In the spirit of expanding awareness, this week I felt compelled to change things up a little. For the past few weeks I have asked readers to offer suggestions for topics. What follows was not written by me, but by a trusted and wise therapist friend. After much deliberation, and a cross country visit, I encouraged her to share her viewpoint on the subject of gender identification and sex since many are still unclear of the distinction. Her words offer much insight and clarification, which helps remind us of how important it is to not define ourselves or judge others based solely on society’s narrow parameters of “normal.” –DW
Gender is not binary. It is a spectrum, much like sexuality. On one end of the spectrum are men and on the other end are women, and in between there is a whole range of androgyny. In an attempt to explain what the hell I mean by this, I’m going to tell you a little about my androgynous self and clarify the difference between sex and gender.
Western society would say that I am a female (sex) woman (gender). The sex part is pretty clear. I’ve birthed three children. I have the parts that allowed me to do so. Society would also argue that I’m a woman. Most people would say that simply based on my sex; the two go hand-in-hand. I say that’s not necessarily true and that society doesn’t get to decide what my, or anyone else’s, gender is. I may not be able to choose my sex but I can choose my gender.
That’s right folks. Sex and gender are not the same thing. Let’s start by defining the two.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA) they are defined as follows:
Sex refers to a person’s biological status and is typically categorized as male, female, or intersex (i.e., atypical combinations of features that usually distinguish male from female). There are a number of indicators of biological sex, including sex chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive organs, and external genitalia.
Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity.
In other words, your sex is determined by your bits and your hormones. When you were born and the doctor announced (for most of us) that you were a girl or a boy, the doc was talking about your sex. Many people refer to that as gender. “This weekend I found out the gender of my sister’s baby. She’s having a girl.” That’s not actually gender at all. That’s the baby’s sex.
For the majority of people, their physical sex and expected gender identity align right from birth. Girls grow to be adult women, boys become men, and they feel no disconnection between the sexual characteristics of their bodies and their internal identities as “man” or “woman.” For those whom sex and gender align neatly, it may be difficult to tease apart what aspects of their personality and outward gender expression are attributed to the physical sex they were assigned at birth versus their gender identity that developed as they matured and experienced life. However, for those of us who find the relationship between our sex and gender a little more complex, it is clear that being physically female does not necessarily equate to embracing everything “womanly” as defined in our Western society.
I have very short hair, cut by a barber every three weeks. I never wear makeup. I wear masculine clothes and shoes. The only exception being sports bras. Generally speaking, people know I’m female, but I have occasionally been mistaken for male, which I get ridiculously giddy about. When given the option in public, I choose a non-gendered restroom. When that’s not available, I use the women’s. Ninety percent of the time this is not an issue, but I have gotten stares, as if they wonder for just a minute if I’m in the “wrong” one. While I usually find this delightful and entertaining, there are many who feel terrified each time they approach a restroom.
Even when we accept the sex assigned to us at birth, a non-conforming gender identity can make even our own bodies feel foreign, especially the parts that cue others to categorize us by sex. For example, I don’t like my breasts and wish they were smaller. At this point I don’t dislike them enough to do anything about it other than try to minimize them. But it’s a thing. I feel irritated every time my period starts because it is a reminder of my very feminine side. I lift weights often, almost obsessively, because I prefer to look more physically masculine. Most people think of defined muscles as a masculine trait. I don’t feel like I am a man. But I don’t necessarily feel like I am a woman either. I land somewhere in between. This is my comfort zone and where I feel like I fit.
That is what androgyny looks like for me but it can vary widely by individual, because, you know… spectrum.
Being a gender bender is confusing when society tells us we have to fit into one of two tight little boxes…male or female. It’s not only confusing, but potentially dangerous. Individuals take on the risk and expense of surgeries and hormones because they feel like their gender is wrong. Maybe, just maybe, if society accepted a gender spectrum, some of these individuals would feel comfortable falling somewhere in the middle, thus avoiding potentially risky procedures. Do I even need to mention the assault and suicide rates of transgender individuals? Individuals who identify with a gender that is different from their biological sex (for example, they are assigned male at birth but feel inwardly that they are a girl or a gender other than a boy) are called transgender. Many people consider transgender an umbrella term for anyone who is in the middle of the gender spectrum.
What about pronouns? Personally, I prefer the feminine pronouns of she/her. Some folks who fall in the middle of the spectrum use they/them. For a grammar freak like me, those just don’t fly. I don’t judge those that use them, but struggle with being called they or them when I am one person. If you are unsure which pronouns someone prefers, ask. Gender benders would rather have you ask than assume incorrectly. Asking indicates that you give a shit.
Generally speaking, I’m a confident individual. I haven’t always been, but I’ve landed here after years of hard work and self-exploration. I know what I want in my life. I know the type of person I want to spend my life with, what I want my career to look like, and how I want to parent my children. Most of the time, I walk down the street with my head held high and my shoulders back, knowing I am a damn good human. However, my gender is the one area which sometimes trips me up. It’s not because I’m uncomfortable. It’s because society has its two boxes, neither of which are a true fit for me, and that is frustrating. Typically, “women’s events” are usually too feminine and won’t work for me. Anything geared specifically toward men? Nope. I am still working on figuring out my way around that kind of thing. Baby steps, I suppose.
It may be hard for people who have never grappled with dissonance between their physical sex and gender identity to fully understand that gender is indeed a spectrum. Some people even feel threatened by the concept, as any change in perspective can be challenging, especially if it causes one to reevaluate their own place in the world as a man or woman. However, making the effort to listen to the voices of those outside of the binary is worthwhile and furthers equality, freedom of expression, and understanding for all of us.
Meghan Fry is a mental health therapist with over 15 years of experience in the social sciences. Meghan has a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She is currently the program director of a multi-disciplinary team that provides wrap-around services for chronically homeless individuals who have serious mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Meghan plans to open a private practice and specialize in gender identity and other LGBTQ issues.