What is Gender?

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If you’re interested in the history of trans rights check out our podcast with special guest Christine Burns MBE, who was instrumental in building the UK’s gender recognition act.

So what’s all this gender stuff about??

Well, that’s a pretty complicated question to answer actually… Before we tackle that one, let’s start by saying your gender identity is simply what feels right for you.

There’s loads of theories and debates around what gender is and isn’t, but however you decide all that stuff comes together, they’ll be something that just feels right – that feels… you. It might not have a nice tidy label and it might change a whole lot, but it’s totally valid, because it’s your identity!

Right, want to know more? Well, let’s start with what gender isn’t!

What gender isn’t

Binary

Gender isn’t just “male” and “female”. Those are 2 genders out of whole range of possibilities, including feeling no gender at all. (Biological sex isn’t binary either – around 1.7% of world’s population is intersex, with hormonal and chromosomal traits associated with both sexes.)

Purely Biological

Your biological sex is not the same as thing as gender (biological sex is mostly to do with genitals and reproductive bits but takes into account a lot more, right down to your chromosomes themselves). Physical stuff, like hormones, might impact how you perform your gender or might affect what people assume your gender to be – but it takes more than that to give you your overall gender identity.

Limited

Our understanding of gender is growing all the time and we know for sure it’s not limited to simple ideas of what’s masculine and feminine. There’s no saying that future generations won’t understand gender differently to how we do right now, and maybe even abandon it altogether!

What gender is

OK, here’s where things get trickier… This is where people don’t always completely agree too!

Social

The society around us plays a big part in how we understand gender. Sometimes it’s called a “social construct”, which simply means it’s a concept that humans created (and then attached a bunch of really unhelpful stereotypes to).

What gender means can vary between countries and cultures and it can change over time too. People’s understanding of things like masculinity and femininity can depend a lot on their environment and experiences growing up – i.e. the influence of the society around them.

This idea is a big deal when it comes to understanding what gender is, but not everyone agrees how big a part it plays.

Biological

Yeah I know, we just said it wasn’t biological… but that’s why gender is complicated!

Gender isn’t the same as biological sex, but it can play a really big part, especially for trans people (sometimes in something called dysphoria – where the stuff to do with biological sex in your body causes a lot of distress).

There’s actually a bunch of scientific studies that have found different gender identities have different brain patterns too. They found often a trans female person’s brain is the same as a cis female person’s brain and vice versa – you might have “male” or “female” genitals (and other bits) but that doesn’t mean your always brain lines up with that. 

Personal

It’s also something that only you can assert. No one can tell you what gender you are, because it’s an identity you feel or know inside, and what makes that gender for you might be utterly different to what makes it for someone else. There’s no blueprint for what a certain gender looks like (despite what some rather ranty people on the internet might say…)

Sometimes people get caught up in whether gender is social or biological or both. It might feel that finding a nice universal formula for how gender gets made is still a way off. But that shouldn’t get in the way of your identity – which is always going to be unique to you!

Performative

Have you heard that Shakespeare quote “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”? Well, now you have…

That quote, and a big chunk of Sociology, says that the way we express ourselves in that world is a “performance”, and gender can be part of that performance. We can “perform” in ways society sees as feminine or masculine (or “camp” or “butch” as it’s sometimes called). A woman called Judith Butler made this idea famous.

Performance might be important to your identity, it might not. It might feel completely different to your identity and might also mean people make annoying assumptions about you too…

Fluid

Your gender identity might change, it might not – either way it’s OK! There can be loads of pressure to find an identity or label in society and to stick to it, heaven forbid others get confused if it shifts around… But it’s OK if you do feel things change over time – because that’s part of being human!

Complicated

If you haven’t noticed already, it can get a bit complicated… That’s because it means such different things to people. We’ve got to a brilliant point in society where we’re moving past gender stereotypes and norms and a lot of restrictive stuff about gender, but we’re not all on the same page about what that means! Gender’s a real mix of society’s influence, personal identity and biological simmerings and they work in completely different combinations for different people.

Here’s the thing – it’s OK! Wherever you are with your gender, it’s OK to be there!

It’s not supposed to be a straight forward easy thing and there might be some back and forth moments and head scratching but that’s because you’re totally unique – your identity isn’t like anyone else’s and that’s a brilliant thing.

Don’t let anyone make you feel you ought to be one thing or another, and don’t put a label on yourself just to make other people’s lives easier.

It’s super cheesy but, just be you!

The rest of this page goes into more detail on all this…

There’s a bunch of downloadable posters about different parts of gender and what they might mean to you.

If you find anything out there that you think explains things really well let us know, and we’ll get it up here too!

First up is Sam Killerman and the “Genderbread Person” – this is a great intro to the different parts of gender and can be handy when explaining concepts to others.

It’s really useful as it has scales for everything and shows how everyone isn’t simply one thing or the other (and shows how gender and sexuality are not the same thing!)

It’s a free download from www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com and you can watch its creator Sam talk about it in this TED Talk here too.

Are there more than 2 genders?

Is gender a social construct?

What does this mean for me?

How to support trans and non-binary friends!

Why do people get angry about all this?

All that jargon explained…

Here’s some sites with more info and resources – click the image to open in a new tab

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