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Defining Gender

Updated on June 6, 2017

Here’s Gender Spectrum, a group of health-care professionals that offers education on gender issues. Gender “is the complex interrelationship between an individual’s sex (gender biology), one’s internal sense of self as male, female, both, or neither (gender identity) as well as one’s outward presentations and behaviours (gender expression) related to that perception, including their gender role. Together, the intersection of these three dimensions produces one’s authentic sense of gender, both in how people experience their own gender as well as how others perceive it.”

Gender Conditioning

In the past, Western culture divided gender into two distinct categories – either male or female and didn’t allow for people who were neither.

We are taught our gender and the roles we are expected to play from an early age. The toys we play with and the clothes we are given to wear reinforce the gender roles we are expected to have.

According to Gender Spectrum, “Through a combination of social conditioning and personal preference, by age three most children prefer activities and exhibit behaviours typically associated with their sex.”

But some people just don’t go along with the expectations of society; they may express their gender in ways that don’t match the biological sex they’ve been assigned.

Hand gestures, speech patterns, clothing, hairstyle, and other outward expressions of gender may clash with physical anatomy.

These outward expressions of gender change over time. Fifty years ago only men had tattoos and only women wore ear rings.

The cast of Father Knows Best.
The cast of Father Knows Best. | Source

Gender Role

Social norms have a huge impact on gender.

Let’s look at typical television shows from the 1950s. One of the most popular shows, Father Knows Best, says it all in its title, but there were plenty of others with similar plot lines: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, and I Love Lucy.

They portrayed middle-class families in which the father was the breadwinner and the mother stayed at home to look after the kids and do the housework. The man never did the laundry or vacuuming and stayed away from childcare. His function was to take care of the family’s finances and to make decisions on behalf of the family. He felt the need to be strong and that meant hiding personal feelings and emotions.

The woman was expected to be nurturing and to produce wonderful pot roasts for when hubby got home from the office. She was allowed to be emotional and to express her feelings more freely.

The take-away for children watching these shows is that males are dominant and females are submissive.

Of course, it’s not the 1950s anymore and a lot has changed but there are still echoes of these stereotypes around us. The children who watched Father Knows Best grew up to be parents themselves and unconsciously copied the family structures in which they were raised. Perhaps, the gender roles got a little blurred and became fuzzier with the next generation. But, there are still plenty of households in which Dad never cooks (except for barbecuing because that’s a man’s job) or changes diapers.


Gender Expansiveness

PBS reports that “hundreds of distinct societies around the globe have their own long-established traditions for third, fourth, fifth, or more genders.”

First Nations in Canada have long respected what are now called two-spirit people. The Rainbow Resource Centre notes that “Our Elders tell us of people who were gifted among all beings because they carried two spirits: that of male and female. It is told that women engaged in tribal warfare and married other women as there were men who married other men. These individuals were looked upon as a third gender in many cases and in almost all cultures they were honoured and revered.”

Contact with Europeans destroyed the tradition of respect towards two-spirits as teachers, artists, and healers although efforts to restore their position are underway.

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The hijra (right) have been called India’s third gender. Writing in The Guardian (April 2014) Homa Khaleeli says that “Hijras, who can be eunuchs, intersex, or transgender, have been part of South Asia’s culture for thousands of years.”

They often enjoyed positions of influence until the British arrived in India. Eunuchs were declared to be criminals and the rest of the hijra community was discriminated against.

In 2014, the Indian Supreme Court followed Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh in recognizing the special status of the hijras. Discrimination against them is now illegal although it remains to be seen whether or not the law will be enforced.

More than Fifty Gender Options

Here’s a list of gender alternatives compiled by The Daily Beast:

  • Agender – A person who does not identify with any gender;
  • Androgyne/Androgynous - Being androgynous refers to someone with both masculine and feminine qualities;
  • Bigender – Someone who has elements of both male and female genders;
  • Cis/Cisgender/Cis Female/Cis Male/Cis Man/Cis Woman/Cisgender Female/Cisgender Male/Cisgender Man/Cisgender Woman – These are people whose gender corresponds to their assigned sex;
  • Female to Male/FTM - Someone who was assigned female sex but now lives as a man and has a masculine gender identity;

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  • Gender Fluid - A person who is gender fluid may always feel like a mix of the two traditional genders; they may feel more boy some days, and more girl other days;
  • Gender Nonconforming/Gender Variant – People whose gender expression does not match their assigned sexual gender;
  • Gender Questioning – Someone may be unsure of their gender, sexual identity, sexual orientation, or all three; they are in the process of exploring their gender;
  • Genderqueer/Non-binary – A person who challenges to notion of a two-gender system; he or she may identify as multiple genders;
  • Intersex – This usually refers to someone whose sexual characteristics (chromosomes, anatomy, etc.) are neither typical of males or females;
  • Male to Female/MTF - Someone who was assigned male sex but now lives as a woman and has a feminine gender identity;
  • Neither – Some people refuse to accept a gender label of any kind;
  • Neutrois – This is a condition in which people feel completely genderless;
  • Other – “Other gender” is a term for individuals who are neither male nor female in gender identity. “O” is used on legal documents instead of “F” or “M” in countries where more than two legal genders are recognized;
  • Pangender – This is another term that challenges the two-gender system and includes people of diverse gender;
  • Transgender – This is an umbrella term to cover a dozen or so sub-categories of people who have genders that are not associated with their assigned sex. Some of these individuals may have undergone surgery and hormone therapy to change their anatomy from male to female or vice versa. If they have gone through this process they are usually referred to a transsexual; and,
  • Two-Spirit – See text above.

Many people lament the passing of a time when there were just two genders, but an inclusive society needs to embrace all expressions of gender without fear and prejudice.

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Bonus Factoids

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that the idea that pink is for girls and blue is boys became established.

For most of its existence Facebook gave its members one of two gender options – male or female. However, in 2014, the social network allowed its members more than 50 choices.

A single-celled organism, tetrahymena thermophila, has seven sexes. According to New Scientist, “An individual of a given sex can mate with individuals of any except its own, so there are 21 possible orientations.”

On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi the Bugis people recognize five genders.

Sources

“Understanding Gender.” Gender Spectrum, undated.

“Masculinity, Gender Roles, and T.V. Shows from the 1950s.” The Artifice, October 18, 2014.

“A Map of Gender-Diverse Cultures.” PBS, undated.

“Two-Spirit People of the First Nations.” Rainbow Resource Centre, undated.

“Hijra: India’s Third Gender Claims its Place in Law.” Homa Khaleeli, The Guardian, April 16, 2014.

“Sulawesi’s Fifth Gender.” Sharyn Graham, Inside Indonesia, April/June 2001.

“What Each of Facebook’s 51 New Gender Options Means.” Debby Herbenick and Aleta Baldwin, The Daily Beast, February 15, 2014.

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