#Gender101

This entry is an attempt to share a cliff notes version of Gender 101, for those readers who may find themselves confused and uncomfortable with engaging in conversations about gender as a result of lacking a basic capacity to navigate through terminology. The reason I’m writing this is partly because I was asked to, and partly because I once lacked the same terminology and understanding, and so I found it difficult to express myself or understand how to be a better ally. Anything that is missing from this page or is erroneously reported is due entirely to my own deficit in knowledge.

Ally

An ally is someone whose gender identity and/or sexual orientation is/are relatively socially privileged (such as someone who is heterosexual, and/or born in a body that reflects the gender they experience from within), but who prioritizes raising consciousness or debunking harmful stereotypes. There are good and bad allies: a good ally is motivated by an awareness of injustice and a drive to do their part to eliminate it; a bad ally is motivated by feelings of guilt for being in a relatively privileged position or by getting an ego-boost for trying.

LGBTQ

LGBTQ is the short form of an acronym (i.e., lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans*/queer) that keeps getting longer and longer, and is sometimes playfully referred to as “alphabet soup” for this reason. More serious gestures include using the acronym “LGBTQ+” or the current full length acronym, which I’m sure will be missing at least one letter by the time I look it up for you.

Sex

Sex is a biological phenotype (i.e., male, female, intersex). It is the attribute of one’s identity that is determined by which chromosomes one has (and which genes are turned on or off). It is the state one’s body is born in. It is the set of physical characteristics that are referred to as one’s primary and secondary sex characteristics as an adult. It is part of concrete reality. Sex is often mistaken for being the same thing as gender, which is actually an abstract part of reality (i.e., we ought to intellectually extract the concept of gender from discussions about biological sex, because they aren’t synonymous even when they are congruous).

Intersex

Intersex is a medical term (that may sometimes but not always also describe the gender identity of a person who is described as medically intersex). In the simplest terms, it is any body that is considered (medically) gender-ambiguous at birth, though some intersex conditions only manifest upon gonadarche (the sudden increase in production of sex-determining hormones). While intersex bodies are traditionally understood by the mainstream as some sort of weird, alien concoction of “both sexes” (historically called hermaphroditism, which is now considered grossly insensitive), this is actually a very narrow, inappropriately reductive conception of the “intersex identity” (as if there is just one) within an entire spectrum of intersex conditions that are known to exist within the human species. Some statistics suggest that as many as one in every 5,000 births in North America is of an intersex infant. Until the 1990s (when intersex activism became visible to the Western mainstream for the first time), North American surgeons frequently violated intersex infants and children with compulsive gender reassignment surgery (in some cases a second time, in order to “correct” children who exhibited what was considered incongruous gender expression). Many of these surgeries were conducted even without parental consent (let alone at the request of the patients themselves), and many non-consensually reassigned intersex persons have been left with lasting functional impairments. While the medical community has gained from this history, in the development of gender reassignment surgical techniques that allow the majority of today’s post-operative transsexuals to retain sexual function without leaving them as visible anatomical anomalies, these developments would have been made with consenting patients, and it was wrong to try to erase intersex lives with the application of the scalpel.

Gender

Gender is a social construct that is used and enforced by society as a practical system of organizing people in society into two basic groups (such as by the sign on the washroom that tells you whether to expect urinals or stalls on the other side of the door). These two groups, men and women, are referred to as the gender binary. They are also sometimes expressed as an ordered pair of opposites, written as man/woman (there are many ordered pairs of opposites, such as white/colour and able/disabled, that are used to organize people into two basic groups, and this organization results in groups which experience social privilege while others experience social oppression — feminist convention when writing ordered pairs is to list the privileged group first, for the purpose of acknowledging that they are privileged). Gender is not something one is born with, that is written somewhere in your chromosomes, that is immutable/unchanging/permanent, or that is determined on the basis of how one’s distinguishing body parts are arranged. When people talk about gender, we are talking about an abstract concept and a social construct.

Non-Consensual Gendering

Many transpeople report having experienced non-consensual gendering, both in their childhood, and into the present. This is the erroneous projection of a perceived gender (based on how their body is “socially read” by the perceiver) onto a person who internally experiences a different gender (or lack thereof). Thus, when I was born female, and raised a girl, I was non-consensually gendered through my entire childhood. And today, when someone sees the shape of my body or the (current) absence of coarse facial hair, and assumes this as an indicator of how I experience my gender, they are non-consensually gendering me. Many transpeople find non-consensual gendering a form of violation against them personally, and some even argue that everyone is non-consensually gendered, as the current organization of society does not encourage one to explore either the meaning of gender or their internal subjective experience of it. Rather, it is argued, exploration of gender is actively discouraged by the present structures of society, because we have all internalized so deeply, the organization of people based on body shapes and assumed gender-congruence, that we enforce these assumptions on each other every day.

