What is Gender?

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #096, Winter 2001.

The question ?What is gender?? has been answered in many ways by many different thinkers. From all of this a number of things do become clear, or, to be more accurate, a lot of things are seen to be unclear. What do I mean by this?

Well, the basic, simple model embraced in recent times holds that there are two basic aspects to a person?s identity, with one being sex and the other being gender. Sex is described as the biological fact of being male or female, and gender is described as being the social role of being a man or a woman. In the simplistic model, an individual is assigned a sex at birth?his or her ?birth-designated sex??and that assignment matches the behavior and self-identity acquired through acculturation, training, socialization, and personal choice. To put it simply, once the doctor looks between your legs and makes the pronouncement, your role is laid out before you and you continue on that path until death. Sex, we are told, is biological; gender is social.
Popular though this model is, it?s far too simplistic to work. First of all, there are a fair number of people whose genitals are sufficiently ambiguous to defy easy categorization. In these cases the doctor either cannot make an assessment or else does so in a tentative way. Secondly, many people find the social role associated with their birth-designated sex to be discordant with their own self identity. You see, nowhere in the simple formula is there any space for self-identity. Yet the readers of this magazine know very well that gender has a lot to do with one?s own sense of self, with the identity that one has learned is natural, right, and fitting regardless of the designation assigned at birth. So, while society might have gender expectations based on one?s birth-designated sex, we also must take into account an individual?s self-identity.

At this point we have three components: Sex?taken to mean birth- designated sex?assigned gender and self-identified gender. Please note that in the last category I did not invoke the idea of choice. Many transgendered folk do not ?choose? their gender in any voluntary sense; i.e., one does not typically make a conscious decision to go against the sex/gender rules. Rather, one develops, or has always had, a clear sense that one?s sexual and gender identity is different from that which has been assigned and expected. No crossdresser, and no transsexual, chooses to be complexly gendered. It?s not, as I like to say, that one wakes up one morning and thinks, ?Hey, my life isn?t complicated enough?I?ll become a crossdresser!?

What does become a matter of choice is presenting the social role that is in accord with one?s self-identified gender (which I?ll call self-gender.) So, self-gender is how you feel about your own gender?an assessment that is independent of any formal assignment made by the powers that be. So, whoops, we have another category?legal gender, or the social role to which you are assigned bureaucratically.

Sex, as opposed to gender, is supposed to be straightforward and much less complex. Barring birth anomalies that preclude easy classification, we are all either male or female. But first of all, why bar those anomalies? Why not imagine that those anomalies are just the tip of the iceberg and that we all have anomalies to one degree or another? Why not imagine that these sex signals are as fluid, person to person, as eyesight? Sure, many people have 20/20 vision, but almost as many have vision that is either worse or better. But even aside from that, sex is not simple. As West & Zimmerman point out in their chapter ?Doing Gender,? in Judith Lorber, & Susan A. Farrell (Eds.), The Social Construction Of Gender (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1991) we like to say sex is clear, but we always draw conclusions about people?s sex by assuming their gender and sex are synchronous. Unless you?re in bed with someone or at a nudist colony, you?ve no idea what someone?s sex ?really? is. Not only that, but if they?ve had a good surgeon, you might never get the answer you really want?what is their birth-designated sex? So, we rarely know someone?s legal sex. What we know is their social sex: the sex we assume someone has by virtue of the conclusions we draw about their gender. Gender, then, plays a more basic and central role than sex.

Social gender is the gender other people assign to someone based on the gender clues we all look for and discern in people. Virtually all assignments of sex made in the course of a day are really assignments of social gender, since a real assignment of sex requires intense physical examination up to and including DNA analysis. (And even then, you might be stuck.) That?s why so many of us work so hard at communicating those signals?we want our social gender to be taken for our self-gender. So we work to communicate the signals that will bring an observer to the conclusion at which we want them to arrive. If you can bring your social gender into line with your self-gender, then you can proceed in a safe and confident way.

In sum, then, there are at least three arenas that come into play in defining gender: the legal or bureaucratic arena; the public or social arena; and one?s internal, personal sense of self. And, yes, it?s even more complicated than that because we need to throw in sexual preference, gender variation, and a host of other variables?which is really a good thing, since I?ve got more columns to write.

If you enjoy this sort of thinking, then be sure to attend the 2002 IFGE Convention in Nashville and come to the ?What Is Gender?? symposium. And keep writing to me at .