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Nowadays, gender studies are gaining a growing wider place in mainstream conversations and debates. For a very long time, it was about men versus women, masculinity versus feminity. We were even told we came from different planets1. Our biological sex assigned at birth was meant to be the only way of defining our gender. Reality is, when we talk about gender, XY = Male versus XX = Female is only a piece of a very incomplete puzzle. My goal here is to evoke different ways of exploring gender. I don’t pretend to be exhaustive. I just want to briefly invite healthy curiosity and reflections.
WHAT WE ARE TOLD ABOUT GENDER
We live in a society that keeps on teaching us gender as a binary system based on biology supposed to determine our identity and our place in that society. There is not only a clear widespread confusion between sex and gender but also a very toxic hierarchisation of genders and what attributes they include. Depending on where we live and the era, the main recognised genders of male and female will be assigned different characteristics allowing to judge the identity and the abilities of individuals simply upon what is perceived to be their gender. I say perceived as we are taught to look at people’s physical traits and their look to assume their gender. Assuming is not knowing.
Here, I will debate neither on what is assigned to be male/masculine or female/feminine nor on how those assignments are used to distribute to each of us social, relationship, family, sexual and professional roles depending on our sex. I will not elaborate either on how society discriminates and punishes heavily individuals who refuse to conform with the absurdity of this entire system. I will invite you though to get curious about all of it, maybe starting with some references added here. I am mentioning this for you to keep in mind that there is much wider and complex dynamics at stake. Dynamics that lead to heterosexism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and many other forms of discriminations making the world we live in sick. For those who wonder, heterosexism is the system of discrimination, prejudice and stigma against non-straight people on the assumption that heterosexuality is superior and holds higher values that should be the norm for all (this is my own-made definition mixing various ones read). I believe at the origin of those dynamics we find the binary conception of gender I believe to be erroneous.
SEX ISN’T BINARY
As per the discriminations against non-straight people, one of the main argument we hear to justify the binary cisgender heterosexist system we live in is the one of nature; - nature and biology. So let’s take a minute to talk about sex as “either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions”2. Beyond the fact that we are more than our reproductive functions, - hereby why gender transcends sex -, we can easily contest the mainstream definition of sex as being either male or female. Some more accurate definitions include another biological reality: sex is “a person’s biological makeup of sex organs and chromosomes that marks them as male, female or intersex”3.
“’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.”4.
Note that intersex individuals are not hermaphrodites. “ A hermaphrodite is an organism with both male and female genitalia”5. We find in nature various plants and animals, - notably some but not all species of snails -, which are hermaphrodites.
Intersex individuals used to be wrongly called hermaphrodites as they were considered to be both sexes, which was another way of asserting the binary system. Either or, or both. They are not both, though they can have some biological elements both of male and female.
It is also crucial to say that intersex and transgender are not the same thing and that being intersex doesn’t determine how they identify in terms of gender. As for everyone else, gender is not about our biology but about our identity.
So even if you want to deny that gender transcends biology or even exists, you can not assert that we all are either male or female. Biology is actually not that binary. And even if you deny the existence of gender and believe only in the binary conception, you have to admit that we all are a mix of masculinity and feminity (no matter what you consider to be one or the other) that our biology only can’t determine.
Then, it is important to understand that our gender identity and expression are even more rich and complex than our biology is.
GENDER – CONTEXT, IDENTIFICATION & EXPRESSION
Too often sex and gender are used interchangeably when gender is not about or not only about our biological sex.
“Often expressed in terms of masculinity and feminity, gender is largely culturally determined and is assumed from the sex assigned at birth”6
Here “assigned” refers to doctors assigning for all of us at birth a publicly recognised gender that will then appear on any identifiable or administrative paperwork related to us. We are labelled either as male or female. Intersex are denied in their reality and assigned a chosen gender depending on the biological male or female characteristics judged dominant. In many cases, doctors can even practice barbaric surgical procedures to remove the other characteristics. The damaging journey of living in a binary world starts at birth.
The word “assumed” refer to what I said in the introduction about how we are taught to categorise people as male or female depending on what we suppose their genitals are from what we can see of their appearance.
“Culturally determined”: gender is about socio-cultural constructs. As previously mentioned, those evolve and differ depending on the place and era we live in. The facts that those do not provide any immutable truth about gender constitutes for me the highest proof of the binary conception to be flawed. It is especially flawed in its assignments of characteristics to male and female and how they are then exploited to create an imbalance and a rapport of force between the two recognised genders.
And gender is not only about socio-cultural constructs. It is about identity and expression. Note that no more than for our sexual orientation we don’t choose our gender identity. What we choose is the terms that describe the best who we are. Not to forget that those terms are defined by our socio-cultural context (which includes family, colleagues and entourage), which also influences how we relate to them. We can choose though to reflect on how we want to relate to those terms and how we want to express our gender throughout and beyond them; notably in how we present ourselves to the world (look and attitude).
