A couple of events recently got me to thinking about gender, and inspired me to come up with a revision of the concept of gender. First, reading Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano, introduced me to the concept of "subconscious sex," which makes so much more sense to me than "gender identity." And then at an LGBTQQIA panel (how's that for alphabet soup? More letters than people on the panel) recently, a feminist lesbian with a rather masculine gender presentation commented that gender is a "social construct," not inherent in individuals but created by culture. As a trans woman who has experienced both male and female hormone balances, I do not believe that is true. So, here is my personal understanding and belief of gender and the relationship between sex and gender.
To begin with, different aspects of sex and gender exist on a number of different continua. Nothing original here.
First there is biological sex, which includes several different aspects. Everyone has a genetic sex – most people have one of the two most common chromosomal combinations, XX or XY. A few fall in between, with XXY, XYY, or other combinations. Then there is body morphology – most people clearly exhibit primary and secondary sex characteristics, such as penis, testicles, broad shoulders, big feet, and hairy faces and torsos in males and vagina, ovaries, uterus, wide hips and breasts in females. Again, some fall in between, as intersexed people with ambiguous genitalia and people with AIS.
Then there is subconscious or instinctive sex, often (erroneously, in my opinion) termed "gender identity" – again on a continuum from hyper-male to hyper-female, with two-spirit or genderqueer in the middle. Subconscious sex is how the instinctive, primitive brain understands your body to be. In my case, my subconscious brain, or self, or whatever, has always thought I have a female body. When I first learned to throw, I threw "like a girl." The relationships I seek and treasure are female in nature. My sexual instincts are female, and in sexual situations the contrast between my instincts and desires and the nature of my body is sharp, intense, and painful. Everyone has a subconscious sex, though most people go through life unaware of it, as there is no conflict and no reason to access it consciously if your subconscious sex aligns with your biological sex.
The next continuum is gender expression. This is the natural inclination one has in expressing one's masculinity, femininity, or androgyny, and again, the continuum is related to the first two but independent of it. Someone might be male-bodied and male-gendered (in the subconscious sex sense of gender), and yet adopt feminine dress and mannerisms. Frequently folks refer to people who express gender strongly as "butch" or "femme," depending on which direction they are expressing. This is what people talk about when they speak of gender roles; it's what I believe feminists refer to when they say that gender is socially constructed. However, everyone has innate gender. I firmly believe, based on my study of philosophy, science, gender, and my own experience of both male and female sex hormones, that gender is innate – and that it is also influenced by society and social constructs.
The last one in my list is sexual orientation, reflecting one's innate attraction to one of the two primary sexes, both, all, or whatever.
So for each individual, there are four aspects of gender or sexuality, and each of these aspects is expressed somewhere on one of four corresponding continua. Each of these continua can be described as a double bell distribution curve, with the typical binary genders (male and female) each representing roughly equal "humps" and the rest spread out in between or way out on the fringes.
Female ------------------------ Male
(Imagine four of these, each separate and unique)
A typical man, for instance, would land in the center of the male hump (no pun intended) in all three internally-focused continua (genetic/body morphology, subconscious sex, and gender expression), and in the center of the female hump on the sexual orientation continuum, while a typical woman would land in the corresponding and opposite humps. My personal distribution used to be: a. center of the male genetic/biology hump; b. center of the female subconscious sex hump; c. extreme side of the male gender expression hump; and (on a conscious level – there was definitely serious subconscious conflict going on!) d. somewhere on the female side of the trough between the sexual orientation humps. Now, I've moved into the trough on the body morphology continuum (genetics are the same, but I've grown breasts and lost body hair, which puts me in that androgynous place in the middle), and my growing awareness of my real heterosexual orientation has moved me to the male side of the trough on the sexual orientation continuum.
Now, add the influence of our patriarchal culture and social constructs, including and especially the gender binary that says there is only one scale – the heterosexual male/female, opposite-sex dichotomy – and here's what you get:
Is it any wonder that feminists think of gender as socially constructed, and not innate? Especially since women have traditionally been given the short end of every opposite/binary stick (weak, irrational, emotional, etc.), they intensely feel the restrictions and limitations of cramming everyone onto one curve and making the curve a straight line. But it also hurts men. It hurts everyone. Gender is innate and natural, but society warps it into a cruel travesty.
The opposite-sex gender binary that supports patriarchy is wrong. It is limiting, harmful, inaccurate and untrue, and it's past time to bury it in an unmourned, unmarked grave. Everyone deserves the birthright to find their own places on the multiple levels of their own respective gender continua, and the respect of society to be recognized and honored there.
(Okay, I got off the theory and into my personal rant. Sorry, but it seems important.)