What is Gender?

I’m female, but without a strong gender identity. I’m one of those people who finds not the science of transgenderism baffling, but the feeling of it. I don’t know what it means to “feel like a woman” or “feel like a man.” It seems many people grasp it automatically, and some, like me, think we could wake up tomorrow in the body of the opposite physical sex and be pretty fine with it. Can’t test it, though, and I’m willing to learn that it’s crazy thinking.

I have a female body. I am accepted as female by society. I have heterosexual orientation. I have both male and female stereotypical behaviors. I do not identify strongly as female.

I wish society didn’t insist that gender (meaning sex, to most people) was a matter of whether you check the M box or the F box on forms.

I’ve always found it ironic that we have the message “It’s what’s on the inside that counts” drilled into us from childhood … you know, it doesn’t matter what color someone is, whether they’re disabled, whether they’re physically unattractive, etc etc … how someone’s born doesn’t matter, it’s who they are inside that counts.

And yet, when it comes to gender, people insist that books must be judged by their covers. If you’re born with a penis, you’re male. If you’re born with a vagina, you’re female. If you’re born with something that doesn’t fit one of those two categories, then it must be altered to fit, and whatever category the doctor puts you in, that’s what you are. The only thing that matters is how you were physically born.

That just strikes me as pretty hypocritical. If a man is born with one leg instead of two, he’s no less of a man. If he’s born blind, he’s still a man. If he makes Caliban and Quasimodo shudder in horror, he’s still a man. But if he doesn’t have the correct factory-installed plumbing … nope, not a man.*

Maybe I’m just biased, as someone whose sex is female but whose gender doesn’t fit in the M box or the F box.

  • I just realized this looks like I think onelegged men, blind men, and people not generally found attractive shouldn’t be considered men … not true at all. Just examples I pulled out of my ass.

I’m trying to work with you matt, so please be patient. My concern is purely semantic. And, yes, I understand that people are not purely hetero or homo, that most people are somewhere in between, and that male/female/masculine/feminine are used in various ways. And if people want to change or redeifine themselves (either physically or socially), it’s fine with me; all the more power to you.

It seems that there are various concepts that you’re talking about, and you (and apparently others) use the word gender to make them distinct.

What exactly do you mean when you say may have been assigned??? Using the passive voice just can muddle things unnecessarily. Are you saying that society, for one reason or another assigns a newborn baby its sex?

To me, male and female (i.e., sex) are pretty straight forward. Physiologically, the genitals are either male or female. (Or, there can be a “deformity,” but for the sake of argument let’s leave that out.)

Could you please translate this to English?

Are you trying to say that parents, doctors, etc. don’t look at the genitals before checking that box on the birth certificate? Are you saying that sex is “assigned” by whimsy?

Really? I never said anything about eroticism. Check those two fancy dictionaries you have. That’s what I meant when I talked about “prudes.” It seems people are forgetting what the word sexual means, so they’re using gender instead.

For me, there is nothing at all more precise in using the word gender. The word sexuality served this exact purpose for many years. Are you under 20? Maybe that’s why.

Actually, I think what has happened is that sexual minorities [ok, gender minorities] have been so misunderstood and discriminated against that they have felt the need to adopt and devise lexicon and sematic uses that help them to feel legitimate in this world of biggoted assholes [there I said it].

If that indeed is the case, I’ll happily accept gender rather than sexuality.

But still, I’d like to know how you come to the conclusion that sexuality is “far too broad.” If you’re doing this for political/ideological reasons, I’ll accept it. Granted, my dictionary is eight years old, and I don’t have an OED handy, but if you want to throw away the traditional definitions of sexuality and replace them with gender, go ahead. Just be upfront about it.

And sexual identity is not always related to physical sexual response, contrary to what you may think.

It’'s like you’re eating a bowl of soup, and I keep trying to give you a spoon to eat the soup with, but you say the spoon is “too general,” and use a spork. Why? Because if you use a spork the soup must be that much more meaningful.

Society assigns a newborn baby a gender. No matter what sexual organs a child is born with, no matter what the child will eventually feel like, society needs to have a gender for the child. Usually, the gender assigned is the same as the sexual organs the child is born with, and usually those sexual organs seem to go with, or at least not conflict with, the way the child will eventually feel.
On the fly, there are at least five parts to this:

  1. Physical body, excluding brain, of male, female, or both/neither
  2. Brain “wiring” of male, female, or both/neither
  3. Assumed gender (by society) of male or female, usually based on 1
  4. Assigned gender (by society)
  5. Gender self-identification

1 is generally external and superficial. E.g. If you have a penis, you’re male.

2 is disputed, but I think most people in the know would agree that there seems to be a difference between male and female brains, and that some trans folk have the brains of the “wrong” sex for their external physical features.

