If you’ve had some basic sex education you might have been taught that there are only two sexes and two genders and that men have to behave one way and women another. Wrong. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
You get to choose your gender identity, whether you are a he/she/they or zie and you get to choose how you want to do your own gender. This is true no matter what body you may have, or what chromosomes you may have or how you feel about your body.
You can work out your gender by learning some more about different gender identities and seeing if any of those fit you, or you can try to understand your own unique gender for you. Hopefully you will find this useful.
We all receive very strong messages about how men ‘should’ be and how women ‘should’ be which is, of course, sexist. Do an image search now for ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ now. See what I mean?
If we were to put these gendered expectations on a scale then we might find that we are often on different parts of the scale that we are ‘supposed’ to be on. So have a look at these scales.
You can probably see that the words on the left are what are often regarded, culturally, as what ‘men are supposed to be like’ and the words on the right are what ‘women are supposed to be like’. The point of this activity though is for you to decide where you are.
Instead of thinking you have to be one or the other think about whether sometimes you are somewhere in between. Are there times when you are definitely at one end of a scale but sometimes not so much? Can you use these scales to write a description of what kind of person you are? So when someone asks you what your gender is on a form you might be able to say one thing, but if you were having a conversation about gender and what that means to you, that would be a lot more complicated and also interesting.
Identity and What You Do
Just like with sexuality, there is a difference between what we do and how we might want to identify. These quotes below might give you an idea of how unique gender can be. Do any of these quotes* mean anything to you? (If you want to leave a quote for my readers about you here, please leave a comment below).
“I’m a woman who works in a place where everyone is encouraged to be tough and independent. I like that, but it annoys me that I’m also expected to be soft and emotional too and the men never are. So often at the pub I become their counsellor as well as work colleague.”
“I used to identify as a guy but now I’m much more comfortable being more in the middle I guess. I think the label for me would be genderqueer but more importantly I feel like I’ve given myself freedom not to do that macho bullshit thing anymore.”
“I’m happy being a bloke who is caring and soft. I’m chill with people to take the lead and never really feel any pressure to do the ‘big man thing.’ My mates used to give me stick about it but they accept it.”
“People look at me and think I’m a woman. If someone asked me what my gender was I’d also probably say ‘woman’, but my gender wouldn’t even be in the top 50 words I’d use to describe myself.”
“Sometimes when I go out I’ll be really femme and sometimes really butch looking. I have no idea why – I just like to go with what feels good at the time and not think about it too much.”
“I’m an officer in the Army, so I have to be mostly on the left of your scale. We all find it really hard though – we see some shit you know? I think if we don’t find ways of also being caring to each other then it would all just fall apart.”
“So I’m a trans guy and a Derby supporter. It’s a real struggle sometimes. I really worry about the next few months … we’ve got yet another manager who’s bringing in all these new players and getting rid of the old ones. I worry that if too many of the old players go then we’ll lose our identity and not play in the Derby way you know? #DCFC #COYR”
“When I was younger I was asked by a youth worker about what it is to be a man. I was like ‘having a dick?’ He got me thinking some more about it and even though I do have a dick it’s not what makes me a man is it? I mean, that’s stupid.”
*these aren’t direct quotes, but are roughly based on what people have said to me
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Bodies, Gender and Basics
Gender is way more complicated than:
-looks at body-
-looks at body hair-
-looks at genitals-
–ping that’s my gender-
I mean, if you want to be this basic then by all means be basic (don’t be basic). But please don’t tell other people that this is how they should think about their gender too.
For one, like I point out in this article, sex is a very complicated idea. It’s not just about our chromosomes (a lot of people don’t know what theirs are, XX, XY, XXY … ) but also; which hormones kick in, when they kick in and how they kick in; and then how genitals may take shape.
Most people would say that they had a penis and testicles or a clitoris and vagina, however many people are in the middle of this spectrum with how their bodies are configured. Genitals are much more diverse than people often think. Our genitals are on a spectrum in terms of: how much erectile tissue sticks out (clitorises and dicks and inbetween); where the prostate is; where the wee hole is; whether the gonads are inside or outside; vagina size.
Also sex, like gender, is not just about biology but is also to do with how we feel about ourselves and what society tells us about ourselves. Many people feel not okay about their bodies and feel that it doesn’t really match on to who they feel they are as a person. Others feel more of a connection with their sex than their gender. For a lot of people this changes over their lifetime. Finding this confusing? Yes it is, but also more interesting I think.
That it is so complicated is actually a wonderful thing. Looking at sex and gender in this way is not just about being nice to intersex people, trans people and gender non-conforming people (though, we should definitely be more nice to these people as they are constantly being treated badly), but it also allows everyone else to do gender in any goddamn way they want.
In order to do this there are three simple things that we could all start doing straight away:
- If someone tells you their gender believe them.
- Don’t assume you know what their body is going to look like.
- Don’t be so obsessed with people’s bodies in the first place, perhaps we can all be more interested in people’s stories about who they are instead.
And also read these.
How to Be a Man – wouldn’t it be nice if we weren’t pressuring men to do all the things men are ‘supposed’ to do?
What Are You Like? – more ways of thinking about yourself that goes beyond gender
Other sites you might like are
This site about differences of sex development
This podcast is really interesting about the importance of talking about diverse sexual development (which I’ve tried to do here).
If you like this article you would love this book (which helped me write this) How to Understand Your Gender
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© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.