A Brief Gender 101

I have been asked at various times what people mean by “gender” and why it is different from “sex”. Also I’ve been asked to explain the multitudinous types of “trans” people, and why they often seen to be at each other’s throats. Hopefully I can traverse the various minefields involved without offending too many people, but sadly there are so many different perspectives out there that I’m bound to offend someone. My apologies in advance.

So, gender, what is it? Many people still think that gender and sex are the same thing. People, animals, even objects in many languages, are either male or female, one or the other, a very simple binary choice. Sadly life is never that simple. I’d like you to consider four different ways in which things are viewed as masculine or feminine.

Biological sex

That’s easy, isn’t it? People have one sort of dangly bits or the other. You either have XX chromosomes or XY chromosomes. You either produce sperm or eggs. Simple.

Well, no. Biology is a fickle thing. Many people are born with ambiguous biology. I don’t just mean genuine hermaphrodites, though such people do exist. All sorts of things can happen to us in the womb, and thereafter, that make our gender difficult to determine by physical tests. These conditions are known as “intersex”, and there are an enormous number of different ones. The Intersex Society of North America has a fairly comprehensive list of them together with data on how common they are. It is reasonably certain that as many as 1 in 1000 people have an ambiguous biological sex in one way or another, and as people get old and parts of their body wear out that can increase significantly.

Gendered Behavior

When feminists talk about gender they generally mean the way in which males and females behave in society. Men are supposed to be strong, ambitious and competitive; women are supposed to be weaker, supportive and collaborative. Men like sport and fast cars, women like romantic novels and knitting. Men go out to work; women stay at home and raise families. Boys wear blue, girls wear pink.

Much of this is going away, but much of it is still very prevalent. So (in most countries) a woman can wear trousers without being arrested for immorality, but (in many countries) a man cannot wear a dress without being laughed at. The way in which we behave marks us out as male or female without anyone having to examine our genitals or chromosomes.

The term “gender binary” is often used to describe the idea that you can only be male or female, never anything in between. Social codes for gendered behavior tend to reinforce this idea — for example friends and relatives often give gifts of “gender appropriate” clothing and toys to new-born babies. A gift to a child that is deemed inappropriate for its gender is often regarded as a major social gaffe.

It is worth noting here that acceptable gendered behavior varies considerably between cultures, and even in individual cultures has varied considerably with time. Some cultures have been much less attached to the binary than our currently is, while others still enforce it far more rigidly.

Gender Identity

Ask most people how they know that they are male or female and they will probably say, “I just know”. It is something innate, something we grow up with. Moreover, although many of us would like to experiment to find out “how the other half lives”, few of us appear to be keen on changing gender full time. And yet there is a significant proportion of the population who have either no attachment to a particular gender, or who have a strong conviction that their gender is contrary to what their body tells them. On the one hand some people appear quite comfortable in either gender role, and on the other there are people who become distressed to the point of suicide if forced to live in a gender that feels wrong to them, even though their biology is clearly gendered in that way.

Hard line feminists such as Germaine Greer still insist that gender is entirely culturally determined, and that anyone born “a man” can never be anything other than “a man” (or vice versa). However, this biological essentialism is getting less and less support from the medical community and governments. “Gender dysphoria” — the belief that one’s true gender is other than that which your biology indicates — is recognized as a medical condition that is best treated by allowing the patient to live in his or her desired gender, often with the aid of “gender reassignment” surgery. Many countries now have laws that allow people diagnosed with such a condition to change their legal gender. In some Islamic countries such people are characterized as having a soul of a gender different to their bodies and similar legal changes are allowed.

Why people suffer from gender dysphoria is much less well understood than how to treat them. However, there is a fair amount of evidence that some forms of gendered behavior have a biological component, and that treatment with hormones and similar chemicals, or even neuro-surgery, can cause animals to change their gendered behavior. Presumably the same is possible for humans. It is certainly true that males and females have different brain structures, though it is unclear how they get that way or how much that influences behavior. It is also very clear that chemicals such as testosterone and estrogen cause behavioral changes in humans as well as physical ones.

[Update: It has been suggested to me that the above paragraph might be seen as implying that gender dysphoria and even homosexuality can be “cured” by medical treatment. This was absolutely not my intention. Some forms of gendered behavior are affected by hormone treatment. Gender identity and sexuality are far more deep-seated and have proved highly resistant to change. This, in my view, is probably because they have a deep-seated biological component and would require neurosurgery well beyond our current abilities to modify.]

Note, however, that gender dysphoria doesn’t necessarily cover everyone who is unhappy with their gender role. For some people being required to live in one gender or the other simply isn’t appropriate. Equally, even when people do want to live in a different gender, surgery is not always appropriate or desired. Currently governments around the world still insist on a rigid division of society into males and females, which makes life difficult for those who do not naturally fit into either box, or who are in the process of transitioning between the two.

