What is Gender?
What is gender and why do I care?
Most people in society go about their business and never give their gender a second thought; however, I have a light to shine on this subject so we can all have a deeper understanding of who we are and why this is important. Every day we interact with any number of individuals and with repeat interactions we can say we know a person. The level of interaction will vary in importance and significance to us. This aspect of our being called ‘gender’ is actually an important function of how we react to others and how they treat us.
Of course gender is just one aspect of our nature, we have many others including but not limited to, personality, demeanor, attitude, physical sex, physical attractiveness, body habitus, sexual orientation, intelligence, common sense, and self actualization. When we meet someone new a few of the first things we notice are the persons size, gender, attractiveness, and how comfortable they are with themselves. The package you present is a total summation of your nature and nurture. So some aspects are a gift from birth and others are learned along the way. The innate ones such as size, gender, sexual orientation, common sense, and physical attractiveness (for the most part) we must do our best to live with. This means personality, demeanor, attitude, physical sex, body habitus, intelligence, and self-actualization are malleable. These are attributes of our nature that we have somewhat of control over. Gender falls in the attributes that are innate meaning we are born with our gender and we cannot change this.
If we look a bit closer we see that there are different aspects of gender that are important to our understanding, such as gender identity, gender expression, gender role, and physical sex. One of the challenges we have today is the popular confusion of gender and sex which are often used interchangeably. If nothing else I would like you to come away from this article with an understanding of the differences of these two words. Sex is a word that has many usages and thus the confusion creeps in. In Dictionary.com thirteen different definitions come up with this simple 3 letter word, so I will not get into every definition here. When we are born the first thing the parents want to know is, “is the child a boy or a girl” and in this case we are talking about physical sex not gender identity or even gender role. Our physical sex is determined by the physical body parts we are given at birth, but with today’s new surgical techniques this can be changed if need be. Is a female who has had a complete hysterectomy considered a woman? Is this person still female? What factor(s) is it that makes a person male or female? What makes a person man or woman? Where does gender fit in?
Gender Identity is a person’s innate sense of being masculine or feminine, which cannot be determined until the person is about 3 years old and often it is 5-6 years of age before anyone is able to know the true gender. Since gender is an inner knowing of the individual no other person is able to determine the gender. It is up to the child to express their gender when they learn to speak. The Native Americans knew this and would not name their child until they were 4-6 years old in order to allow them to express their gender identity and find their place in the tribe. A baby name or generic name was used up until this time and often the naming involved the entire family including the child and sometimes the tribe. Once their name was given the person wore it like a badge of honor, because it reflected their very nature, their Great Spirit.
Context of usage is very important and I would like to clarify this right here. What I have described here is Gender Identity, what the parents are told at birth is the physical sex, how the person dresses is the gender expression and how this person acts in society is the gender role they are playing. So you must see the context of the word usage before you can understand which gender is being referred to. As I pointed out before the word sex has many uses so be sure to determine the context in which it is being used.
A vision of society I would like you to embrace is the Native American idea of allowing the child to choose, and get away from using physical sex to describe a person – most children as I stated above have no gender till they are 3-6 years old. As a parent, how do you know it is a boy or a girl? Fortunately the children being born today are more aware than ever before and they are expressing their gender identity at a very early age. The answer is simple; you listen to your child! Many parents understand this and respect their child; however others do not, so we each can help by raising the general knowledge of gender and what that word means. I would love to see a society that reflects the wisdom of our ancient peoples by honoring gender identity and not assigning gender roles, and instead allowing the child to choose the role which fits them.
A few words about the differences of gender role and gender expression, while they are similar they are different in that gender expression is about outer appearance and gender role is activity. So wearing make-up and female clothes is a female gender expression, while a female gender role would be cleaning house and babysitting. I hesitate to include this here as our roles and expressions are getting to be so varied and free. The old rules are breaking down, so we are seeing women in active military duty now while 20 years ago this was almost unheard of and men are cleaning house, washing dishes, and babysitting. The best way to put this is man and women are integrating now as a society and our roles and gender expressions are so much more open. New gender roles and expressions are emerging with each new soul born.
