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Gender and Sexuality Series 1: Terms

Gender versus Sex?


First, let’s just outline what exactly we’re talking about. Gender is a word used to describe socially defined actions, behaviours, visual clues, or expectations associated with being a 'girl/woman' or 'boy/man'. Basically, gender is what we think of when we fill in the blanks: 'A little girl should _____', or 'Being a real man means _____.'


Gender is NOT sex and biological sex does not determine gender identity. Likewise, there are WAY MORE than 2 genders but we’ll get to that below. 


‘Male’, ‘Female’, and 'Intersex’ are scientific terms used to describe biological sex differences. These are usually associated with differences like external genitalia, hormones, and reproductive organs. A typical human has two sex chromosomes (the genetic material that houses our DNA): X and Y. Each person has at least one X chromosome so a typical female is XX and a typical male is XY. However, there are also different ways in which an individual’s sex chromosomes might be passed down including XXX and XXY. In the case of intersex individuals, these individuals are born with atypical sexual characteristics or characteristics that don't fit with a 'typical' definition of 'male' or 'female'.


So...when people say there’s only 2 sexes, don’t believe them! 


What is Gender Identity?

Gender identity is what a person feels: how they self define their own gender or how they express their gender in their personal lives. There is a beautiful kaleidoscope of gender identities including female, male, transgender, gender neutral, non-binary, agender, pangender, genderqueer, two-spirit, third gender, and all, non, or a mix of these! AMAZING right? 


And this is JUST in the West. In non-Western cultures and societies, there are thousands more expressions and combinations when it comes to gender because GENDER IS SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTED. That means that gender roles are a part of the culture that they come from. For example, in indigenous North America, an anatomical male who dressed and assumed gender roles usually for a woman was called a berdache and in the Mamluck period in Egypt, young girls who exhibited ‘boy’ behaviours were raised to be and accepted as men in society. AND in indigenous Hawaiin cultures, “the Mahus were considered to be the vocal mediums for proliferating ancient rituals and were respected as educators.


The most important thing to remember about gender identity is: if it’s not yours, you don’t get a say in it. Gender identity is incredibly personal and any expression of that identity by way of external signs like dress, haircut, name, style of speech, movement, or behaviours are an outward sign of the way someone feels inside. 


Transpersons and pronouns


Transpersons are those individuals who identify as transgender usually because their gender expression is misaligned with the gender assigned to them at birth due to their sex characteristics. I’ll unpack that a little: when we’re born, what’s the first thing a doctor or midwife says? “It’s a girl!” The doctor or midwife just assigned that individual with the gender ‘girl’. What they really mean is: “This tiny human is born with a vagina!” And, because we now know that biological sex characteristics are not gender, we also know that making the jump from ‘vagina’ to ‘girl’ is problematic. 


So! Identifying as trans or as a transperson means that the individual feels different to that expectation placed on them from birth (or even before if we get into talking about ‘sexing’ the baby at 20 weeks...but that’s a different article). 


Ok, so why are pronouns important? 


Pronouns are any words we use to describe a person without using their names. I just did it. I said ‘their’. That’s a pronoun! 


Common pronouns are she/her, he/him, and they/their. You can also see xe/xem, zi/zim, or ve/ver!


In English and many other romantic languages, these words assign a gender to an object or person. In other languages, like Finnish and Chinese, a pronoun can refer to any person or object and is often considered ‘genderless’


So, using the correct pronouns in English are hugely important for many transpeople because the pronoun outwardly conrirms (or if misgendered rejects) someone’s internal thoughts about themselves. 


What happens if you make a mistake or misgender someone? Be sincere and kind. Apologize, ask how to do it right in the future, and then change. No need to get defensive or rude. Mistakes happen, it’s how we respond to our own mistakes that matters. 


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23 Apr 2021

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