Sex and Gender
It’s not just male/female or man/woman. A beginners guide to sex and gender diversity.
‘Sex and gender? Simples. Sex is male or female and their gender is men or women yeah?’ Nah mate. Although there are many men who are male and women who are female, there is a huge amount of gender and sex diversity which may well include you too.
Mostly people think of sex as meaning male or female. This is how many biologists have understood it too – but not any more. We used to rely on chromosomes to tell us what sex we are – XX means female, XY means male. However some people can be a combination of those and different parts of the body can have different combinations. Also sex is not just about chromosomes. Different genes and the different ways and times that hormones kick in means that there are a lot of people who in inbetween what we think of as ‘male’ and ‘female.’
Being somewhere inbetween ‘male’ and ‘female’ is also known as ‘intersex’ or ‘dsd.’ Sometimes people are aware they are intersex from just after birth – someone may have different shape or size or combination of genitals, but this might not be obvious. But sometimes sex differences only become apparent when someone goes through puberty. Or they are discovered in adults when people go for fertility treatment.
If there’s a ‘problem’ with different sexes I don’t think it’s down to genes, hormones and chromosomes but what society expects of people’s sex and gender.
Biologists are still finding some of this stuff out now and the more they look into it, the greater diversity they are finding. It’s thought that 0.5 – 2% of people don’t fit neatly into ‘male’ or ‘female’ – this could turn out to be even higher the more we learn about it. If there’s a ‘problem’ with this diversity when it comes to what sex we are I don’t think it’s down to genes, hormones and chromosomes but what society expects of people’s sex and gender.
There’s a really great website for teens about being intersex or dsd here.
Many people think that people are either men or women. However many people don’t fit neatly into these categories and even if you think you do, when we break it down a bit, you might think differently too. It’s important to learn about this stuff because society is the problem and you are in society which means you can change it.
I’ll explain the different terms for different genders below. If you’re new to all this you might find it takes a while for you to get your head around. However, this is the key …
If someone has told you what gender they are, believe them. No-one should have to educate you about their gender, to explain their sex, to tell you about their genitals or to justify themselves at all.
Most people would probably consider themselves as cisgender (pronounced with an s at the beginning). Cisgender peeps have the same gender they were given when they were born – though obviously they behave in a different way when they get older. Genders are given to babies based on their sex – however a) there are lots of different variations of sex that affect thousands of people (see above) and b) gender is not the same as sex.
Cisgender means someone sticking with the same gender as the one given to them at birth.
We are taught about how to do gender from so many different sources and from a very young age. Because they all say the same thing this is pretty powerful stuff. We are taught that there are only men and women and that they are very different (even opposites). Men and women are then given very strict rules about how they are expected to behave. Men are taught things like ‘be tough, in control and active.’ Women are taught things like ‘be gentle, caring and passive.’ However, men and women aren’t always like this. We’re contradictory and complex because a) we’re, you know, humans and b) we have other identities too.
Spend a couple minutes writing down what is expected men and of women – write two lists. What do you notice about the lists you made? Are they very different? Think about what qualities are important in being a good person or a friend or a partner, how do they compare? Do you fit neatly into one list or the other? Does this change depending on who you are with?
Transgender people have a different gender to the one they were given when they were born. In fact many trans people feel that they were never that gender in the first place. In this brilliant personal piece written by a trans man for BISH, the writer explains how he only started feeling okay about himself when he realised he was a young man.
People might say they are trans men or trans women. Usually trans men like to be called ‘he’ and trans women ‘she.’
Some people identify as trans but live as cis. Some people want to ‘pass’ as a their trans self (on a permanent or temporary basis) or to ‘transition’ to live as their trans self. Some trans people decide to go for gender realignment, which is where they decide to have various hormone treatments, cosmetic treatments and sometimes surgery to help them to feel more like themselves. For more about that visit the NHS page on transgender. People may also want to change their name – this is true of non-binary peeps too.
Some people are non-binary, this means that they are trans but not a trans man or trans woman. Genderqueer is a frequently used label for this which may include people having no gender or 2 or more genders or being really fluid about their gender. Instead of saying ‘him’ or ‘her’ their pronoun may be ‘they’ (yes grammar pedants, they is a singular word too) or ‘ze.’ Here’s a great interview with CN Lester about being genderqueer.
When you see the word trans* (with an asterisk) it refers to all the different trans and non-binary identities out there. There are tons of them. To read more about this go here.
People who are ‘trans*’ are discriminated against because of who they are. This might include name calling, or violence, or discrimination or harassment or bullying. Very sadly, many trans people every year are killed just because they fit outside the standard ‘man/woman’ thing. It’s just like sexism, racism, disablism, homophobia or religious intolerance. That’s why there is the Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20th every year.
Links and support
For more on how to respect a trans gender person go here
Gendered Intelligence who are practitioners educating and supporting young people around gender.
For a great article about the trans highlights of 2014 check out this great article by Paris Lees.
© Justin Hancock 2015