Legal Gender

Biology, behavior and identity are all complex issues with many people not falling into a simple binary division between male and female. The law, however, almost always enforces the binary. On your birth certificate, on your passport, on your driving license and in many other interactions with government and the law you will be required to state whether you are male or female. No other answers are acceptable. This can cause a great deal of difficulty for people whose gender is ambiguous in the many ways I have described above.


One thing I haven’t mentioned so far is sexuality, and that’s because it doesn’t seem to have much to do with gender. People can be straight, gay or bi- or even asexual, regardless of their biology, their behavior or their identity. That goes as much for trans people as it does for non-trans people. Post-transition, trans people can be straight, gay, bi- or a- just like anyone else. While some appear to change sexual preference on transition, this is often because prior to choosing to transition they have been desperately trying to adapt to the gender role that society expected of them and have been trying to be ultra-“normal”.

Being a trans person is not an expression of sexuality (the American Psychiatric Association is pretty much alone in the West in still insisting that gender dysphoria is a form of sexual perversion — actually two distinct perversions, but I’m not going into that here). The popular assumption that transsexuals change sex in order to satisfy “unnatural” lusts has no basis in evidence — if asked most transsexuals would say that they would happily accept a life of complete celibacy in return for being allowed to live in their chosen gender.

Why “trans”?

In the world of identity politics terminology can be a minefield. Some LGBT people are very happy to reclaim the word “queer” while other still regard it as an insult. Some people regard the term “LGBT” as offensive because they feel it does not include their particular variation of sexuality or gender identity, or because they don’t like being lumped in with one of those letters. With that in mind, here is an attempt to describe various sorts of people who might be described as “trans”. Please read right to the end before starting to tell me that I am wrong.

Transsexuals — people whose gender identity is strongly at variance with their biological sex and who desire to be allowed to live in their preferred gender.

Transgender — people who are uncertain about their preferred gender, or who are strongly of their opinion that they are neither male nor female.

Transvestites — people who like to adopt gendered behavior opposite to that of their gender identity, particularly clothing.

Intersex — people who have a clear physical intersex condition and are therefore of ambiguous biological sex.

The word “Transgender” is often used as an umbrella term for all of the above people. However, it is also used by some people in the specific role I have given it above. People who self-identify as Transsexuals and Intersex often strongly object to the term “Transgender” being used for them, as they believe that it indicates behavior and feelings that they do not share. The term “trans” has less emotional baggage attached and therefore I prefer to use it when an umbrella term is required. However, even with a more neutral term the various groups of trans people are often far from a unified community.

The confusion about the level of applicability of the term “Transgender” has also led to some people who do not identify as male or female to adopt new terms for themselves. The most popular are “Genderqueer” and “Neutrois”. (Remember the “nutes” in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods?)

The term “Intersex” is also unpopular with some people who are medically classed as such, but I know very little about this area and am unaware of a generally acceptable alternative.

One more word that you might see used is “Cisgender”. This is intended to indicate someone who is not trans in any way. Such a word is indeed useful, but some people (I think mainly feminists) have decided that the word is a grievous insult and object strongly to its use.

Why the rancor?

Much of it is to do with (perceived) legitimacy. Some Intersex people, for example, believe that they have a certifiable medical condition that can be tested for scientifically, whereas Transsexuals and Transgender people are either crazy or at the very least are unscientific. Some Transsexuals believe that they have a legitimate condition (gender dysphoria) than can be cured by allowing them to take their rightful place in the gender binary, whereas they claim that Transgender people are dilettantes who are out to shock society and make life difficult for Transsexuals.

Equally there are political ideas involved. For many feminists who are wedded to the idea of gender as a social construct the whole idea of Transsexuals is anathema. They are very happy with Transgender people who reject gender stereotypes, but unhappy with Transsexuals who they see as “reinforcing the binary” on a social level as well as transgressing the biological binary they hold dear. Transgender people seeking support from feminists therefore sometimes reject Transsexuals as deluded and brainwashed by social orthodoxy.

Pretty much everyone looks down on male Transvestites because their behavior is still widely regarded as a sexual perversion, whereas almost everyone ignores female Transvestites as their behavior is regarded as socially acceptable. (This is a classic example of gender hierarchy in action: males aping females is unacceptable, but females aping males is regarded as only natural.)

(And if anyone sees echoes of the “hierarchy of fandom, in which lit fans look down on media fans, media fans look down on costumers, and everyone looks down on furries, you would be dead right).

At root much of this is about acceptance. In any persecuted minority there will always be those who believe that they can avoid persecution by claiming that they are “normal” because others in their group are much less “normal” than they are. It is essentially saying, “I’m not a freak, just look at her!” Such behavior is commonplace because it works. We all learn in school that the easiest way to escape the attentions of the playground bully is to point him at someone else, and the easiest way to do that is to find someone who is even more vulnerable than you are. Learning to stand together with your fellow victims and resist bullies is always a much harder lesson to learn.

