There are many different ways sex or gender is defined. In the end, we can say someone is a “man” or a “woman” only as an approximation. There is no such thing as an absolute sex. The closest thing is self definition: if a person defines as one gender or another we can say they are that. But even that can be subject to change.
First, for this article, note the distinction between “sex” and “gender”.
While these words are often used interchangeably, and have considerable overlap, the general consensus in the gender-interested community is that “sex” relates more to the physical aspects, while “gender” has more to do with someone’s identification, their personal feeling about themselves. I guess this has something to do with the fact that the word “sex” can also be used for genitals, while “gender” comes from the same root as “genre” meaning “kind” or “sort”.
Some of the gender-interested community define sex as EXCLUSIVELY talking about the physical aspects and gender EXCLUSIVELY about the non-physical. Still, as a trans woman, I would not normally answer “male” to the question “what’s your sex?”. Perhaps, though, I could answer accurately, “a penis”.
I believe words mean what they are used to mean. So simply because of my personal aesthetic and because I think it will be less confusing to people, I’ll use the two words with some overlap, “sex” simply implying more – but not necessarily exclusively – the physical aspects, and “gender” implying more the non-physical.
So, defining sex. (And to the extent that this overlaps with gender, also gender. But let’s just talk about sex now).
The following things can help to approximate a definition of someone’s sex:
MOST men have XY chromosomes and MOST women have XX. As well as people with XXY, XYY, XXX and other variations, there are also men with XX chromosomes and women with XY. And I’m not just talking about trans individuals here: there are cis (non trans) women who are born with XX, and vice versa, and are otherwise indistinguishable in every way from what’s common for their sex.
– Hormones and hormone-influenced characteristics.
Most women have female hormones and most men have male hormones. It’s not always the case, though. You can get different amount of either hormones in both men and women and sex and intersex conditions can cause men to have female levels of estrogen (for example).
Hormones then go on to influence face shape, body shape, facial hair growth, breast growth, and all sorts of other things.
To compound this confusion further, women can have beards and men breasts, without necessarily needing unusual levels of opposite-sex-hormones.
Genitals actually come under the heading of hormone-influenced characteristics because they are created when a hormonal surge in fetal development gives the body the signal to do so. Afterwards, female hormones cause penises to shrink slightly and male hormones cause clitorises to grow slightly, but neither can change the genitals completely.
Again, genitals are supposed to define sex but they don’t.
And, drifting away from the stricter definition of sex:
– Preferred presentation.
There’s masculine and feminine, and then there is female and male, which are slightly different things. Some men like to wear female clothing, or feminine clothing (feminine doesn’t necessarily mean not male). Some women like to wear masculine clothing, or male clothing.
– Mental identification.
As mentioned before, there is mental identification. Some male-bodied, male-hormoned people nonetheless feel female. They have an internal vision of themselves that doesn’t match with their bodies. We all have an internal vision of ourselves, the only thing is that we don’t notice it if it matches who we are.
So there are all these different characteristics which can be used to approximate a definition of sex. For brevity, I’ve generalised them into several categories and haven’t gone into too much detail. For example, in the hormonal and bodily characteristics, I could have listed each different type of gender distinguishing characteristic as its separate entry, but I didn’t. There a lot of different forms of gender presentation too, including clothes, gestures, speech and other things.
So here’s the interesting thing: if none of these features is exclusive to a single sex or gender, how do you define sex or gender? Well, first, you take away your idea of an absolute concept of sex or gender. It’s not true that someone with a penis is always a man, not even if most other characteristics are male too.
Second, you can start respecting self-definition as being more important than any other characteristic. This is because it’s the only thing that can be in some way absolute. There are only a few cells of difference between a penis and a clitoris, and there are plenty of things that are in between the two, but if a person says they are a woman, then that can be said to mean something. Who can know better than they?
Then, you can start breaking up your gender understanding into parts.
I am a woman, and have a female presentation, but I readily admit that I’m (currently) male bodied, male hormoned, and have a penis.
Calling me a man or “he” – which implies the same thing – is inaccurate and offensive in some contexts (I can tell the difference between innocent error and disrespect, of course, which is why I say just “some contexts”). It’s innaccurate because it refers to my entire configuration and doesn’t differentiate.
There’s nothing offensive for me, though, to be called “male bodied”. I don’t mind it if I’m grouped with other male bodied people, for example in the phrase “I’m not attracted to male bodied people, but I am attracted to female bodied men.”
