I was debating as to what topic relating to identity to begin my blog with, but in lieu of recent events and the wave of opinions on social media, I find it extremely important for people who are misinformed on gender identity to gain a better understanding on gender identity and the transgender community.

The Difference Between Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity

People often lump sexual orientation and gender identity as one thing or the same thing. However, these are two very distinct components of self-identity.

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation relates to who you are attracted to romantically, sexually/physically or emotionally. Sexual identity is a topic that can be explored on its own, but it is important to understand that this is not the same as gender identity. Below is a graphic depicting the Kinsey scale, which explains sexual orientation at a high level:

kinsey scale sexual orientation

Credit: Wrightwellnesscenter.com

Because gender identity and sexual orientation are often thought to be the same thing, people often make assumptions about the way an individual expresses their identity and their sexual orientation. For example, a boy who prefers to dress in a manner that is typically associated with femininity can be mistaken for being homosexual although he may very well not be.

Gender Identity

Gender identity refers to our inner concept of self as either male, female, a combination of the two or neither. This refers to what an individual perceives themselves as and what they call themselves. This can differ from the sex that they were assigned at birth.

Gender Identity Explained

Gender identity consists of three different components including body, identity and expression.

Body

Body refers to the physical and biological aspects of gender identity. In most societies, sex is viewed as binary – male or female. This way of looking at it only takes into consideration reproductive functions such as genitals and sex chromosomes.

However,  a person’s sex or gender and how it is related to their body is much more complex than this.

There are aspects of neurology (anatomy and functions of the nervous system), endocrinology (endocrine glands and hormones) and cellular biology (functions and structures of cells) that also have an impact on our individual experiences and self perception of gender.

Our bodies are also subjected to societal and cultural standards related to gender that can affect our self view of gender. Certain physical attributes and how those attributes are present in our bodies label us as more or less masculine or feminine by society and can have an impact on our view of gender of ourselves.

For example, a woman who is has smaller breasts may be seen as less feminine. Another example would be a man who is not very muscular may be seen as less masculine. However, these physical attributes do not directly coincide with how the person views themselves although society may try to tell them otherwise.

Intersex

There are cases in which someone may be born intersex, which refers to a variety of conditions that relate to a person being born with the sexual anatomy or reproductive anatomy that does not fit the typical definition of male or female. According to the video below, 1 in 2,000 people are born intersex. Intersex people may have variations outside of the typical male or female that relate to their gonads, chromosomes and genitalia.

Often times, young intersex children are put through surgeries to become more like one of the genders. In many cases, these are done with no real medical reasons. Because these children are of young age, they have no consent on whether to undergo these surgeries.

Identity

The identity component of gender identity deals with our our individual and internal experiences of gender and how we name our gender.

Cisgender

The term cisgender, often shortened to cis, refers to someone who identifies as the same gender as the one they were assigned at birth. A person like this, for example, would have been assigned male at birth and identifies as male.

sophia burset transgender

Credit: Netflix

Transgender

The term transgender, often shortened to trans, refers to an individual who has a gender identity that is different from the gender they were assigned at birth. For example, a transgender individual may have been assigned female at birth, but identifies as male.

If you’re a fan of Orange is the New Black,  you will recognize Sophia Burset, the transgender character, who was assigned male at birth, but identifies as a female.

Gender Binary

The term gender binary refers to the idea that there are only two genders – male and female. If an individual has a binary gender identity, this means they identify as male or female despite their gender assignment at birth.

Gender Fluid/Non-Binary/Gender Queer

Much like the Kinsey Scale relating to sexual orientation mentioned earlier, gender is on spectrum.

Gender fluidity refers to individuals that do no prescribe to confined forms of gender. Gender fluid individuals may feel more female one day and more male another day.

A non-binary individual has a gender identity that is neither strictly female or strictly male.

Model, DJ and actress Ruby Rose released a short film called “Break Free” that displays her gender fluidity in a visual, powerful way.

Agender

An agender individual is one that does not identify with any gender

Expression

Gender expression is the third component of gender identity. Gender expression deals with our external appearance and how we show our gender to the outside world. This includes behavior, mannerisms, clothing, hairstyle or voice.

These forms of gender expression may or may not align with societal and cultural standards of behavior and characteristics which are often associated with either masculinity or femininity.

At an early age, we are often taught that everything has a gender including clothing, colors, toys and certain activities or interests. We are taught narrow definitions of what it means to be a “girl” or “boy.” These definitions are reinforced by the world around us including family, friends, the educational system, communities, the media and religion.

The accepted gender roles are so deeply engraved and reinforced throughout society that most individuals cannot imagine and do not understand any other way of thinking.

Children who express their gender outside of the cultural or societal norms often have very different experiences than those stay within those accepted boundaries.

Young girls who are seen to be “too masculine” and young boys who are seen as “too feminine” often face great challenges especially going into adolescence. These children face pressures to meet the societal standards of how they are supposed to express their gender although this may feel completely unnatural to them.

They often face a fear that they will be condemned and judged by people around them for expressing their gender in a way that is true to themselves that may not fit into these binary gender norms.

Because gender binary expression and societal gender expectations are so inflexible, people often assume that the clothing a person wears, how they talk and their mannerisms directly define their gender identity.

However, it is possible that a cisgender boy (one who was assigned a boy at birth and identifies as a boy) can wear clothing that is often considered feminine such as a skirt or dress, does not identify as female at all. His choice in clothing simply indicates a fashion choice to wear garments that are more commonly associated with women.

Understanding Gender Identity

For those who identify on either end of the gender identity spectrum, strictly male or strictly female, it may be difficult to grasp the concept and complexity of gender identity. For some, it may be very simple and follow the gender binary standars, but just as most components of human identity, gender identity can also be more complex and involve several variations.

Below is a visual representation of gender identity created by itspronouncedmetrosexual.com:

gender identity graphic

Credit: itspronouncedmetrosexual.com

Sources:
  • ttp://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-orientation-and-gender-identity-terminology-and-definitions
  • https://www.genderspectrum.org/quick-links/understanding-gender/
  • http://www.isna.org/faq/what_is_intersex
  • https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gender-fluid