If my blog was a university (which would be called Sassy State U), this post would be equivalent to a “Introduction to French” or “Economics 101.” If you are at least somewhat up to date on your gender identifiers/terms, then this should be an easy class for you.
But, if like most North Americans, your knowledge on gender topics doesn’t extend beyond a photo spread on Caitlin Jenner in Vogue, here is a break down (a little cheat sheet if you will) on all things gender.
First things first – the Gender Binary.
You may not know the label, but you know the narrative. When a baby is born, the presence of a penis or vulva – one’s genitals – determines whether the child is a boy or a girl.
Based on this designation, there are a set of characteristics attached to which people are expected to adhere. Girls are expected to be feminine, dress a particular way, and fulfill specific roles in society, like being caregivers. On the other end, boys are expected to be masculine, act strong, dress a certain way, and fill certain societal roles, like being protectors.
This is the gender binary: society is made up of men and women who have distinctly different qualities based solely on their genitalia.
Now, keep in mind, gender is different than sex. This is a common mistake. Someone’s sex refers to the sexual anatomy a person appears to have when they are born. This is a scientific term. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct. A person’s gender is their relationship with masculinity, femininity, both or neither. Gender is how a person expresses themselves based on that relationship.
The takeaway: Sex is based on body parts and is a biological term. Gender is based on a personal relationship with oneself and is a social construct.
What the Heck is ‘Transgender’ or ‘Cisgender?’
Cisgender is someone whose gender assignment at birth matches the gender with which they identify. In other words, if you were assigned the gender you identify with, then you are cisgender. Transgender, on the other hand, is a term for individuals who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
For example, if a person is assigned male at birth, meaning they had a penis, they are assumed to be a boy. But when that person reflects upon their own feelings toward masculinity and femininity, they feel as though they are not a boy. This notion is gender identity – how one’s feels about their own gender.
This person may feel that calling themselves a man does not reflect how they feel about themselves, or they may enjoy expressing themselves in a way that doesn’t conform to society’s expectations for men. This deals with one’s gender expression – how one presents themselves with respect to gender.
Furthermore, this person could feel uncomfortable with certain sexed parts of their body, like a penis, and may want those things to change. This refers to someone’s sex relationship.
The takeaway: The gender that people are assigned at birth does not always match how they feel about their own gender. If it is a match, those people are cisgender. If it is not match, those people may identify as transgender. (People may identify as other gender terms…scroll down!)
Gender Is Fifty Shades of Grey
While this can be a very difficult concept for some to swallow, it is very important to understand that gender is complex and fluid. It is not, as we have been taught, a cut and dried idea that can be compartmentalized into boxes. There is no simple formula for gender – the genitals of a person do not determine their gender.
Furthermore, a person’s gender expression, gender identity, and sex relationship can sometimes be at odds with one another.
Men can still enjoy feminine clothes (a prime example are drag queens, who may dress up in feminine ways for performance, but identify as men in their day to day lives). Similarly, women can enjoy masculine haircuts. Whatever gender a person identifies with will not always be obvious based on their expression. Also, transgender women (a woman who is assigned male at birth) who have penises may have no problem with this, just as transgender men (a man who is assigned female at birth) may be perfectly happy with having a vagina. Someone’s sex relationship may not always inform us of someone’s gender identity.
Moreover, some people choose not to use any of these terms to describe their gender. They may feel these terms just don’t fit for them. Just because these terms exist to describe certain people and states of mind, does not mean that every person must subscribe to a specific label. Adopting a label for one’s gender is not mandatory and for some, such terms may feel constricting or inaccurate.
Gender is not a simple concept like society has taught us. People are not strictly just men or women. People can identify with one gender and express themselves in a non-conforming way. People can choose to identify with neither male or female.
The takeaway: Gender is about personal identity, and therefore it is inherently deeply personal. We may not always understand, but we do need to understand that is it a complicated personal decision and we must respect how one chooses to identify and express themselves.
Gender on a Spectrum
As stated above, gender is a social construct. It’s an idea, a way to categorize people and attach expected behaviours, personas and appearances. In Western culture, society has constructed the gender binary, proclaiming there are only two genders.
In reality, gender exists on a spectrum. Rarely will a person exclusively identify as male, without a hint of feminine qualities or identity. Gender is so much more complicated than just “man” and “woman.”
Today, gender theory literature is growing at a rapid pace. While certain Indigenous populations have recognized more than two genders for centuries, Western culture is only now appreciating gender’s complexity. New vocabulary around gender identity continues to emerge.
There is non-binary, which describes individuals who do not identify as exclusively masculine or feminine. There is agender, which means a person does not identify with gender at all. Genderqueer is a term used for an identity or expression that is neither traditionally masculine or feminine. Bigender is to describe someone who identifies with two genders, either alternating or even simultaneously. Lastly, genderfluid means moving between masculine, feminine, and neutral expressions of gender.
Q: “Everyone is freaking about pronouns these days. What do they mean? What am I supposed to say? Do I call them their new name or their old name?”
A: Here’s the rule: always use the pronoun(s) that a transgender person requests. If you aren’t sure what they want, ask them. Always use the name by which a transgender person goes. Again, if you are unsure, just ask! This is a hard and fast rule, no exceptions. Trans folk deserve to dictate the identifiers they are comfortable with, and others should call them what they want to be called. If you can call your teammate “Sparky” or “The Hulk” because they like that nickname, then you can call trans folk by the names with which they feel most comfortable. It’s alright if you make a mistake on a pronoun or a name. As long as you apologize and correct yourself, all will be fine.
Q: “Am I going to get in trouble if I ask trans folk about their lived experiences, transition or gender identity?”
A: While it’s alright to ask trans folk about their names and pronouns, anything beyond that can be very personal. If you are interested in someone’s transition, body, or experiences, you should wait until they when they are comfortable enough to bring it up on their own accord. That said, if you have a burning question about trans folk, the worldwide web is a great place to educate yourself.
Q: “Is it always a big secret when someone is transgender? Is it ever ok to talk about them with other people?”
A: Someone’s gender identity, especially if it is not cisgender, is very personal and can often accompany serious safety concerns. As such, do not tell others that someone is transgender, or disclose personal information about their transitions. This is another hard and fast rule – this information should not be shared unless that person has explicitly told you it is alright to tell others. Like people with non-conforming sexual orientations (aka not straight), trans folk may not be ‘out’ and it is not your right to ‘out’ them.