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A Crash Course in Gender & Gender Identity

By , 18, Staff Writer Originally Published: December 12, 2013 Revised: January 13, 2014

Figures on bathroom signs. Aisles at the toy store. Gender is represented everywhere. Colors, clothing and careers are even assigned genders: blue and pink, pants and skirts, doctors and nurses. Gender is often thought of as an either/or—man or woman—two separate entities which rarely overlap. But for many, it isn’t as simple as checking off one of two boxes.

Gender identity is how a person understands him-or herself as a man, woman, a combination of both or neither. Gender and gender identity affect people’s body image and how they present themselves to others. It also has an impact on how people interact in personal and sexual relationships. Gender identity is an important part of our identity, but are gender and gender identity being covered thoroughly in sex ed classes?

Schools may teach about puberty and how to prevent pregnancies and STDs, but they often neglect the topics of gender and gender identity. This results in a lack of meaningful discussion about the variety of expressions there are when it comes to gender—expressions that may not fit perfectly in a “man” or “woman” category. It can be tough for schools to cover this issue thoroughly, so we’re giving you a crash course.

Gender identity is more than a line with two defined ends or rigid boxes used to categorize people.

Sex Versus Gender

To fully understand the complexity of sex and gender, let’s get clear about some basic terminology. “Sex” and “gender” are often used interchangeably, even though they have different meanings.

“Sex” refers to biological and physical characteristics like chromosomes, hormones and sex organs. So a baby born with a penis and testicles is biologically a boy, while one with a vagina and ovaries is biologically a girl. But sex is not always that straightforward. A baby can be born with a combination of sex characteristics, such as genitalia that is not clearly a penis or a vulva, or chromosomes that are different from XX for biological girls and XY for biological boys. In that case, the person may be called “intersex.”

On the other hand, “gender” refers to what society deems and constructs to be appropriate for people of different sexes, whether it is through clothing, behavior or gender roles. For example, in our society, wearing makeup and cleaning are considered more appropriate for girls, while playing certain sports and videogames are considered more appropriate for boys. But none of these activities are truly restricted to a single gender. A person who is biologically male may enjoy doing activities that might be called “feminine.” This shows how sex—a person’s biological and physical characteristics—can be different from gender.

What Is Gender Identity?

Our sense of our gender and the way we feel about it is our gender identity. The way we communicate our gender identity is called gender expression. For some, gender identity is a no-brainer. Making up the majority of the population are people whose sense of gender matches their sex, like when someone feels like a girl and is biologically and physically a girl. That person is considered “cisgender.”

Anna, a cisgender 18-year-old from Massachusetts says, “I’m sure I learned [my gender identity] partly from my parents, partly from teachers, other kids, the media and my own observation of the world, but it’s hard to say exactly how because I wasn’t conscious of it being formed.”

As a biological girl who has always felt female, Anna never questioned her gender. People treated her the way we treat people who are female in our society, and that felt OK to her. For others, the gender they most identify with may not necessarily match their sex.

There are many terms used to describe different types of gender identities besides “cisgender.” Transgender is an identity that can encompass other categories including but not limited to transsexual, transmen/transwomen, genderqueer and others. The term “trans*” with an asterisk is sometimes used as an umbrella term for all of these gender identities.

People who are transgender have a gender identity that does not correspond to their biological sex. Many assume that all transgender people want to undergo sex-realignment surgery to try to become a different sex. Even though some transgender people will use hormones and surgery to change their bodies, some opt to not change their bodies at all. And others cannot use hormones or have surgery because both are expensive and not often covered by health insurance. Transmen are people who identify as male but whose biological sex is female. Transwomen are people who identify as female but whose biological sex is male. You may have also heard of the term “transsexual.” This is when someone whose gender identity does not match their biological sex chooses to have sex-realignment surgery.

Nineteen-year-old Zander, a transman from Maine says, “I believe that I am a guy inside—though I was born a girl—because I always felt very masculine. I didn’t like skirts or pink, loved jeans…. Every time I hear somebody refer to me as ‘he’ or simply acknowledge my male existence, it gives me a sense of comfort and happiness.”

But what if how you identify doesn’t fit into either of these categories—cisgender or trans*? It’s not that you feel like your gender identity better matches with a different sex, but that the way you feel about yourself doesn’t fall into man or woman categories.

Julia, an 18-year-old from Massachusetts says, “It just never really made sense to me what it meant to feel like a girl. But I didn’t feel like a boy either.”

Non-binary transgender is any identity in which a person feels neither like a guy or a girl. Some people who identify this way may also call themselves “genderqueer.”

Gender Identity Isn’t Sexual Orientation

An assumption that people make is that trans* people are not heterosexual, but gender identity is distinct from sexual orientation, which relates to who you are attracted to romantically.

Seventeen-year-old Sula of Massachusetts experienced this difference. She explains, “When I first came out as gay in my junior year of high school, I cut my hair and began to dress more ‘like a lesbian,’ which I interpreted to mean clothes from the men’s section…. I came to recognize around my senior year that the reason I loved the style was that the added masculine touches balanced out my inescapable feminine characteristics, creating a wonderful androgynous presentation.”

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing, and it can get a little complicated when the two converge.

Sexual orientation is the part of a person’s sexual identity that has to do with the gender(s) or sex of those they are attracted to physically and emotionally. Heterosexual, gay and bisexual are examples of sexual orientation. Just as a cisgender person can be heterosexual, lesbian, gay or bisexual, a trans* person can be heterosexual, lesbian, gay or bisexual. And there are still other categories of sexual orientation that people may identify as.

Sula says, “Though I tend to identify as gay or lesbian, I recognize that this ignores my own genderqueer-ness and my attraction to other genderqueer people. I am not just a woman attracted to other women, but an androgynous individual who is attracted to a wide spectrum of gender identities.”

Schools Need to Teach About Gender Identity

Gender identity is more than a line with two defined ends or rigid boxes used to categorize people. How we identify and relate to other people is a complex part of our sexual identity. People often don’t realize how complex gender identity is and that many of us do not fit neatly into the gender categories society has created.

We study lots of complex things in schools, so why not add gender identity and expression—or at least acknowledge them? This is crucial to helping us understand sexuality and making us aware of this important part of who we are and how we relate to each other. It could also go a long way toward helping us all be more accepting of the different ways that people express their genders.

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