Transgender basics

Transgender Basics is a 20 minute educational film on the concepts of gender and transgender people. Two providers from The Center’s Gender Identity Project (GIP) discuss basic concepts of gender, sexual orientation, identity and gender roles. Three transgender community members share their personal experiences of being trans and genderqueer. The film targets service providers and others working with the LGBT community, but it also provides a fascinating glimpse into gender and identity for the general public. “Our culture likes to make things simple, and gender isn’t.” Carrie Davis, Transgender Community Organizer, in Transgender Basics.

What makes a (wo)man a (wo)man?

We all know what makes a (wo)man a (wo)man, right? Make a list of the things that differentiate men from women. What are the clues you look for when you meet someone for the first time?

Here’s our list, which is not in any way exhaustive:

Men-v-WomenAn anthropologist will tell you that evolution over thousands of years is responsible for many of these differences and a biologist will tell you that the hormones bathing the brain are responsible for the others. But that cannot be the whole story as one look at your list will tell you that for every trait you put down you know a man or woman who does not conform to the stereotype, and it doesn’t make them feel or appear less manly or womanly.

There are many, many men who work in artistic or caring professions; who have hobbies that do not correspond to the stereotypical man; who enjoy talking; who take responsibility for their children and for making a home; and, who show/share their emotions willingly. But they still feel like men. Equally, there are many women who work in tough, hostile environments; who are capable of fixing an engine; who enjoy their own company; who don’t get broody at the sight of a pushchair; and, who are not in touch with their emotions. But they still feel like women.

So, maybe there is no universal checklist that we can use to say that is a man and this is a woman. But we know what a man is and what a woman is, don’t we? We use that definition every day without thinking about it. So, is there a default within all of us as to what defines a man or a woman? We believe we can get closer to an answer by agreeing that there is no universal set of criteria. Our education, experiences, and society shape our definition of men and women, and it is subtly different for each individual. We know that is a man and this is a woman because a lifetime of influences has taught us that, when we receive those particular signals from the people we meet, it means man or woman. We only think about it when we come into contact with someone who blurs the gender divide. And, even then, we don’t think about it too hard.

Within a single culture, both sender and receiver will know “the rules”, ie. the accepted gender presentation for a man or a woman. This means that a sender can consciously elect to blur their gender. Done successfully, the receiver will not be aware that they are meeting someone whose biological sex is not aligned with their presented gender. But this also means that the receiver can get it wrong if their experience is not the same as the sender’s. Receivers from another culture may be particularly bad a guessing the right gender based on appearance.

Can you guess the gender of the following people? It’s not so easy when you don’t know the cultural gender clues and begs the question of why society gets so steamed up when individuals digress gender boundaries. Visit another culture and you won’t have a clue whether the person you are meeting is genderqueer.

mursi-womantharaka-girlmaorimasai-warriorsAnswers: Mursi woman (Ethiopia), Tharaka woman (Kenya), Maori woman (New Zealand), Maasai men (Kenya/Tanzania)

What is gender?

Firstly, your gender is not the same as your sex. It seems obvious but it is so deeply embedded in all of us that most people don’t think about it and use the terms interchangeably. According to the OED, sex is “either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions”. A look at the reproductive organs or chromosomes of an animal will scientifically prove what sex they are. (There are a number of rare and specialist medical conditions where this is not the case. They are called intersex conditions, sometimes wrongly termed “disorders of sexual development” (DSDs), and occur before birth.) The OED defines gender as “the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)”. There are two parts to gender: how you perceive yourself, i.e. man or woman, and how society receives your gender presentation, i.e. masculine or feminine. The genderbreadman (below) calls this your gender identity and your gender expression. To find out whether someone is a man or a woman, you have to ask them. Where sex is a physical state, gender is a mental state. It is about how you feel. Do you feel like a man or a woman? The answer to this question will, of course, be informed by the individual’s definition of what a man and a woman are, their life experiences, the society in which they live, etc. To decide what someone’s gender expression is you simply look at the way that an individual presents themselves to the world. Do they act, react, dress, in a more feminine or masculine way? This is all about society’s definition of what constitutes masculine/feminine behaviour and it changes as one moves around the world through other countries, tribes, and cultures. For a man to wear a skirt in Edinburgh is acceptable masculine behaviour but may not be so in Chelsea! It is about how an individual conforms to society’s norms for masculine/feminine behaviour, or chooses not to conform, and how other members of that society receive that individual’s presentation. genderbread So, to recap: Sex is biological – male or female Gender is psychological – man or woman Presentation or expression is an external representation of sex and/or gender – masculine or feminine Gender is how you would like to be perceived but, crucially, it is also how society receives your expression of that.