3 is what society assumes by considering your external physical features and your behaviors.

4 is where the expectations of society fall, where boys should be “boyish” and girls “girlish”.

5 is how the person feels inside, whether agreeing with 1-4 or disagreeing.
2 is the one that most of us can’t say about ourselves. I don’t know what sort of brain I’ve got, and because 1 and 3 don’t conflict with 5 for me, it’s no biggie.

When 4 or 5 conflicts with 1 or 3, trouble happens. Assumedly, when 2 conflicts with 1 is where the trouble starts.
I’m proofreading, but I can almost guarantee I screwed up at least once in there.

In anthropology, the official statement is that gender is a social construct and sex is biological. A lot of societies have strict gender roles. In some of these societies, it doesn’t matter what you were born as, but what you identify as. For example, a male could take on the attributes of a woman and be considered as a woman by his tribe. Such an individual would be a male (sex) woman (gender).

I feel that sex is much to broad of a term since it can be used for chromosomes, genitals and gonads. An individual with AIS would be chromosomally male, yet genitally (?) female. Most of these individuals have a womanly gender identity.

I, myself, am a genetic female who has always regarded herself as a woman. I went through periods when I was younger where I was so tomboyish, I only wore boy’s clothing and even tried to pass myself off as male, but I always identified as a woman. Although I have a lot of masculine characteristics to my personality and wouldn’t mind having a functional penis as well as a vagina, it is not a necessity and I get along fine with the parts I have.

For several years, I dated an individual who was born with a penis and XY chromosomes. This individual, I shall call Risu, is male based on sex. However, Risu had hormone issues and more estrogen and less testosterone was produced in her body than most males. I say “her” with good reason, because Risu identifies as a woman. For an anthropologist studying Risu, she is a male woman. Risu does not intend to get corrective surgery on her genitals although she identifies as a woman and has legally changed her name and the M on her driver’s license to F. Risu is “genderqueer” or “transgendered.”

Then there is my friend Naomi. Naomi was born XY and with a penis, yet she felt at odds with her body and her gender identity as a man. She had corrective surgery in order to change her penis into a vagina and took estrogen and testosterone blockers to make her form feminine. She is transsexual - an individual who desires to change their genitals from sex to another. Because her genitals are those of a female, Naomi can be considered a female woman, although there are individuals who would classify her as a male woman based on her chromosomes.

I know it is very confusing when you first encounter it. :smiley:

Yes, I’m very much aware of this. It seems to me that the difference between “sexuality” and “gender” is that “gender” is something that is (almost) entirely a social construct. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine any society that would “assign” a gender to a child that is contrary to its sexual organs, but I understand the concept.

DOCTOR: Oh, look, the baby has a penis. But we need more females here in Macholand. Let’s just say it’s a girl.

MOTHER: Okay Doctor, whatever you say. I’ll order the pink pajamas right away.

OTOH, I can imagine a person who is born physiologically one way (“male” or “female”), but doesn’t feel how society expects such a person to feel. In this case, I don’t see why you can’t use the term “sexuality,” but if you want to say “gender” to emphasize that it’s a social construction, that makes sense to me.

The problem is that most institutions don’t use the term “gender” in that way, just as “race,” which is arguably equally a social construct, is not used that way. When they ask someone’s “race,” they think they’re asking about something which is cut and dried. When they ask someone their gender, they’re not asking for his or her self-concept. They probably don’t have “trans-gendered female” in the boxes they check off.

So I guess there are various things going on here:

  1. “gender” as a euphemism for “sex”
  2. “gender” as a term to specify social-sexual identity, whether voluntary or not
  3. Hi Opal!

So, yeah, I can see #2 as a way to distinguish between the way one’s body feels from the identity one offers, or is forced to offer because of social factors. The only thing is that very few institutions use #2; most still use #1.

I guess I’ve been out of the loop, but this particular use of the term “gender,” if my understanding is correct, seems very helpful. We need the same thing for “race.” One’s biological race can differ greatly from one’s “social” race–how society views one.

Well, race doesn’t really have a biological component the way sex does. It’s just that people think it does. That’s a whole 'nother kettle of fish, isn’t it?

It is done. Not very often in our modern times, but I know one at least one case personally. A good friend of mine is Chinese with most of her relatives living in China. A cousin of hers was born a guy but because that family hadn’t born any girls for quite some time, was raised as a girl. This individual is in his 20s now and considers himself a guy despite his upbringing as a girl.

I’ve read about it in other cultures before - if a family had all daughters, they would sometimes select one daughter to be raised as a boy in order to insure that the property remained in the family. The entire tribe treated these females as men.

