Gender: 2. sex: the feminine gender. (Dictionary.com)
Gender: 2. Sexual category; males or females as a group. (The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition)
I think almost everyone understands that these definitions don't adequately define gender. A real definition of gender would be something like this:
Gender: 2. Subconscious sex; the subjective, instinctive understanding one has of their own biological sex at a subconscious level, which may or may not coincide with biological sex and conscious awareness of biological sex.
Perhaps that's why there is so much disagreement within our society about what gender really is, what the word really relates to or means. For instance, many feminists believe that gender is wholly a social construct, that it is a concept created and perpetrated by society as a means to restrict the behavior of women and oppress them. Many religious sects think gender is and means the same thing as sex, is just another word for it, like "truck" and "lorry." They assume that biological sex is completely deterministic, and that to express gender in a way that is not culturally typical to your biological sex is a crime against God (or some such). I object to both of those concepts. Both are limiting and incomplete. In fact, gender is both biologically and socially constructed.
Physical sex plays a large role in determining who we are. The physically smaller size of women, their menstrual cycles, pregnancy and childbirth, lactation and nursing, and the vulnerability that goes with them all powerfully influence one's innate, instinctual understanding of self. In addition, hormones affect thought processes, as the vast majority of women are well aware, due to their menstrual cycles. Many men, on the other hand, are completely unaware that hormones affect thought, because the lack of cycle means their hormone balance remains constant. This is borne out by the children of my friends, as they tend to be open-minded, liberal folks who go to some pains to protect their children from the social influences of gender, to allow them to express gender as they see fit. Regardless, in a general sense, boys and girls exhibit different behaviors from birth. These differences can be observed in young children, as even when they are encouraged in gender-neutral or cross-gender activities, boys will gravitate to more active, violent play, and girls to relationship play (which is not to say that either primary sex plays exclusively one or the other – just about everyone does some degree of cross-gender play, to their own unique degree). Two girls from the same family, sharing the same background and social influence, often develop quite different degrees of feminine expression, with one perhaps adopting ruffles and high femme, the other more of a butch style – and the same goes for boys.
Society also exerts a strong influence on the development of gender. A neighbor's boy frequently wore skirts before starting school, even though he exhibited a high degree of masculine-style play/behavior. When he started school, he only wore it one time – I've never seen him wear a skirt since. In most families, gendered behavior and style is encouraged in clothing choice, activities, toys, social relations, and just about everything else. Boys and girls are frequently held to different standards, with more tolerance for boys getting their clothes dirty and being loud and violent, and so forth. Often that gendered behavior is not only encouraged, it's coerced – boys' hair cut short, girls forbidden from wearing pants, etc. That coercion damages some children badly; others, already inclined in that direction, are damaged hardly at all.
Deconstructing inherent, biological gender development from socially gendered influence is probably impossible. There is a constant interplay between the two factors at least from birth, if not sooner. They weave our gendered lives together, much like the warp and weft of cloth, to determine the fabric of our lives. Some aspects, however, can be deconstructed, and must be if individuals are to be whole and free:
- Gender should never be coercive, and nobody should suffer ridicule or punishment for crossing gender lines.
- Exaggerating the natural differences among sexes/genders is destructive.
- Everyone – man, woman, child, and all those who fall between – has an unalienable right to live and express gender in their own way, in the manner that is most comfortable to them and allows them the greatest freedom in personal development – from the time of their birth.
- Gender is not a toggle switch, an either-or, on-off binary. It's a multi-faceted continuum (or perhaps continua).
- Perhaps most important, no sex, nor any gender, is inherently better or worse, stronger or weaker, more or less emotional or rational, than any other. The differences in style and expression are cosmetic, not structural. By themselves, they add beauty and diversity to life and make it richer, but the value is the same.