Gender Identity

Everyone has a gender identity of some sort (even those whose gender identity is agender, or “without a gender”). It is the subjective experience of congruity or incongruity you have with respect to your own body. If you are agender, for example, but your body has a phenotypic sex (and secondary sex characteristics), this is referred to as gender-incongruity, because your gender identity is not reflected accurately by your physical, sexed body.

Exploring Gender

Exploring gender is a self-guided process of introspection about one’s subjective experiences of gender identity in relation to one’s physical sex and/or society’s constructions of the gender binary (i.e., “man/woman”). Many people begin exploring gender in their childhood, and for a long time, the majority of parents and public school teachers attempted to stop this process, making it unsafe for individual people to explore gender until they were adults. Some of these attempts to enforce rigid gender constructs (i.e., stereotypes) are experienced, by people who try many different ways as children to explore gender, as traumatic. These sorts of traumatic experiences of gender are frequently used as an excuse to belittle or invalidate people whose gender identity is not socially privileged, which is wrong, and constitutes a form of gender-based oppression.

Social Transition

Social transition is a process by which one makes adjustments to the way they talk about their gender identity and communicate this change to others, either on a need-to-know basis or to more people (such as the public). It may include a change in one’s name, a declaration of preferred pronouns, and/or changes in the manner in which one dresses at home, in public, and/or in school/at work.  Social transition is accomplished without making any physical changes to one’s biological sex through access to surgery and/or hormones. Some people who socially transition make more than one social transition over their lifetime.

Gender Reassignment

Gender reassignment is a clinical term that describes surgical transition and/or chemical transition (i.e., the use of synthetic sex hormones that are different from those naturally produced by one’s body). Individuals who experience physical sex-gender identity incongruity often seek gender reassignment in order to relieve intense and persistent negative feelings towards their own bodies that interfere with their day-to-day functioning and relationships, when socially transitioning is not enough to relieve those persistent negative feelings.

Gender Embodiment

Everyone has a gender embodiment of some sort (yes, agenders too). It is a set of social behaviours (such as the way you sit and walk, or which washroom(s) you use) and visible cues (such as the clothing you wear), that collectively communicate to the rest of society, how you experience your gender. If you are femme, for instance, you will tend to use ladies’ washrooms, and often wear clothing that is socially read as feminine (such as sundresses in the Summer, or form-fitting clothing that is marketed towards women). Gender embodiment often changes when one socially transitions. And while gender embodiment is often expected to change when one’s gender is reassigned, it does not always.

Binary Gender

Binary gender refers to a group of gender identities that are reflected by words like “man” or “woman”, though sometimes neither of these more general categories are accurate. Binary gender is reflected in the social construction of gender, as in the construction of the gender binary. Binary gender is also reflected in some gender identities and some gender embodiments, but it is not reflected by chromosomal sex. For instance, whether or not a given person has undergone a gender reassignment, if they subjectively report a binary gender identity and embody a gender that is socially read as being congruent with societal expectations to adhere to the gender binary, then they are said to have a binary gender. Agenders are not said to have a binary gender, for the obvious reason that they don’t internally experience a gender.

Non-Binary Gender

Non-binary gender refers to a group of gender identities that are reflected by words like “genderqueer”, “genderfluid”, “transmasculine”, or “transfeminine”. For the reason that they are not binary in nature, words like “man” or “woman” are grossly inaccurate. Non-binary gender is not reflected in the social construction of the gender binary, and as a result, non-binary gender is said to be underprivileged/oppressed. Non-binary gender is reflected, however, in some gender identities and some gender embodiments, but not by chromosomal sex. For instance, whether or not a person has undergone a gender reassignment in part or in whole, if they subjectively report a non-binary gender identity and embody a gender that is socially read as confusing, ambiguous, androgynous, or incongruous with what their gender is expected to be based on their body shape, they are said to have a non-binary gender.

Binary Sex

Binary sex refers to physical bodies that make very good biology textbook diagrams, because the set of traits they exhibit make them easy to be appointed “male” or “female”. For instance, an adult body that has a penis, coarse body hair, and a lack of fatty breast tissue, is considered to have a binary sex that is said to be male. An adult body that has a vulva, fine body hair or a lack thereof, and (more or less) fatty breast tissue, is considered to have a binary sex that is said to be female. Binary sex may be an individual’s birth sex or a product of full gender reassignment.

