Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She’: What Is Gender Identity?
Cultural perceptions and expectations about gender shape our lives in countless ways. Most cultures base a person’s gender on their sex, with two rigidly fixed options: male/female or boy/girl. We’re told that women are vulnerable, and men are strong—that girls should act modestly, while “boys will be boys.”
Yet, a growing body of research shows that rigidly enforced gender expectations are associated with a lifelong risk of mental and physical health problems.
People around the world are pushing back against these rigid constructs. These days, young people especially feel freer to openly identify as gender non-conforming, transgender, two-spirit, genderqueer, agender, and more. And one in five U.S. adults knows someone who goes by a gender-neutral pronoun.
This is a huge change from even just two decades ago.
Sex vs. Gender vs. Gender Identity
There’s a lot of confusion around sex and gender. These words are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same.
Sex (male or female) is a label you’re assigned at birth based on the genitals you’re born with and your chromosomes. This label goes on your birth certificate.
Gender is more complex. It’s a set of socially constructed roles and expectations about how a person should think, behave, and present themselves based on their assigned sex at birth.
Gender identity is an umbrella term for how a person feels inside, while gender expression is how they present themselves to the outside world. For example, a person may identify as nonbinary but present as a woman to the outside world in terms of their personal appearance, the pronouns they use, and their mannerisms.
Gender Non-Conformity Is Not New
From Ancient Greece to pre-colonial America, cultures around the world have embraced and even revered gender-fluid community members.
More than 150 pre-colonial Native American tribes have acknowledged third genders, often calling these folks two-spirit. In many tribes, two-spirit people filled special religious roles as healers, shamans, and ceremonial leaders.
Since at least the early 20th century, Samoans have used the term fa’afafine to describe those who are born with male sex organs but embody both masculine and feminine traits.
Among the Sakalava people of Madagascar, young boys thought to have a feminine appearance have traditionally been raised as girls.
The quariwarmi shamans of Pre-colonial Andean culture wore androgynous clothing to acknowledge a “third space” between the masculine and the feminine.
Even in Naples, Italy—heavily influenced by the conservative Catholic Church—there is a centuries-old phenomenon of femminielli, individuals assigned male at birth who dress and behave as women.
In modern times, Indonesia, Pakistan, and India all recognize a third gender.
The Backlash Against Gender Non-Conformity
When a person’s sex assigned at birth does match their gender identity, they may suffer significant distress. Clinically, this is called gender dysphoria, and it’s made worse when society forces the person to conform to a specific gender.
Numerous studies have shown that enforcing strict gender roles is harmful. From male entitlement over female bodies, to unequal pay, to blaming victims of sexual assault, the problems that stem from gender rigidity are ongoing.
Conservatives have been especially outspoken against the anti-gender movement and against LGBTQ+ rights in general. In a 2021 poll, only 43% of Republicans said they were in favor of LGBTQ people serving in the military, versus 88% of Democrats.
Right-wing pundits and talking heads spread fear about a world where ‘gender doesn’t exist’ or where everyone is ‘forced to be androgynous.’
This is nonsense. LGBTQ activists are not trying to force others to live in a particular way—they’re simply advocating for personal freedom.
Creating a More Inclusive World
Despite the fearmongering, there has not been a sudden explosion of transgender and gender non-conforming folks, but rather an increase in the number of people who feel safe being themselves.
Those who come out as gender fluid, genderqueer, or transgender deserve to live in inclusive societies where they’re accepted exactly as they are.
You can help create more inclusive spaces by offering your pronouns during conversation and asking a person theirs. For example, “My name is ----, and I use she/her pronouns. What about you?”
If you don’t already do this as a matter of course, it may feel awkward at first. But this will fade away the more you practice. And if you make a mistake and accidentally misgender someone, simply apologize and move on.
There’s a long history of cultures around the world seeing beyond the modern creation of a two-gender binary.By thoughtfully considering the uniqueness of every person’s experience, we can create an atmosphere of greater acceptance for all.
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