What is Gender?

I recently started reading “My Gender Workbook” by Kate Barnstein and now the question rolling around in my head is: “What is gender?” More specifically, what makes a man a man and a woman a woman? Is it all in the reproductive organs? I’ve always been taught that reproductive organs dictate sex but not gender, that gender was more of a mindset.

So, fellow dopers, are you a woman, a man, somewhere in between? Why? What makes you what you are? How do you define these terms?


As I understand it, gender is a purely social notion that determines how we behave and interact with each other. Sex is the term used to refer to what we are physically, and even then you have to distinguish between external sex (what’s between your legs) and internal sex (what’s between your ears).

The usual answer is that sex is the body and gender is everything else… but in many ways sex itself can be socially constructed, for example in the case of intersex people.

Me? I identify as a genderqueer boy, “genderqueer” meaning that part of my gendered identity is unacceptable to the bigendered system, specifically that I’m a femme gay guy, and that I’ve chosen to specifically label that part of my identity. Most people accept the gender they were brought up with; I’ve had a hard (internal) road on that topic, and although I still identify as the gender I was raised at, I think I’ve finally made it so that now it’s my own decision.

The funny thing is that when I was a kid, there were two genders. Then, when I began studying German, I was made aware of a third. Now there are God knows how many, as matt_mcl makes clear by referencing a gender I have never heard of. Myself? By gender, sex, or any such social construct, I would refer to myself as male. How boring is that?

Heh. Boring? Hardly – there are as many ways of being a guy as there are guys. If it works for you, it’s all good. :slight_smile:

I’m with matt_mcl, that’s not boring! I’m curious though, what makes you describe yourself as male? Is it just that you have a penis (I’m making the assumption…), or is there something else about you that you feel is inherently male?


Maybe slight hijack, apologies if so…

I had a beef here (sorry, no cite yet) about people using “gender” when they could just as well, and probably better, use “sex.” I held forth (sucessfully or not) that there’s no reason to use “gender” when you can just say “sex,” and that gender was originally about language specifically (waiter/waitress; he/she). Why say “The male gender” instead of “the male sex”"?

Another doper asserted that even when talking about people, you could refer to gender and sex separately. A person might be sexually male but have a female gender. This just seemed semantically unproven to me, but I didn’t give any real response. I think it still seems to me like the word you want is “sexuality.” E.g., “He’s a man, but his sexuality is somewhat feminine.”
NOT: “He’s a man, but his gender is somewhat feminine.”

So, if you ask me, gender is:

  1. a grammatical term
  2. a euphenism for “sex”
  3. High Opal!

Well, yes, sex, as race, is a social construct, and your own comments beg the question.

When you see a man who acts “effeminately,” and your friend wants to comment on that, does he say “His gender was kinda of female.”? I hope not, because any person who speaks normal English would say: “He acted kind of effeminately.” Or “His sexuality was somewhat effeminate.”

Why do you need this “gender” nonsense?

We need to distinguish here. An effeminate man (such as myself) is one whose gender is male (his sex may or may not be male), but whose gender expression is other than that which society deems appropriate for a man.

A person whose sex is male but whose gender is female, on the other hand, is a transgendered woman: one who identifies as a woman and who wishes for society to treat her as a woman (regardless of her gender presentation, which may be butch, femme, or whatever), but who was assigned male at birth on the basis of her genitals.

Sexuality is usually used to refer to all aspects of a person’s sexual response, including their sexual orientation, sexual tastes and preferences, sexual issues, etc., not so much their gender (although their sexuality and their gender may be bound up together in certain ways, such as for people who derive sexual pleasure from various forms of gender expression).

To clarify, I identify as a man, as I said (my gender), I possess what society usually deems to be male genitals (my sex), and I present as a man, i.e. my appearance is such that I am usually deemed to be a man (my gender presentation).

Many aspects of my gender expression, however, are other than that which society deems appropriate for a man. This does not stop it or me from identifying me as a man; however, it is the source of prejudice, and I have chosen to label that part of my identity as genderqueer.

If all of this were the case except that I had been born with genitals other than those society deems male, I would be a transsexual man. (There’s nothing contradictory about being a femme trans man, incidentally; I know several.)

Gender is what you consider yourself. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s not a function of chromosomes; there are many chromosomal abnormalities that still produce healthy people.

It’s not external anatomy; first, there is the issue of ambiguous genitilia, and second, the fact that there are people who identify as male or female after their genitals have sustained injuries and damage.

It’s certainly not behavioral; as has been pointed out, diametrically opposed behaviors can both be part of male gender identities.

It’s not what you’re treated as, unless you’re willing to suddenly become female on the days that people just see you from behind and note your long hair.

Well, some aspects of gender are what society attributes to you, possibly in contradiction with your own identity: we speak of ‘gendering’ someone. For example, when someone looks at my appearance and assumes that I identify as a man, they are gendering me. I am privileged in that I am usually gendered the same way I identify. Many people do not have that privilege and may be gendered at odds with their identity.

Huh? I’m really confused. Maybe there’s some new use of terms that I haven’t picked up on. If so, I apologize. I realize that sex and sexuality are things that are neither black or white. But that’s why we have qualifiers.

