The Separation of Sex and Gender: Why Gender Roles are Irrelevant
BY HAIDEN DESHONG
Gender is a social construct.
This is a statement that many have heard, in politics or in the headlines of progressive social forums on the internet. “Gender is a social construct,” an easily dismissed comment, unless you fall under the umbrella of sexual identities not captured by the blanket-binary terms of ‘’male’’ or ‘‘female.”
In fact, “male” and “female” pertain more to biological sex than to how people later identify, or, more specifically, who they are as people. While the majority of people strongly identify with the sex they were assigned – yes, assigned, because nobody picks their birth sex – many people do not.
As an individual, I pride myself on being more than a few disjointed limbs and a set of reproductive organs, which to me is what my designation of “female” has always been—my physical body, separate from my individuality. And yet it always irritates me when I am referred to as a “girl” or “she” or “miss.” Because I’m not a woman.
I am unsure if I have ever been a woman, in any of the ways that count; yes, I might wear the occasional dress, but I am also logical enough to understand that clothing is little more than an amalgamation of different types of fabric stitched together and made into a certain shape. When I choose clothing, I don’t consider my sex; I consider my taste and my appearance. I wear things that flatter my face. I wear things that make a statement. Perhaps there are days when I will even throw on a little makeup to accentuate that. Or, perhaps, I will choose to dress in sweatpants and a T-shirt instead because I do not want to put in the extensive effort of making myself look “nice” when all I’m doing is going to class and turning in a few assignments.
I have learned, through the friends I have made and the experiences I have endured, that gender is not something related to how you dress or, as I have often been told, “what’s between your legs.” Gender is an enduring representation of who and what a person sees themselves as.
Gender is an enduring representation of who and what a person sees themselves as.
Personally, I represent as masculine. Perhaps I do not physically look masculine, but I have grown up with a line of thinking that more distinctly represents the American view of masculinity rather than femininity. Perhaps, in a world where humankind was not defined by its physical features and ability to reproduce, I would even be acknowledged as a man. But that is not the society that we live in.
I am so often told that “women are emotional,” that they are “nurturers,” that they can be “soft.” I am rough around the edges. I am abrasive. I enjoy debate. I am an intellectual and a directive thinker who would much rather cheer somebody up through morbid humor or swift advice than provide some intimate display of comfort. American society tells me that I am a woman, but when I do not identify with any of the values that are said to be female… what am I then?
And I am not alone. There are so many people who face the difficult questions, “What am I?” and “Who am I?” These are existential principles that have thus far governed our way of thinking. In gender studies, the term “gender” refers to a proposed social and cultural construction of “masculinities and femininities.” This view of gender explicitly excludes reference to biological differences and alludes, instead, to cultural principles.
The term “gender role” was coined by sexologist John Money in the mid-1950s. A gender role in our case merely refers to “the actions or responses an individual presents that may reveal their status as boy, man, girl or woman.” Most societies have two distinct classes of gender roles, masculine and feminine, corresponding to the biological sexes of male and female. When a baby is born, society decides their gender role purely on the basis of what their genitals resemble. Some societies incorporate people who adopt the gender role opposite to their biological sex, for example, the two-spirit humans of many Native American tribes, referred to as ‘man-woman’ and ‘woman-man.’ However, such societies are few and far between in a world that has become explicitly focused on labeling and structuring everything within it.
In gender studies, the term “gender” refers to a proposed social and cultural construction of “masculinities” and “femininities.” This view of gender explicitly excludes reference to biological differences and alludes, instead, to cultural principles.
So, what does it mean when someone of a certain sex group does not view themselves in relation to the gender they were assigned at birth? Does it mean that they are invalid, that their identity does not matter since it is not a physical set of traits easily identifiable to the human eye?
The recent spread of gender identities encompasses far more than the binary separation of “male” and “female.” Cisgender people identify with their biological sex. But genderfluidity and androgyny create other identities: bigendered people, transmen, transwomen, those who see themselves as genderless. The list goes on. Are these people somehow biologically separate from the sex-conformative society around them? Of course not. Separation from biological gender is something driven by the social construct of gender-specific roles and gender-related behaviors seen as “normal.”
However, the term “transgender” carries a weight different from “gender non-conforming.” The categories are dissimilar: to be transgender means to be separate from one’s biological sex entirely. Transgender people are not akin to the sex they were assigned at birth. For me, as a transman who has only recently come to terms with my individual identity, the physical difference carries a sexual component and an innate discomfort with my body. Ask transgender individuals of any age, and most will report the same feeling; a mental disgust at their own genitalia, social isolation from the people around them who cannot understand their distress regarding their own body, low self-esteem and depression at feeling outcast.
Psychology has labelled this feeling as “gender dysphoria.” Gender dysphoria affects a number of transgender people both in and outside of their daily lives. It is marked by a pervasive loathing of their own biological functions and a constant frustration with being referred to by terms that signify the opposite sex. But gender dysphoria does not mean that an individual is suffering from a mental disorder; it means they are physically uncomfortable in their own skin.
And that’s okay.
Gender dysphoria does not mean that an individual is suffering from a mental disorder; it means they are physically uncomfortable in their own skin — and that’s okay.
Physical features do not determine a person’s self-identity. Biology does not determine what a person should or should not be, what they are or are not capable of. And that is something many people seem to forget in a world dictated by labeling and inundated by images on social media. A physical body is just a body. It does not carry the characteristics of mentality, or identity or individualism. It does not mean that a person’s appearance is a signifier of their entire being. It’s… just a body. A biological, physiological husk, made up of water, bones blood and various organs. It does not have a personality. That is a scientific fact.
If you are transgender, if you are bigender, if you are agender, or pangender, or genderfluid, genderqueer, transmasculine, transfeminine, androgyne, hijra, two-spirit, anything– that is valid. You are valid. Your identity does not depend on your body. You should love who you are as a person, as a spirit, a mind, a personality, an individual. You should know that you don’t have to label yourself, because it is not the label that matters; it’s how you feel about yourself.
If you are transgender, if you are bigender, if you are agender, or pangender, or genderfluid, genderqueer, transmaculine, transfeminine, androgyne, hijra, two-spirit, anything— that is valid.
And if you are cisgender, please, be willing to listen to those who cannot identify with their biological sex. Be willing to be an ally, a friend, a partner. Open yourself up to the possibility of other identities, of other representations than what is apparent to your eyes. Use the pronouns that non-binary and transgender individuals prefer, rather than what you see. Perhaps even ask for pronouns before you become acquainted with a person. Allies are always, always wonderful to have. Friends are amazing in any circumstance. Remember that if you are making a friend, you are becoming close to an individual, not their body.
Gender and sex are not the same. Labels are unimportant. What matters is understanding, respect and acknowledgement—the love for the individual mind and not the physical appearance.