Well, that IS the sake of the argument (this one): intersex people (those with “ambiguous” genitals) are more or less arbitrarily assigned to one sex or the other, often without the parents’ knowledge; surgery is usually recommended as a very pressing issue, and sometimes even performed without obtaining the parents’ consent – and certainly not without waiting for the child to figure out what s/he is or what s/he would prefer.

In other words, even one’s genital sex can be assigned and imposed on one if it disrupts the assumptions of those with power over one.

For more information, check out the Intersex Society of North America.

Were we to ignore the case of intersex people, I would have said, “…No, he may have had either male or female genitals.” However, I was trying to use inclusive language.

Now, when I say that society assigns one a gender, I mean that on the basis of whether your genitals are (considered) male or female, society makes a whole host of assumptions about how you will identify yourself. As soon as a child with a penis is born, that child is given a man’s name, the “It’s a boy!” cards go out, “M” is checked on the birth certificate, and so forth. In most cases, those will be satisfactory – but at any time, this person might realize that any or all of these are just incorrect and don’t fit. The person realizes they are a different gender from that which was assigned at birth on the basis of their genitals.

Compare it to the difference between the words “science” and “philosophy,” for example. For the longest time, what we now call science was philosophy. Then for a while, there was a branch of philosophy called science (which is why scientists are Doctors of Philosophy). Now, we use those two words to mean completely distinct things, though they may overlap in the border areas.

Likewise, what we now call gender would for a while have been considered an element of sexuality, even as we now use the term (transsexuality was thought to stem from a psychoerotic disturbance, for example). Then gender came into its own as part of sexuality. Now we realize that gender is different from sexuality.

For what it’s worth, I realize that sexual can mean “of or pertaining to sex, in the sense of male/female” besides “of or pertaining to erotic response.” However, even in this case, we are not necessarily discussing sex; we’re making a distinction between sex and gender. For example, a person who has sex reassignment surgery is not changing their gender; they’re changing their sex to correspond with their gender.

When I say " ‘sexuality’ is far too broad…" etc., it’s for the reasons I mentioned. Even beyond the fact that gender is not necessarily bound up with physical sex and not at all with sexual response, the fact is that “sexuality” does cover the latter two aspects. If I were to use the word “sexuality” to refer to gender, and I said that a person were having issues with their sexuality, Og only knows what I’m referring to – it could be their sexual orientation, their foot fetish, their menstrual cycle, their erectile dysfunction, their infertility, anything. “Gender,” although it too is a general term, at least has the advantage of clarifying that erotic response is not at issue.

In other words, it’s not a matter of using the word “gender” because it’s a euphemism for sex. It’s a matter of using “gender” to refer to something different from sex (however defined).

I hope this makes it clearer.

That should be “certainly without waiting…”

This is hardly analogous, considering the time spans and types of knowledge that are involved here. I get the point that semantics change, but you’re equating decades with centuries. Your idea of “gender” is not a new concept. (It’s an old concept with a new label.) The change from “philosophy” to “science” involved a great deal of very significant discoveries and the evolution of epistemology that ensued.

Again, you speak as though there were something new, and hence the need for a new term. There really is nothing new here. Yes, public discourse has changed (a greater range of sexual identity is recognized), but the referents are the same. I think maybe that because people today can talk in public about a greater variety of sexual identities (or types of sexuality)–what you call “gender”–you feel that we need a new word for it. But really we don’t. There’s no reason to believe that these haven’t always existed.

The term is not “sex.” It’s “sexual identity.”

Just say: “So-and-so is having issues with their sexual identity.” Nothing about physical sex in that. That communicates your concept of “gender” quite well. You seem to be focusing on the “sexual” too much and ignoring the “identity.” Maybe it would suit you better to say “sexual self-identity.” I think part of the issue for you is who “assigns” the identity, and this, I agree, is important.

Your notion of “gender,” OTOH, begs the question of “sexual response.” (What you call “gender,” and what most people call “sexual identity,” seems to be entirely about “sexual response,” (not physiological or hormonal response, sociological response) though the term is somewhat vague, and maybe I don’t get what you mean by it.)

There’s no real semantic need here for new lexicon (or new connotations for old lexicon), but I can understand if you want to employ the term “gender” because so many people with “non-traditional” sexual identities have been descriminated against and neglected. It’s a kind of linguistic empowerment, and that’s cool.

As a practical matter, in conversation, is the question as to whether to refer to a person as “he” or “she” solely one of respecting that person’s wishes? Would there be any reason (other than cattiness) to speak otherwise?

When I mentioned science and philosophy, it wasn’t to suggest that they corresponded right down the line; it was to draw an analogy about the kind of semantic shift I’m talking about.