It’s not offensive for someone to say I have a penis, e.g. “She has a penis so I don’t think she’s adequate for the sort of nude modelling we need for our product :)”
The only reason “he” is offensive for a trans woman or “she” is offensive for a trans man is that it makes an assumption about the whole of them. If language were a bit more nuanced in this regard (which I expect would influence the nuances of people’s thought) there wouldn’t be so much difficulty.
All of this becomes important when we consider genderqueer people, too. Genderqueer people are people who identify as neither male nor female. Usually they will be androgynous or agendered on the level of identification and presentation. Some genderqueer people are also either born with bodies that are in between male and female or choose to transition their bodies to be that way.
Sometimes people would want to say – “sure, they are genderqueer, but they have a male body!” (for example). Well, that’s true: the trick is that those are not mutually exclusive things. Maybe you only find male bodied partners attractive; then I think it’s not offensive* to say that to distinguish between different sorts of genderqueer people. But it’s not fair to call the genderqueer person male, because that’s making an assumption about the whole of their being, and with some aspects of their being you are making a complete mistake.
*I’m not genderqueer so I don’t want to assume, but I think this statement is okay.
These things are often not obvious to cis (non trans) people. As I said before, because their self image doesn’t conflict with their body they don’t notice it’s there. But it’s as big a part of our gender as our body, hormones, chromosomes, and genitals. In some ways it’s bigger.
How would you know you were a man or a woman if it turned out you were living in a Matrix-like reality and couldn’t see your real body – or maybe didn’t have one? In other words, if you were reduced to pure consciousness, pure personality, how would you know you were a man or a woman? You’d know because you’d have a self image, or self awareness. (Or perhaps you don’t have a gender or don’t feel so strongly about what gender you have – that’s valid too).
If you then got put into someone else’s body, one of the opposite sex, you’d still know what your gender was. That’s because our body doesn’t define us. Something deeper than our body defines us.
I think maybe that’s what trans people of all sorts, including transsexuals and genderqueer people, are here to teach us.
Sometimes it can get confusing when you deal with these people. From my experience, all that confusion clears up when you get just one point: internal identification exists and is a large, perhaps the largest, part of what defines gender. From there, you can understand that these people are as they say they are inside.
A lot of the worst hurt caused by people who refuse to acknowledge gender-variant people comes from an excess strictness with their definition of gender. “You have a penis / were born with a penis so you’re a man,” they’d say. But this point of view totally ignores the fact that gender is made up of several different aspects. It’s just not that simple, or that absolute. The penis is just one of those aspects and is trumped by internal identification.
I think it’s also interesting to deal with the different aspects of gender when considering who you are attracted to.
I know of a case where a lesbian found a male-bodied partner attractive – attractive enough to marry – because that partner had an inner self that was female. Though I think I’m bi/pansexual, I myself have experienced an attraction to a male bodied, male presented woman which reminded me more of the attraction I have to women in general. The tenderness she showed under the surface was very sweet to me, and not at all manly.
I’ve also seen cases of people who seem to be attracted to a person based on their genitals: that is, people who are attracted to both cis men and trans women who have penises, but not women with vaginas. Or: people who are attracted to cis women and trans men who have vaginas, but not men who have penises.
I know of people who don’t care what physical or mental sex their partners have, but are attracted to femininity. And so on.
As you can see, all this is much more nuanced than our society admits. I think it would help immensely for us to evolve vocabulary which fitted the reality closer, allowing us to think about and recognise subtler differences in the sex and gender of different people.
In some ways, this has already started. For instance, some people now use the term “femme” for a feminine presentation and identification. I like that one particularly because despite it having originated in the lesbian subculture, it has come to encompass people regardless of sexuality or gender. In some ways, its counterpart “butch” has done similar things. There are also terms like boi, fairie, bear, and so on, which describe different gender-variant identities. I think we have a long way to go, though.
I think a basic understanding of gender should be a part of everyone’s self-directed curriculum, even if that person is cis.
I think the burden for explaining themselves should not be on gender-variant people. They have special needs and boundaries which get violated daily just because people don’t understand, and have to fight against prejudice with no support from the status quo.
For instance, I think that no newspaper should use the wrong gender pronoun for a transsexual person. That should be just part of good journalism.
I think anyone who has a job where they are interacting with many people every day (e.g. in a shop) should know basic etiquette (taking cues from gender presentation, asking about pronouns if unsure, using “sir” and “madam” correctly). That should just be a given.
And I think anyone else should be able to talk with gender-variant friends with just a little bit of understanding and a head clear of prejudice.
That’s what I hoped this little article could contribute towards. Hope it was enlightening and don’t forget to comment if you have something to say 🙂