Here you use “gender” to mean sex. He’s a man. Hence, he must be male. His sex is male.

Whaddya mean? You just said “An effeminate man…” You just said he’s male.

You don’t need to say “gender expression.” We already have a word for it: sexuality. Or you can say “sexual expression.”" E.g., “His sexual expression is other than that which society deems appropriate for a man.”
“Sex” is not just about what happens in bed. Neither is “sexuality.” Both words refer to all those things that got unnecessarily attached to “gender,” because of a prudish desire to avoid the word “sex.”

Just say, “A person whose sex is male but whose sexuality is female…” I’m sure you can do it. [George Orwell must be turning in his grave.] Don’t join the prudes! “Gender” should be about grammar.

What you consider yourself is not “gender.” It’s “(self) identity.” You can say “sexual identity” if you want to be more specific. I can find no dictionary, by the way, that defines “gender” as anything more than a euphenism for “sex.” You can’t change your sex by “considering” yourself differently.

I sometimes feel like a man trapped in a woman’s body.

First, I have always enjoyed hanging out with the boys and participating in “tomboy” activities, such as fishing, riding motorcycles, shooting pool and the like. It’s not that I don’t enjoy “girl” activities; I do. Just not as many of them.

Second, I’m very aggressive. Not just assertive – aggressive. I’m also ambitious and driven, all traits traditionally thought of as male. It sucks being a girl with these characteristics. Men feel threatened by it, and women think I’m behaving poorly.

However, I’ve noticed that when I’m online and people think they’re talking to a man, there is a much greater acceptance of these traits than if they think they’re talking to a woman.

But it’s society that makes me feel manlike; I don’t feel like a man inside.

Years ago, a friend of mine – a man who knew me pretty well – was shocked when he saw my apartment for the first time. “It’s so … girly,” he said.

I’ll never understand it.

No; at birth, he may have been assigned either to the male or female sex. If he was assigned male, he is non-transgendered; if he was assigned female, he probably identifies as a transgendered man and may have undergone some process to alter his gender presentation, or his physical sex, to present as male. Or else his body could be intersex (and was probably assigned to one or the other sex, possibly involving a non-consensual surgical modification as an infant).

“Sexuality” and “sexual expression” are too vague in this case – they seem to mean “sexual (i.e. erotic) response.” “Gender expression” is more precise: the fashion in which he expresses his gender, or the parts about his personality or behaviour that are gendered in some way.

As I said, the problem is that “sexuality” is far too broad for the concepts in question. It has nothing to do with prudishness, but with a desire for precision and clarity.

For one thing, gender is not related to sexual response. Males, females, intersex and androgynous people, transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, and non-trans persons, all show the entire range of sexual orientations (gay/lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, asexual…) and sexual tastes. Gender variance is not merely a special case of sexual orientation or preferences; it needs a different set of vocabulary.

(And has it – this is not some kind of proposal, let me point out, but the way the language has been used in our milieux and in the social and medical sciences for quite some time now).

I’ll give you an example. In French, the word genre is starting to be used for the English word ‘gender’ in these senses, but some competing terms exist, such as identité sexuelle.

A young fellow called up the Denise Bombardier show and said that, as a bisexual, he was experiencing some problems dealing with his identité sexuelle, by which he meant his ‘sexual identity’ – his sense of himself relating to his erotic response.

She completely misunderstood and went into this whole thing about ‘oh, that’s very serious, it’s very difficult not to know if you’re a man or a woman’ – which is not at all what he meant. Had she drawn a distinction between

Right. You can change your gender that way (or at least, if you consider yourself differently, it’s a sign that your gender is other than that which was assigned you. To change sex is usually thought of as requiring at least some kind of surgical and/or endocrine modification.

Really? I have two – the Canadian Oxford, 1998, and Dorland’s Illustrated Medical, 2003. Be patient; things need time to catch up. (Hell, my Canadian Oxford doesn’t even have the word “transgender” in it, which has been around for Og knows how long; but the new edition does.)

I’m in sort of the same boat, being a femme boy, although it seems to me that there aren’t too many women that actually do the things that I get called femme for. Well, non illegitimi carborundorum and all that.

This is the difference I alluded to between gender expression and gender identity. When society genders you, it considers many of the things you do to be inappropriate for how you identify (as a woman). Well, that’s society’s problem, isn’t it – even though we feel as though any divergence from the stereotypes about maleness and femaleness is somehow strange, nobody could possibly fit them all, and we each diverge to a greater or lesser extent.

Excuse me. Had she drawn a distinction between genre and sexualité, she would have been easily able to understand his problem; as it is, she completely misinterpreted it.

Correct with your assumption. What this thread makes clear is that the people who have thought most about gender (like matt_mcl) are the ones who have fallen outside the hugely reductionist two-gender view that I had as a kid. At that time, if you were a boy, you acted like a boy, and everyone knew what that meant – otherwise, you were a “sissy” or “acting like a girl.”

Anyway, it happened that by being male (equipment-wise), and falling on the heterosexual side of the fence, the question of gender, as an issue of self-definition, never came up as acutely for me as it did for some others. Yup, the unexamined life, that’s for me!