Non-Binary Sex

Non-binary sex refers to physical bodies that are invisible in the dominant culture, sometimes because they are literally reassigned to a binary sex in infancy, childhood, or adulthood through surgery and/or hormone therapy. Most of the time, non-binary sex is invisible in the dominant culture because it is considered unsightly or creepy, or because society at large sees all bodies as binary-sexed by default. Though it is probably obvious at this point, non-binary sex is considered underprivileged/oppressed. A body is considered to have a non-binary sex when one is born medically intersex (and not reassigned to a binary-sexed body), or when one succeeds in having a partial surgical transition (such as having an operation to remove breast tissue from an adult female body).

—-

Cisgendered (Cis)

One is said to be cisgendered when he/she inhabits a binary-sexed body and experiences a binary gender identity that is congruous with one’s chromosomal sex. This is a person who has never felt the need to access gender reassignment in any format, in order to feel a sense of congruity between his/her body and gender identity. The manner in which he/she embodies gender is also relatively congruent with societal expectations of binary gender.

Transgendered (Trans*)

One is said to be transgendered when he/she inhabits a binary-sexed body and experiences a binary gender identity that is incongruous with one’s chromosomal sex. This is a person who has very likely felt the need to socially transition and/or access gender reassignment, in order to feel a sense of congruity between his/her body and gender identity. The manner in which he/she embodies gender is also relatively congruent with societal expectations of binary gender. Historically, the term transgender has been used as an umbrella term to generalize about virtually anyone who is not cisgendered, but in recent decades, many non-binary gendered persons have expressed dissent with this practice, as it implies transition from one binary gender to another. A much more appropriate term, therefore, is simply trans*. This allows for individuals of non-binary identity to identify as trans, and allows for the inclusion of other distinctions under the binary gender umbrella.

Transsexual (also Transexual)

Transsexual is a clinical term describing fairly intense gender-incongruity, characterized by gender dysphoria arising from feelings of being mis-sexed, or being born in a binary-sexed body that doesn’t match one’s subjective experience of gender. One is said to be transsexual when he/she inhabits a binary-sexed body and experiences a gender that is incongruous with one’s chromosomal sex. This is a person who has very likely felt the need to socially transition and/or access a gender reassignment, in order to feel a sense of congruity between his/her body and gender identity. The manner in which he/she embodies gender is typically expected to be relatively congruent with societal expectations of binary gender, for the period in which he/she is accessing gender reassignment, and this has been recognized as an oppressive act (part of an entire complex of denying healthcare, which is referred to as gate-keeping). Transsexuality is not an accurate reflection on how one identifies or embodies his/her gender, as much as it is a clinical depiction of one’s historical relationship to his/her own body.

Transvestitism/Autogynephilia

Transvestitism and autogynephilia are clinical terms describing similar paraphilic behaviours on the part of a binary-sexed and (gender-congruent) binary-gendered individual (typically men), who temporarily presents as what is often a caricature persona of the opposite binary gender. The clinical presentation of each is distinguished from cross-dressing, both by a heightened state of sexual arousal experienced while engaging in either behaviour, and a deep need for secrecy in order to avoid intense conflicting feelings of shame and humiliation or conflict with one’s spouse, family, and loved ones. The distinctive quality of transvestitism is a hypersexualized gender presentation, while the distinctive quality of autogynephilia is sexual arousal from fantasies of completely mundane, non-sexual, sexist stereotype behaviours such as cooking and ironing, while temporarily cross-dressing. The validity of autogynephilia is presently under dispute, as it was used as a part of the greater scheme of gate-keeping to deny innumerable intensely transsexual women in particular, of access to healthcare when they most needed it. Whether or not autogynephilia actually occurs, either behaviour may be an aspect of a greater exploration of gender. Both terms have historically been used to invalidate transsexual experience, and this is wrong, and constitutes a form of transphobia.

Cross-Dressing

Cross-dressing is a term to describe someone of binary sex and binary gender, who presents as a persona of the opposite binary gender. This behaviour may be temporary or a prolonged lifestyle (in which case it represents a particular gender identity in and of itself), but is distinguished from transsexuality by a lack of subjective feelings of gender-incongruity. It is also distinguished from transvestitism and autogynephilia by a lack of hypersexualizing of the behaviour. An individual cross-dresser may still feel a deep need for secrecy, because it is a particularly poorly understood and oppressed form of gender expression. Cross-dressing may also be engaged as a means of gender exploration.

