Today is a guest post from one of the other members of our affiliate, who has a background in sociology, that wanted to share something creative with the internet.
One of the most informative and compelling factoids that I have ever heard regarding the difference between sex and gender states that, “sex is between your legs, gender is between your ears.” This idea immediately stuck with me because it did an excellent job of summing up some of the basic differences between sex, a category of biological distinction, and gender identity, the byproduct of social and cultural influences and power relationships. Up until the mid-1950s, the notions of sex and gender were used interchangeably. They both served to categorize people in a binary system; you were either a man, or a woman. You were either masculine or feminine. Without a doubt, these models are extremely outdated. People and their interactions just aren’t that simple.
Biological sex refers to the organs, chromosomes and hormones that you possess and can measure objectively. Being a male means having an Adam’s apple, testes, a set of XY chromosomes and, if everything works correctly, the ability to impregnate females. Being female means having a vagina, ovaries, a pair of X chromosomes, and the ability to bear children. However, models which suggest that every Homo sapien falls neatly into either one of these categories exclusively is outdated and overly simplistic. These models fail to recognize the existence of millions of intersexed individuals, whose sexual or reproductive anatomy doesn’t fit binary definitions of male or female. According to the Intersex Society of North America, “Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” For more information regarding the prevalence of intersex, I suggest visiting this informative website.
For example, an intersexed individual might appear to be a female on the outside, but has mostly male anatomy. Or a person might be born with genitals that seem to be in between the usual male and female types. A boy might be born with a noticeably small penis, or a girl might be born with a noticeably large clitoris. Sometimes these differences won’t manifest in a person until they hit puberty; sometimes they won’t go noticed at all.
Dichotomous categories that lump people into one or the other are a product of our language, worldview, and the institutionalization of these ideas – which is to say, these classifications aren’t inherent or innate. We just see them reproduced every day, which normalizes our culturally acquired view of society. What makes these categories so compelling, and so seemingly natural, are the routine mechanisms embedded in society which enforce this type of thought. We experience these categories every time we use public restrooms marked ‘men’ and ‘women.’ We encounter it in print on official documents from the United States government, on the federal and state level, where we have to mark whether we are a man or a woman. People that would fall under the category of intersex get left out entirely. This is no fault of their own, but instead, a problem of the way that we think about biological sex in relation to one another and the ways in which these thoughts translate into action in the public sphere.
Like biological sex, gender identities are enforced by the categories of ‘men or women,’ ignoring the reality that there are millions of gender-queer people that don’t fall into either category. Gender-queer is a term indicating an individual doesn’t identify exclusively with the expectations and social norms associated with being a man or a woman. Some gender-queer also identify as transgender. There are two main components of gender, its ideological construction and a behavioral component. Gender is constructed ideologically when men and women believe that certain qualities characterize one gender rather than another. Gender is constructed behaviorally in the activities men and women do, the way they do them, and the way they are experienced during interpersonal interactions. This is a great resource for relating to the concepts of sex, gender and sexual orientation.
Men and women make themselves by actively constructing their gender identities within a social and historical context, defined largely by cultural norms and power relationships. Gender gets expressed by individuals through a performance of symbolic gestures learned through previous interactions, called scripts. One’s sex might be male, for example, but his gender identity is developed through a complex process of interaction with his culture, where he learns which gendered scripts are considered to be appropriate to his culture, and in his attempt to modify those expectations to make them attainable to him. Your gender identity is actively forged by the behaviors you engage in, and how you think about yourself in relation to those around you. How you perceive yourself regarding the societal roles of ‘woman,’ ‘man’ or somewhere in between the two is your gender identity.
The problematic aspects of having binary systems of categorization regarding an individual’s sex or gender comes from the fact that they implicitly create and subsequently disempower the people who fall into these categories. By presenting these fallacious dichotomies and regarding them as being legitimate and ‘natural,’ millions of Americans become regarded as ‘unnatural.’ These dehumanizing categories are still heavily stigmatized; something which can affect people’s interpersonal relationships. Like we discussed in earlier posts, people identified as being in nontraditional categories can be met with vehemence and violence. This type of foul behavior, stemming from ignorance and prejudice, cannot be tolerated on any level. People’s sexual and gender-related differences are natural, and they should be accepted with open arms and a greater understanding.