Research shows what happens in fetal development and what determines gender identity is the effect of hormones on the fetus in the earliest stages of development. “Scientific evidence has been growing that somehow certain brain-structures in the hypothalamus (the BSTc region) determine each persons core gender feelings and innate gender identity. These structures are “hard-wired” pre-natally in the lower brain centers and central nervous system (CNS) during the early stages of pregnancy”. Dennis, Carina Jan. 29, 2004
It is believed that certain genes also play a role in gender development, but the exact process has yet to be worked out. Gender variance is a natural process that occurs in all species of animals. Why humans get so upset about this seems very strange and I surmise this arises from religious teachings.
“Thanks to high school biology, we are accustomed to thinking of the sex of an organism as being determined by the chromosomes, notably the sex chromosome in humans (designated X or Y). But this is not the whole story, and it applies universally only to mammals and birds. In other animals sex is often determined by environmental factors and can be a variable phenomenon. In a species of slipper limpet (Crepidula fornicata), a kind of mollusk, all individuals begin life as females. Clinging to rocks and to each other, they form piles. The limpet on top of the pile changes into a male. If another limpet attaches itself on top of the male limpet, the newcomer becomes male, and the male limpet beneath it reverts to being female. These slipper limpets show the evolutionarily advanced feature of internal fertilization and the male on top extends his reproductive organ down the pile of females below him to fertilize their eggs. For some fish, the number of males in the population determines the sex of the fish. If there are not enough males, some females become males. In these examples, the same animal can make fertile eggs and fertile sperm at different times in its life. These animals are not hermaphrodites, like some worms, but literally change sex. Some animals have only one sex. For instance, some species of lizards reproduce only by parthenogenesis—that is, their unfertilized eggs grow into adults, and these species no longer have males. Sometimes the external temperature determines the sex of an animal during its early development. If the eggs of the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) are incubated at above 34 degrees Celsius (93° F), all of the offspring become males. If they are incubated below 30 degrees Celsius (86° F), they become females. The midrange of temperatures results in both male and female offspring.” The American Heritage® Science Dictionary, Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved.
The previous article demonstrates that physical sex is not fixed at birth and can change which goes for mammals and birds. It is Gender Identity, for those social animals that have this aspect, which is innate. The research on gender is somewhat new and so advances in our understanding are rapidly progressing each day. It is my belief that even mammals and birds have no concept of gender. Only those beings who are self-aware can understand gender.
In review of our basic question, “what is gender and why do I care?” we have established that gender is an important part of our social interactions and has four aspects, identity, sex, role and expression. We have learned that we are not to confuse physical sex and gender identity. We established that research shows gender identity is “hard wired” into our brains and is determined by a combination of genes and hormones. So now let us look even closer and break down Gender into five separate aspects per the teachings of Dr. Carl Bushong.
The Five Attributes of Gender
1) Genetic Gender – Chromosomal inheritance made up of chromosomes and genes.
2) Physical Gender – Primary and secondary sexual characteristics, which include our sexual organs and our physical appearance.
3) “Brain Gender” – The functional structure of the brain along gender lines.
4) “Brain Sex” – Love/sex patterns, and how you relate to others on a social, interpersonal as well as sexual level, often referred to as our “Sexual Orientation”.
5) Gender Identity – Subjective gender or how we feel ourselves to be: male, female, or other.
These attributes come from an article Dr. Carl Bushong wrote in 1995, and I highly recommend reading his entire article found here at doctorbushong.com .