Drag (Kings and Queens)

Drag describes a performance art, in which an individual presents a binary gender embodiment that is different from their daily gender embodiment, during stage shows that can range from comedy to impersonation of a famous singer, or lip-synching and dance as a fictitious character. Some drag is performed with an element of burlesque or strip-tease as well. While drag is a performance of gender, and thus is not generally considered a gender identity in and of itself, it is sometimes used as a means to explore gender or to share one’s journey of gender exploration with others.

—-

Pronoun Preferences For Non-Binary Genders

When someone talks about their gender and indicates that they don’t identify as either a man or a woman, or indicates in any other way that their gender is a mite more complicated than how our societies are organized into men and women, the best thing you can do is simply ask “Do you have a pronoun preference?” This way, you aren’t trying to fit them into boxes that they may find as constraining and inappropriate as literally the entire structure of society often is. In fact, many non-binary-identifying people will appreciate the fact that you thought to ask, rather than assuming that you know.

Genderfluid

Genderfluid is a gender identity describing a person whose embodiment and subjective experience of gender fluctuates with some degree of regularity. Genderfluidity may be considered either binary or non-binary, or even both. Pronoun preference will vary individually, and may even vary for some individuals as their gender embodiment varies (such as someone who prefers masculine pronouns while presenting masculine, and feminine pronouns while presenting feminine). Genderfluidity is not reserved exclusively for persons who have socially transitioned and/or undergone gender reassignment — many people who have done neither, one, or both identify as genderfluid.

Genderqueer

Genderqueer is a gender identity describing a person whose embodiment and subjective experience of gender is a deliberate, conscious, political act, with the intent to express queerness — a political identity, a sexual orientation, and in this case, a verb too. Someone who is genderqueer (as I personally identify) may have a non-binary sex and will often tend to present a non-binary gender, an androgynous gender, or a binary gender that contradicts their birth sex. Pronoun preference will vary individually, though many prefer gender-neutral pronouns such as ze, hen (a recent advance in Sweden), it, or they. Genderqueering is not reserved exclusively for persons who have socially transitioned and/or undergone gender reassignment, although many socially transition and some undergo partial gender reassignment as a part of their gender expression. I personally have socially transitioned, am using hormones to chemically transition, and experience a need to undergo an operation to remove my reproductive organs, in order to feel at peace with my body.

Agender

Agender is a gender identity describing a person who does not internally experience a distinguished conception of gender. This person may be binary-sexed or non-binary-sexed. Their gender embodiment and social transition may tend towards androgyny or towards a deliberate defiance of gender congruence/binarism, in rejection of all social constructions of gender that are projected onto them. Many experience a desire to access surgical gender reassignment towards a lack of sex characteristics (and a few are successful), but the current paradigm of Western medicine presents enormous gate-keeping barriers against gender nullification in particular. Pronoun preference will vary individually.

Metagender

Metagender is a gender identity describing a person whose subjective experience of gender is not adequately described by any existing terminology (i.e., I never “met a” gender like you before). This person may be binary-sexed or non-binary-sexed. Their embodiment may fluctuate or be persistently of a particular nature. They may experience a need to socially transition and/or access gender reassignment. Pronoun preference will vary individually.

Transmasculine and Transfeminine

Transmasculine and transfeminine describe gender identities of people whose subjective experience of gender is like being transgendered, except they don’t identify as having a binary gender. I personally identify as transmasculine, and to me, this means that although I was born female, I experience a masculine gender from within and embody a masculine gender presentation (generally). I would rather be mistaken for a man than be mistaken for a woman. I use male pronouns, but don’t have a preference other than please-not-female-pronouns. I began my social transition in the Summer of 2010 (which included a name change), and have started injecting testosterone in the end of Winter 2011 (though not every transmasculine person does). If I am successful in accessing surgery to remove my reproductive organs (which not every transmasculine person also wants for themselves…) I will be injecting testosterone for the rest of my life (…for precisely this reason). This can be taken as a fair, general sort of example of what transmasculinity means, with negotiation through gender flowing in the opposite direction being a fair example of what transfemininity means.

