differ from typical male or female systems. This may include an XXY chromosome set, missing gonads, an enlarged clitorus, or not having a penis. It could also refer to a number of hormonal conditions. Some of these situations are surgically “corrected” at birth to steer towards a certain gender, but that can cause both physical and psychological damage. This is one danger of a strict adherence to the gender binary.

The circumstances are not always dramatic, nor are they flaws or problems. But they do provide examples that the human body is not necessarily either 100% male or 100% female. Surgical removal of the testicles, ovaries, penis, uterus, and breasts later in life also points to how gender is about more than anatomy. Everyone has a different body, each beautiful in its own way.

Gender Identity (How you see yourself)

If biological sex describes your body, gender identity (sometimes just called genderdescribes your mind. It is the way that you see and imagine yourself. This can be extremely difficult to define because it is mainly psychological and emotional. It can’t be diagnosed or tested, only felt and experienced. That means each person gets to decide how they define their own identity.

What makes a person a man or a woman? Ask someone which they are and why. Ask yourself. It can very difficult to answer. This doesn’t mean it isn’t real, though. To many people, being a man or a woman is a crucial part of who they are, even when someone loses a part of their sexual anatomy to illness or injury. There is something else that affects how they view themselves–physically and mentally. It is this self-image that defines your gender identity.

This can be completely independent of biological sex. Many people born with a vagina and two X chromosomes identify as a man. There are also many people who identify as female, despite having a penis and testicles. When a person’s gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth, this person may choose to identify as transgender or trans. Those who identify as the same gender they were assigned are sometimes called cisgender, cis, or non-trans.

Now, just like with biological sex, there are people who identify as something other than exclusively male or exclusively female. Some fall somewhere in between. These people may choose to identify as nonbinary, genderqueer, queer, androgynous, gender-nonconforming, or other terms of their choice.

It’s also possible to be fluid, or someone that moves along the spectrum over time. Others may feel no attachment to any sort of gender and identify as agender. Just as there are many shades of eye color, there are infinitely many ways to identify, all of them equally valid.

Gender Expression (How you want others to see you)

This is the way a person presents themselves to and interacts with the world. It may include how they dress, speak, or behave according to the gender roles assigned to them at birth. The pronouns someone chooses to use may also factor into someone’s gender expression.

Someone who is gender-nonconforming may rebel against the labels or stereotypes of their assigned gender. They may even reject the norms of the gender binary in general. This doesn’t necessarily mean that person is trans. Similarly, a trans person may not behave as gender-nonconforming. For whatever reason, a trans person may choose to keep their identity private and express as their assigned gender. Expression serves as a personal choice to influence how others see you, or even how you see yourself. 

Gender (All the above and more)

All of these components contribute to someone’s gender, but there is no comprehensive list. Imagine asking someone to describe exactly what food they liked using only the words sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and bitter. Gender is even more elusive. The purpose of these categories is not to neatly separate every person into a specific category. They serve as ways to demonstrate the variety, complexity, and beauty of gender.

Identities should also not be used to label others, but to offer suggestions of how to understand yourself. Some may find comfort in knowing that it is healthy and acceptable to be pansexual, trans, or intersex. It can help people find communities of others with similar experiences. However, nobody should feel confined to a finite list of terms. Do whatever makes you feel happy and alive.

Additionally, it’s not fully necessary to understand every term surrounding gender all at once. Focus on the ones that matter to those you interact with. Then be open to learning more over time. Politely ask questions. Learn how to respond to others’ needs. Apologize for mistakes, and avoid making them again (or feeling overly-guilty). Be a good friend. The rest will come with time.

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