What Is Gender?

In March 2017, Time magazine ran a special issue on gender, using the words “beyond he or she” on the front cover. And they are not alone in their interest. Gender, once of concern mostly to academics and writers, has now caught the attention of the mainstream. But what is gender? And why do so many people find the whole subject so confusing – and annoying?

Biology, Sexuality and Gender

Before any kind of discussion can take place, gender must first be distinguished from sex and sexuality. Many people assume these are synonymous, but this is not the case. Of course, not everyone is sympathetic to these discussions. Raise the subject with a random group of people and you will soon encounter irritation and even hostility. Some argue that those who campaign on these issues are often trendy poseurs looking for something to be angry about. And at some point these critics will say “in any case you can’t escape biology. A man will always be a man and a woman will always be a woman – no matter what the academics say.” Such an attitude is unfortunate and is often based on ignorance.

Someone’s gender is not the same thing as someone’s biology. Sex covers the biological differences between people: hormones, sexual organs etc. But gender is different. Whereas biology is shaped by nature, gender is dictated by family, culture, and society. Put another way, your sex is determined by an X or Y chromosome, but your gender is determined by the culture into which you are born. And the characteristics and traits expected of a woman or man change. In Elizabethan England, for example, men wore silk ‘ruffs’ and dangling earrings, whereas their mid-20th century equivalents would have considered this effeminate, even revolting.

Imagine two friends named John and Sarah. Their biological differences are obvious: John has a penis, testicles, a hairy chest, and thick, strong limbs; Sarah has a vagina, breasts, thinner arms and so on. However, they were born in a community whose inhabitants hold conservative, Christian beliefs. In this community, a man is expected to be ‘manly’ – to build up his muscles, keep his emotions under control, and be physically protective of his wife and children. A woman, on the other hand, is expected to be gentle, quiet, nurturing, romantic, and emotional. Their gender identities have been determined for them by the community in which they were born. Had they been raised among Bohemian artists in London, Paris, or New York, these identities would have been less rigid.

Finally, there is the matter of sexuality. Gender and sexual orientation are not the same either. A man may be sexually attracted to another man and yet display the traits commonly associated with a manly man (enjoying rough sports, for example, or playing soldiers as a child etc.), just as a woman may be sexually attracted to another woman and yet herself be very feminine. Both gender and sexual orientation are forms of identity. But gender is personal; sexual orientation is interpersonal.

Biological Differences

According to Professor Linda Nicholson, even the human body has been defined in different ways throughout the centuries. According to Nicholson, until the 18th century male and female genitals were considered essentially the same. Or, rather, they were thought to be different only in degree. In other words, a woman’s genitalia was regarded as incomplete male genitalia.

The author Anne Fausto-Sterling goes even further. In her article The Five Sexes, she criticizes Western culture for restricting people to just two sexes. Sterling adds three more to this list: hermaphrodites, female pseudohermaphrodites (individuals with ovaries and some male genitalia but no testes), and male pseudohermaphrodites (individuals who do have testes and some female genitalia but no ovaries). Like Professor Nicholson, she argues that previous generations understood the human body differently. According to Sterling, the strict division into male and female did not occur until the end of the middle ages. After this, intersex individuals were forced to choose one identity or the other.

Gender and Identity

Those who write on the subject of gender often stress the right of the individual to work out their own identity. And if this is to be possible, they argue, we must end the tyranny of a male-female divide.

The language used in gender discussions can sometimes be confusing. To begin with, everyone is assigned a gender at birth. Sometimes this label is consistent with how the individual feels, sometimes it isn’t. When the label on their birth certificate matches the way someone self-identifies, that individual is described as “cisgender”. When the sex assigned at birth does not match someone’s gender identity, that person is known as “transgender”.

Gender is increasingly being defined as a spectrum and not as something restricted to just male and female (known as the “gender binary” view). When a child identifies as wholly male or wholly female, they have what is known as a “binary gender identity”. But some reject this and identify as both, neither, or something different altogether. When this happens, they are identified as “agender”.

Unsurprisingly, children can find all this very confusing. And many need time not only to work out their identity but to distinguish sexuality from gender. Transgender kids often wonder whether or not they are gay and, sadly, are often taken advantage of. For example, a heterosexual girl may allow an older lesbian to convince her that she is gay when in fact she is merely interested in the things traditionally associated with men.

Gender and Expression

Many now argue that the struggle for gender rights is comparable to the struggle for gay rights. And the first step on this road is the right to free expression. Unfortunately, many people still feel constrained by the strict male-female division. This is especially true during adolescence. It would demand immense courage for a student to walk into their High School speaking, acting, or dressing in ways considered abnormal by their peers.

But it should be remembered that challenges to conventional expectations have been mounted – and quite recently. In the 1970s, for example, male glam rockers like David Bowie and Roxy Music would go on stage wearing lipstick and even dresses. And in early 1980s England, New Romantics like Boy George and Adam Ant championed a new, androgynous look. More recently, the stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, a heterosexual man, came out as a transvestite and has appeared on stage with red nail varnish and female clothes.

Many seem intimidated by this new battle for gender rights. But the sense of fear and intimidation is quite unnecessary. It must never be forgotten that the battle is to extend the rights, not restrict them. If someone wishes to identify as a conventionally macho, heterosexual man, then that is fine too!

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