Two-Spirit and Bi-Gender

Two-Spirit is a term arising from the Navajo people, who are an indigenous culture in the South-Western United States. Multiple other indigenous cultures (such as the Coast Salish First Nations of Canada and the Cree) have since adopted the term, either to replace a previous term that bears a similar and/or identical meaning, or to replace previous terminology that is seen as derogatory or insulting. In Navajo culture, Two-Spirit describes someone within their community who embodies energies of both male and female gender, and whose gender embodiment fluctuates occasionally from one to the other. Two-Spirit individuals are revered within Navajo culture. As I’ve already indicated in parentheses above, the term Two-Spirit has become culturally syncretised throughout North American indigenous communities, who have often adopted it to mean more-or-less the same thing. For instance, the meaning of the term Two-Spirit is more ambiguous in Coast Salish culture, as it is attributed both to binary-identifying cisgendered persons who are attracted to other Two-Spirit people, and to gender-diverse individuals (who are regarded by the Coast Salish as uniquely endowed with the ability to bridge opposites together and perceive from both masculine and feminine perspectives at any given time). The Cree give the term Two-Spirit a different meaning; generally exclusive to gender-diverse members of their community, who were not always treated with respect and may sometimes still face barriers within their communities. Outside of aboriginal cultures, the term bi-gender(ed) is preferred and taken to mean essentially the same thing as the term Two-Spirit means to the Navajo. However, it is out of respect for ethnic differences and the history of colonialism in the continent of North America in particular, that bi-gendered is used by non-indigenous gender-diverse people. Pronoun preferences tend toward they, as a reflection of the dual nature of a Two-Spirit or bi-gender individual’s genders — it is much like simultaneously having two of them. And, like many non-binary gender identities, neither is associated with a particular kind of body the most often. Many Two-Spirit and bi-gender individuals socially transition to variable degrees and in various ways.

—-

Operation & Binary-Identifying Trans People

When I was a kid, there was a hilarious game called Operation, in which the goal was removal of teeny tiny bones with clumsy forceps from an electrified board. But in terms of gender, solicitation for yet-undisclosed information about operations comes with a much higher shock. It’s a very sensitive subject, and there is no general rule that speaks fairly to all trans* people’s experiences. Some are pre-op, some are post-op, some are non-op, and some are just… some-op. Some find these discussions very uncomfortable, as they feel that such solicitations for very private information about the content of their pants, kilts, and skirts reflects an aggressive display of entitlement to violate what little privacy they have left. The best thing you can do is simply put down all your assumptions and just listen. If an individual trans man or trans woman doesn’t want to tell you about what operations they have had or seek, if any, it’s not your place to ask them for that kind of information.

Trans Person Vs. Transperson

That little gap up there? It means something. Whether the person concerned identifies as a man or as a woman, that little gap distinguishes between someone who is out as trans and someone who isn’t (or at least, isn’t quite out, in that they live their day-to-day life blending into anonymity as just-another-man or just-another-woman as much as possible). I have found that the default tends to be without-the-gap until otherwise specified in individual cases, because it is only by virtue of socially constructed gender (and the system of privilege and oppression this produces) that there is any need at all to distinguish between transwomen and ciswomen or transmen and cismen. So when we talk about transwomen as a group, or transmen as a group, we don’t make assumptions that they all want to be considered trans, as many just want to live fully as the gender they have been reassigned to, without needing to further qualify (or quantify) their existence. Identifying as trans has no bearing on one’s gender identity or embodiment, but it is a political identity (one that isn’t embraced by all transpeople).

Butch & Femme, Bear & Cub

I found myself in a conversation with someone who asked a femme lesbian why she would date a masculine woman, but not find herself attracted to men. My answer was, quite simply, that the woman he was talking to is attracted to butch women. Butch and femme are binary gender identities that I find are not often spoken of outside of lesbian communities. Similarly, bear and cub are binary gender identities that are rarely spoken of outside gay communities. I personally gravitate towards cubs and butches. I can’t really explain it, other than that I simply don’t relate as well to femmes and bears (maybe because I perceive femmes and bears as too close to heteronormative stereotypes? I may never be certain). It needs to be stated, even though it’s probably obvious: butch, femme, bear, and cub, are binary gender identities (which imply binary sex) and binary gender embodiments. Some may still feel a need to socially transition at some point (especially if one is in-the-closet about his/her sexuality), although these genders tend to be persistent from childhood — just like non-binary gender identities. Lastly, some exceptions will always exist concerning pronoun preferences and accessing gender reassignment. And simply because these are binary genders, does not mean in any way that they are reserved exclusively for cisgendered persons.

Finally…

If you’ve made it all this way without ceasing to pay any attention to the contents of this journal entry (congratulations!), it should be clear at this point that gender is a loaded term. Because of the manner in which society is organized into ordered pairs of opposites, we walk about every day with the assumption that everyone else is cisgendered until they tell us otherwise — unless we commit ourselves to daily exploration of the meaning of gender in society. Once we do become conscious, we start to see gender-variance everywhere we go. And in fact, I tend to believe that more people are at least playing with gender than those who are not. And many more people would explore their genders if it didn’t make the people closest to them feel insecure about what that means in terms of their sexuality (because if homophobia wasn’t systemic, this wouldn’t represent a problem).

One thought on “#Gender101

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s