For the majority of humanity, gender is simple. They’re either male or female. They know which restroom to use, which athletic teams to play on, which clothing department to shop in. Even many whose gender and body don’t match can fit into this category. People identifying as binary MtF or FtM transgender often report that their gender seldom troubles them once their social transition is complete. They are the women and men they always knew themselves to be.
But the rest of us know gender is anything but simple. There are numerous elements of gender that may be at odds with each other. I name nine here, but I’m more than willing to entertain suggestions on any I might have missed. You may quibble with the names I’ve chosen, but I hope there is agreement that these elements can vary independently of one another, and that gender is composed of all the elements described below.
Gender Identity – What gender do you say you are? When someone asks, or when you’re moved to declare, what gender do you identify with? Which pronouns do you use, what name do you tell people to call you, and how do you want your gender recorded in legal documents?
Gender Presentation – What gender do you want to look like? When you choose your clothing, grooming, and cosmetic medical transition options, what gender drives those choices?
Gender Experience – What gender do you “feel” like? Although mainstream discussions of gender often equate this with gender identity, for many people these are totally different. I identify as a female, but my gender experience is much more complicated. Yes, there are times (not many) when I see myself as a woman. But more often it seems, I see myself as a man, or as an ungendered person who doesn’t belong cleanly in either binary category.
Gender Role – What gender role do you play in the culture? Do you occupy a traditionally male role, such as the husband, the provider, the protector, the one who woos? Do you take on a traditionally female role, a mother, a nurturer, the one who attracts attention? Or do you eschew these traditional roles altogether and carve for yourself an alternate space that combines the two traditional binary roles or is entirely different from either.
Social Gender – How do you socialize? Do you prefer male or female friendship. This can be closely tied to gender role, but doesn’t need to be. You can be a wife and mother, for example, but still prefer the company of men and involvement in their social activities.
Gender Expression – What does it mean to you to be a member of your gender. Do you enjoy traditional male pursuits, female ones, both, or neither?. Is your choice of occupation related to your gender or independent of it? Are the skills you choose to pursue and your likes and dislikes influenced by your gender?
Brain Gender – It is widely thought among scientists who study gender that our brains have a gender at birth that cannot easily be changed, and that dictates or influences many of our decisions and experiences related to gender. This is controversial. Many people believe there is no such thing. It is beyond the scope of this column to present all the evidence and arguments for and against. However, given the widespread understanding of gender as innate, and the potential for brain gender to differ from body sex or the other elements of gender, it must be included here for completeness.
Body Sex – This is the physical characteristics of one’s body at any given time. This is not specifically part of gender, and I mention it here only to point out that it may be at odds with any or all of the concepts listed above, and for its undeniable effect on how our gender is experienced and perceived. For completeness, it should be noted that body sex is also different from Sex Assigned at Birth, which is an assessment made when we’re born based on external manifestations. Body sex may be different from sex assigned at birth due to intersex conditions that are not evident from cursory inspection, or to transition related-medical changes such as cross-sex hormones and GRS.
Cultural battles are being waged in legislatures trying to categorize people as male or female. Those lawmakers perceive the need for a legal framework determining access to binary gendered facilities such as restrooms. Similar battles are being waged in social science circles over identity politics. Who should have the right to call themselves a woman or a man? Given gender’s sheer complexity, any position that all humans can cleanly be placed in one of those two categories is founded on weak conceptual underpinnings. Declaring a person to be categorically male or categorically female based on external characteristics is doomed to fail given the complex nature of sex and gender.
Furthermore, each of the elements of gender, with the exception of sex assigned at birth and possibly brain gender, has the potential to change over one’s lifetime. Yes, many transgender people are fond of saying “I was always a woman” or “I was a man born in a woman’s body.” But given the changeable nature of so many of gender’s components, equal validity must be given those whose experience moves them to say, “I used to be a man and now I am a woman,” or “I was a girl growing up, but now I identify as genderqueer.”