Gender versus Sex
For many people the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are used interchangeably, however the concepts of sex and gender are not quite that straightforward. Sex is a biological term whereas gender is a psychological and cultural expression. Modern society views sex and gender in binary terms, and the majority of people are sexed male or female at birth and culturally assigned the gender masculine or feminine.
Gender Expression and Identity
When gender is referred to it can have different meanings. Firstly, it encompasses biological sex that distinguishes most people as male or female. Secondly, it relates to traits of femininity or masculinity and can include ideas about occupation, appearance and mannerisms. Gender also operates on personal and interpersonal levels.
At the personal level, society decides what is considered ‘normal’ behaviour for a person in terms of their gender identity. Clothing, mannerisms, hairstyles and ways of expressing oneself are used to distinguish the appropriate gender.
At an interpersonal level, we act in certain ways so that others can easily tell our sex and gender. Our appearance, behaviour and societal expectations merge together to create a gender image. When people interact with each other their behaviour or expression is expected to conform to that gender identity.
The Binary Model of Gender
Gender is a complex interrelationship between one’s biological sex, internal sense of self as male, female, both or neither (gender identity) and one’s outward presentation and behaviour (gender expression). From the moment we are born gender expectations surround us, colours – blue for a boy and pink for a girl, toys, clothes and behaviour. Social gender roles and expectations are so ingrained within society that the majority of people do not question them. However, for some individuals this binary model does not represent their experiences of their gender.
The Gender Spectrum
A ‘Gender Spectrum’ represents a more nuanced model where gender exists beyond a simple male/female binary model but instead exists on a continuum that can move more fluidly between masculine and feminine allowing people to identify with a more authentic model of their gender. Given the complexity of gender, the language we use can have a powerful impact on our perceptions. New terminology and phrases are evolving and while there is no universal agreement about the definitions, there are a number of frequently used terms that we can use to better understand the concepts of gender.
This is a person who does not identify with any gender.
This is a person whose gender identity and expression is in line with the sex and gender assigned at birth.
This replaces the term Gender Identity Disorder and refers to significant stress caused by a marked difference between an individual’s expressed/experienced gender and the gender that others would assign to this person.
This refers to the way a person expresses their gender to others externally in their choice of clothing, mannerisms and/or appearance. Gender expression also works in reverse as people assign gender to others based on their clothing, mannerisms and/or appearance. It is important to remember that a person’s gender expression does not automatically imply their gender identity or their sexual orientation.
Gender-expansive / Gender Non-Binary.
This is an umbrella term used to describe individuals that expand the commonly held definitions and expectations of gender norms. Gender-expansive people may feel that they exist between genders, they may identify with being male or female, some identify as being neither, and others identify as a combination of both. They may also express their gender in ways that differ from the gender norms of their culture.
This term refers to one’s deeply held sense of self as male or female, both or neither and does not necessarily correspond to the sex assigned at birth. By 3 years of age an awareness of gender identity has generally developed and this will usually correspond to the assigned sex at birth. However, for some people their gender identity is different from their assigned sex and they may choose to socially, hormonally and/or surgically alter their sex to be more in line with their gender identity.
This is a gender identity that can vary over time with the individual experiencing different gender identities at different times in their life. They may move between single gender identities – identifying as male or female, a combination of identities or a non-binary identity.
Often shortened to ‘Trans’ this is a term used to describe people whose assigned sex, gender identity and gender expression do not match. Transgender people do not necessarily alter their bodies either hormonally and/or surgically to match their gender identity. Trans or transgender is also used to describe those who do not conform to societal expectations of gender identity/expression. Being transgender does not imply a particular sexual orientation, as it is relates to gender and not sexual identity.
Affirmation of Gender Identity
Gender surrounds us and influences much of our lives. The binary model that classifies sex and gender into two forms of masculine/man/male and feminine/woman/female marginalizes those whose sex, gender identity and gender expression does not conform to societal expectations. Therefore, disclosures and uncertainty about gender identity and expression can cause intense experiences of emotions for that person. Feelings of confusion, fear, shame, sadness shock, anger and disappointment are common. Talking to a psychotherapist can help those dealing with gender identity issues to cope with difficult feelings and emotions.
If society can develop a greater awareness of the individuality of everyone’s experience of self, it is possible that a greater level of acceptance and inclusion will follow for those who challenge the gender norms. Being affirmed and supported in one’s gender identity and expression can improve self-esteem and offer protection against feelings such as shame or sadness, and allow the individual live an authentic life.