Note as well that no matter your biology (male, female, intersex) and the sex assigned at birth (male or female), you can identify as a man or a woman without considering yourself binary. And for those of you who identify as binary, please consider that it doesn’t have to negate the different reality of many other people.
GENDER – CONTINUUMS & FLUIDITY
Gender is non-binary or more than binary, so what is it? I agree with the conception of gender as a continuum or a spectrum. For me gender consists in various layers of/a network of continuums. (Please consider my explanations to be simplified and non-exhaustive.)
The first continuum between male and female is not defined by the sex assigned at birth but how we identify in relation to this assignment. Again, we don’t choose our identity, we only choose how we define it, hence our identifications. We can identify with the sex assigned at birth (cisgender), with the other sex (transgender), or with none (agender). Note I say ‘the other sex’ because I believe ‘the opposite sex’ is another misleading and toxic misconception. We are not either or, and seeing genders as opposite necessarily creates disturbing power dynamics. No matter how we identify and how we express our gender, we all are a mix of masculine and feminine traits; - at least, of what we conceptualised to be masculine or feminine traits within our socio-cultural context.
This is the second main continuum at stake: the one between masculinity and feminity. Society teaches us all the time, in various extremes and subtilties, to categorise things as either masculine or feminine. It tells us which job, taste, emotion, way of thinking is more feminine or masculine. Those views keep on changing and keep on influencing the collective and individual unconscious. Even languages in many cases attribute a feminine or a masculine to objects and words that have no sex.
Languages show us that despite the misconception between sex and gender, one thing doesn’t need one to be assigned the other. If we take the time to reflect on how we are impacted by all of it, most of us might realise that we consider anything and everything at a certain level of masculinity and/or feminity. I think this piece of clothing is feminine. I see this behaviour as masculine. I feel feminine when I do this and masculine when I do that. We clearly need to be more aware and reconsider what we describe and experience as masculine or feminine. We might even need to move on from trying to describe what is either one or another, and consider to stop assigning a gender to all things. Neutrality is probably a more accurate, viable and reliable perception; at the minimum it is a needed conception to reflect on aside the gendered one.
There is a great fluidity in how we conceptualise, experience and express gender. And nothing stay still, neither the society’s views nor ours. I might do something I experience at a certain time in a masculine way, - whatever that means for me -, and later on experience the same thing as feminine or neutral. This is because of this multi-dimensional fluidity and the flawed categorisation of everything as male/masculine or female/feminine that more and more individuals identify differently.
They notably identify as non-binary, gender fluid and/or queer (there are many different ways of considering this latter term, about and not about gender and/or sexuality). Sometimes it is about a double identification or more: genderfluid man, non-binary woman7…
I spoke earlier about language. It is important to say that no matter the topic the human understanding keeps on growing in depth and complexity, so it is crucial for the language to evolve. This is what is happening in regard to gender and sexuality with the multitude of newly created terms. Most people who misunderstand gender and are pro-binary, use the argument that those terms didn’t exist before and so what they describe. But that is exactly the opposite: it is because things existed without recognition that new words are created to describe them when they are finally acknowledged. That’s how language works, evolving to describe a new discovery, knowledge or understanding.
GENDER IS AN ENDLESSLY COMPLEX MATTER
I will stop here. Again, I don’t pretend to have been exhaustive on the topic. Gender is way more complex and has unlimited material to explore about social constructs, personal perceptions, identifications, experiences and expressions; and about the continuums and fluidity involved. Not to mention that gender expression itself can be richer than gender identity because as much as we only choose the terms we identify with and not what/how we are, we also can choose how we express our gender identity and play with the fluidity of pre-conceived masculine & feminine traits.
There is also so much more to explore with the fluidity and continuums of sexual orientation and how sexual orientation, gender identity & expression, are only parts of our sexual identity.
1 Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, John Gray
- XY on Masculine Identity, Elisabeth Badinter
- Iron John, Robert Bly
- Intersex Society of America - http://www.isna.org/
- The myth that gender is binary is perpetuated by a flawed education system - https://qz.com/1007198/the-myth-that-gender-is-binary-is-perpetuated-by-a-flawed-education-system/
- Gender Figure - https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CI390BlUsAALMQP.jpg
- Gender Spectrum - http://scalar.usc.edu/works/index-2/media/the-gender-spectrum
- Every Sex & Gender term explained - https://youtu.be/V9QnnQN880o
- Men & Masculinities - https://wgac.colostate.edu/education/gender-and-identity/men-and-masculinities/