It is important to understand these 5 attributes function independently of each other, so there are any number of combinations that manifest in society. “…For most persons, gender identity and biological characteristics are the same. There are, however, circumstances in which an individual experiences little or no connection between sex and gender; in transgender, for example, biological sexual characteristics are distinct and unambiguous, but the affected person believes that he or she is-or ought to be-of the opposite sex (see transsexualism).” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008
The factors that contribute to our “complete package” or the aspects of our nature are complex and can be confusing to both the person affected and to the people who they interact with. One of the tragic consequences of this confusion arises when a baby is born intersex (hermaphrodite, the old term). This is where the child has both male and female sexual organs or part of both and the surgeon decides which sex is appropriate, usually after consulting the parents but not always. The tragedy occurs when the sex chosen does not match the gender identity which leads to anger and frustration for the child and sometimes to suicide. Without going into a lot of detail here, I will just say that the trend now, thankfully, is to wait for the child to express their gender identity and till they can give legal consent to the surgery. This puts the power back where it belongs in the hands of the individual. Listen carefully to the conclusions of William Reiner, M.D., a pediatric clinician and researcher at The John’s Hopkins Hospital, based on his work with intersex children:
“In the end it is only the children themselves who can and must identify who and what they are. It is for us as clinicians and researchers to listen and to learn. Clinical decisions must ultimately be based not on anatomical predictions, nor on the ‘correctness’ of sexual function, for this is neither a question of morality nor of social consequence, but on that path most appropriate to the likeliest psychosexual developmental pattern of the child. In other words, the organ that appears to be critical to psychosexual development and adaptation is not the external genitalia, but the brain.” William Reiner, M.D. (1997)
Breaking gender down to each of it’s parts makes understanding it all that much easier even though it is a very complex subject. One of the aspects we have not addressed yet is “Brain Sex” or sexual orientation which is only similar to gender identity in that it is fixed at birth. The old myth that a person chooses to be gay, lesbian, straight or other is just that – a myth. The part which is choice is whether we accept our sexual orientation, express our innate nature, and feel good about being who we are. The reaction we experience in society is simply a function of our own personal choices made about who we are. Meaning discrimination comes from within. We truly are our own worst enemies. I realize that this is contrary to what many of us have been taught, but after many years of observation and personal experience this is what I have found to be true. The Love we experience is in direct proportion to the Love we feel we deserve, which is an inner feeling not a conscious thought or word.
Sexual expression comes in many different flavors and is possibly as unique as the number of people on our beautiful blue planet. The old school wants us to conform to the old ‘boy meets girl, girl has baby’ scenario and while that does serve its purpose as a race we are moving beyond this. Sexual expression is meant to be a Joyous union of two or more souls. There are no rules but the ones you create. If you want to have children there are many ways to accomplish that, stop putting limits on this. If it is in the benefit of the survival of the human race for men to have babies then this is what will happen. For now we have a world that is overpopulated which greatly stresses life here on earth, so having babies is not the priority. Joy is what we need more of, so enjoy your partner and do not be concerned with social convention, taboos, or the like. Love is the only rule.
If you are concerned about labels and what each of them mean, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, etc. I will direct you to the TransTerminology page. Labels only serve to communicate and really do not help define who you are. Defining who you are is accomplished through your actions. For instance, a man does not decide they want to be gay and go out and find another man to have sex with, instead they feel attracted to the other man and then take action on that attraction. Technically though, even if a man is attracted to men and they never have a sexual relationship with another man they are not gay. If a man has both sexual attraction and sexual relations with both men and women that makes him bisexual and if he keeps multiple relationships going at the same time he is poly-amorous. I think you get the point here, it is our actions that determine who we are, which goes for any action we take in any area of our lives.
The question of choice must be address here, because it is not as simple as choosing not to be one thing or the other. If you are born with a female brain, a female gender identity, and a male body this is a decision that was made before you were born and it means that you are transgender. It is up to each of us individually to determine what we were given at birth. Who are you attracted to? Are you compelled to wear a certain type of clothing? Are your actions feminine or masculine? How do others see you? How do you feel about yourself? It matters not the labels we choose but the actions we take. These are the questions that are best answered before puberty by every individual either to themselves or to a responsible adult, parent, family member, counselor, or doctor. At some point in life everyone answers these questions and when you do, you will find a path has been laid before you. All you need do is walk the path.
“The fact that we are human beings is infinitely more important than all the peculiarities that distinguish human beings from one another.” Simone de Beauvoir
Carina Dennis, “Brain development: The most important sexual organ” , Nature Magazine, January 29, 2004
Gender Identity. (n.d.). © Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.. Retrieved January 06, 2010, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gender identity
Quotes Daddy, referenced Jan. 6 2010, http://www.quotesdaddy.com/quote/553645/simone-de-beauvoir/the-fact-that-we-are-human-beings-is-infinitely-more
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary, Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved.
William Reiner, M.D., To Be Male or Female–That is the Question, 151 Arch Pediatr. Adolesc. Med. 225 (1997)].