Of course there are other reasons as well. In particular trans activism is often largely the preserve of Transgender people because they want to identify themselves as different, whereas many Transsexuals prefer to disappear into society once their have been able to transition to their preferred gender. There is a certain amount of understandable annoyance amongst activists with people who chose to live in “stealth” rather than stand up and be counted (and then sometimes complain if political campaigns don’t achieve the results that they want). Equally Intersex people and Transsexuals sometimes do perceive their (relatively) safe lives being ruined by loud and controversial gender activists whose views and habits they do not share.

In summary, therefore, it is a very complicated issue. I have tried not to take sides, but I’m bound to fail in some ways. If anything I hope I have come down on the side of acceptance of diversity and variation, as opposed to any of the numerous “our subgroup is right and all other subgroups are wrong” positions. Equally what I have said is specific to particular cultures and a particular time in history. I have said nothing, for example, about people from cultures who have strong traditions of looser gender categories (e.g. First Nation people or Polynesians) who sometimes object strongly to having their cultural traditions shoehorned into what they regard as crazy Western notions of gender. And, of course, in a few years time the terms that are politically acceptable will have changed. I’ll try to keep this up to date, but I may forget, or be too busy.

Anyway, I hope this helped, and if you have any questions or complaints, please comment away. This is a learning process for all of us.

This post has benefited from some sage advice from Roz Kaveney, for which I am duly thankful. However, any errors herein are entirely mine and nothing to do with Roz.

13 thoughts on “A Brief Gender 101

  1. That was very informative for a brief article. There was a little bit that confused me in the second paragraph under Gender Identity (“Hard line feminists such as Germaine Greer still insist that gender is entirely culturally determined, and that anyone born ‘a man can never be anything other than ‘a man’ (or vice versa). However, this biological essentialism is getting less and less support from the medical community and governments.”), where it seemed there was a sentence missing or something. The cultural determinists would be terming people who believed in the opposite extreme as biological essentialists (or just essentialists, without adjectives), so maybe there was a contrast that got left out. Whatever, it is difficult to take seriously those who are still trying to argue either extreme, that it’s all “nature” or all “nurture”, given the complexities that we see in people’s inner lives and outward behaviors.

  2. Paul:

    I was being a bit cheeky. Greer and her ilk often rail against “essentialism”, by which they mean the idea that men and women are destined for particular roles in society. They often accuse transsexuals of being “essentialist” because they tend to adopt gendered behavior typical of their preferred gender identity. But the whole idea that one is born “a man” or “a woman” is just as silly as the idea that only “a woman” can do certain jobs, or wear certain clothes.

  3. Thanks. It is so hard to get anything as comprehensive and as clear and which is neither weighed down with science-trying-to-explain or with bias.

  4. Thank you for this. I’ve taken to avoiding talking about trans issues because I know I only had a sketchy idea of the differences and have gotten myself in trouble before.

    Now I know where I went wrong and have a better idea of how to talk about these issues. Very useful, thank you.

  5. Great post. Scalzi sent me.

    In your para about intersex, you say:

    ‘All sorts of things can happen to us in the womb, and thereafter, that make our gender difficult to determine by physical tests.’

    Just to be clear, can you evaluate this sentence as it compares to your intent? Thanks:

    The results of these tests sometimes make the sex impossible to define in the usual dichotomous M/F, and the issues of gender (which is separate from but often influenced by biological sex) are often more complex for those in the biological intersex.

    Right? Wrong? Thanks for the clarification.

  6. Dave:

    It is difficult to comment on that sentence without knowing what tests you are referring to. However, it does seem likely to me that some people could test as male by one physical test and female by another. And the mere existence of transsexuals suggests that a physical test might disagree with a psychological one.

  7. Okay, let me just ask a clarifying question about a concept I found confusing.

    You mention gender in the paragraph about physical tests that determine sex (the physical tests I mentioned were the same as the ones you do in the paragraph, e.g. a chromosomal test), yet I need a clearer definition of intersex vs. gender as it relates to your thesis. So, does the term intersex only refer to biological sex and its many variations (about which the public is often confused) or does intersex refer to some aspect of gender as well?

    Or it is good that I am confused because sometimes sex and gender are inter-related enough that they defy simple explanation and we should just be sensitive to the many variations that exist?

  8. Dave:

    In general it helps to assume complexity and be sensitive to whatever you come across. However, my sense is that many people who self-identify as intersex would be offended if you used that term to describe someone who had no clear physical ambiguity.

  9. To add to Cheryl’s reply to Dave, there are indeed some transsexuals who conceive of themselves as having been born with an intersex brain condition (the most extreme of whom term this condition “Harry Benjamin Syndrome”). These also tend to be those who are most dismissive of transgender “dilettantism”. Cheryl is right to say that not all of those with conditions that have traditionally been thought of as intersex would be happy with the notion that HBS too is an intersex condition.

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