But I mentioned that before, when I gave the example of the Denise Bombardier show: sexual identity could include anything with regard to the person’s sexuality that they regard as being part of their identity.

And for that matter, my gender doesn’t have much to do with my sex. Being Queer is much more a part of my “sexual identity” than being a boy, or being genderqueer, does.

I may not be expressing myself well, but as we use the term gender, it is not coterminous with sexual identity. It’s not a matter of prudishness (most of us have little compunction about talking about sex), nor of reclaiming anything – just of accuracy with the vocabulary we have.

To be quite honest, I don’t understand the resistance – queer, genderqueer, and trans people, in addition to sociologists, psychologists, and sexologists, have used this vocabulary for quite some time now and it suits our purposes very nicely. The vocabulary is in evolution, but on this sense of “gender” the train has pretty much left the station.

I’ve never heard a person in the trans or genderqueer community advocate doing anything besides following the person’s wishes, just as you use the name they prefer.

Using jsgoddess**'s formulation:

1. Physical body, excluding brain, of male, female, or both/neither

Mine is male, xy, not atypical

2. Brain “wiring” of male, female, or both/neither

That’s trickier. I don’t know how much of what is thought to be “the innate difference between the sexes” is cultural and how much is biological. (And I don’t think anyone else does, either). Throughout my life I’ve had the pervasive feeling that I was more like one of the girls than one of the boys. There’s been a fairly high amount of external concurrence on that, too.

3. Assumed gender (by society) of male or female, usually based on 1

Except for “over the phone”, people think I’m a male. (I am “ma’am” to a lot of folks who don’t otherwise know me when talking on the phone though)

4. Assigned gender (by society)

Society uses a ‘construct’, normal masculine hetero male, and assumes that I ought to fit it, and I’ve been exposed to a lot of judgmental hostility when found to be otherwise. Society also sometimes uses a second-tier classification for guys who don’t appear to be normal masculine hetero males, and I’ve had some uncomfortable clashes due to that one not fitting either.

5. Gender self-identification

I call myself a hetero sissy.

:eek: Seriously?! So even if the kid get’s lucky enough to have some open minded parents who are prepared to deal with this kind of thing, they still don’t have a chance? That’s horrible. How do they get away with that?

Well, I’m not resisting, I just think you don’t really have any linguistic need to differentiate things like transgender, Queer, etc. from sexual identity. It’s an “accuracy” which is not necessary. Granted, there are psycho/social dimensions to these that set them apart, but they’re still just forms of sexual identity. It’s like someone’s been eating meatloaf and potatoes for years, and then suddenly discovers Greek and Indian food. “These are very different things to eat,” he says. “I don’t want to call them ‘food.’ I’ll call them ‘ingestibles.’” In the end, it’s still all food, though.

It seems more like a sociological phenomenon than a true semantic need. Because these particular sexual identities are relatively more complex and “marginalized,” those who discuss them want to “dereify” them as a separate catagory. Well, whatever floats your boat.

But this is the thing: even accepting for the nonce that gender (as I use it) is part of a “sexual identity” defined such that (for example) sexual orientation is too, you need to distinguish between those two things, so you still need to use the word “gender,” because you still need to distinguish between subsets of sexual identity.

To continue your food example, accepting that, say, breakfast, dinner, and dessert foods are all kinds of foods, you still need vocabulary to distinguish them within the class of food.

Now I still think that, as most people use the term sexual identity, gender isn’t really the best example of it. After all, it doesn’t deal with eroticism-sexuality, and the whole point of it is that it doesn’t deal with phenotype-sexuality either (since your gender is what you are regardless of your physical embodiment.) Bodies get gendered, of course, but the whole point is that we’re thinking of it as something besides the body.

But even if you include gender in sexual identity, you still need vocabulary to distinguish it from the other kinds of sexual identity. That’s what I’m saying.

What has been called the concealment-centred standard of care calls for intersex conditions to be ‘corrected’ immediately, to supposedly spare the child and parents the humiliation of having to be different in society. Of course, this overlooks the humiliation suffered during the procedures, which are sometimes repeated long after infancy, as well as the harmful effects of having healthy genital tissue cut away; not to mention the ethical implications of this kind of very drastic, but cosmetic*, surgery on someone who is too young to consent.

(*We are not talking about genital surgery that is medically required by the nature of the child’s condition, for example in the case of an infant born without a urethra.)

I should point out that this is not necessarily some kind of drastic physical irregularity; it could be no more than a little girl whose clitoris is longer than some particular standard - I’ve seen the figure 3/8".

The point is that in the case of healthy infants whose genitals do not meet some particular norm, the potential psychosocial ramifications of this should be dealt with through psychosocial therapies – not through cosmetic surgery on the infant.