Gender identity, the gender spectrum, and transgender issues have been getting a lot of media attention in recent years. Laverne Cox, from Orange is the New Black was featured as the first openly transgender person on the cover of Time Magazine in 2014. The Amazon series, Transparent, which follows Jefferey Tambor’s character coming out to his self absorbed family as transgender, won the Golden Globe for Best Television Series (musical/comedy). And most recently, the gold medal winning Olympian, father, and step-father to the popular Kardashian-Jenner family, Bruce Jenner has also come out as transgender, in that he identifies internally as a woman.
The anticipated Diane Sawyer interview, in which Jenner shares his story, aired April 24th, 2015. If you missed it, here is a link where you can access segments of the ABC interview.
I, along with many others, tuned in with curiosity, skepticism, and hope. I, admittedly, wasn’t expecting to be influenced too much by this interview. I work with transgender & gender nonconforming clients and feel connected to the issues in our culture around gender & sexuality. I’m not saying I’m an expert by any means, but I would consider myself an ally & LGBTQ affirming therapist. I was interested in watching mainly because I felt hopeful that Bruce was going to share about his experience & possibly demystify some of the tabloid rumors about him as well as the trans population in general. In the midst of watching, I found myself experiencing a number of emotional responses. From sadness & tears, to anger & frustration, followed by compassion & motivation.
I was motivated to respond, in this post, to Jenner’s interview & coming out in hopes of clarifying some of the misconceptions around gender. As I began writing, I realized how many facets there are to consider when exploring gender diversity, so this will be the first in a series of post related to understanding gender identity.
The Basics: Gender, Sex, & Attraction
Gender Binary vs. Gender Continuum/Spectrum
Our society has an unspoken need or tendency to categorize and label; black or white, gay or straight, male or female. This is not necessarily a “good” or “bad” thing. It is simply the way most people have come to understand gender. This may seem rigid & incorrect for many (particularly those who do not fit into these categories), but acknowledging that this perspective continues to be where many people approach gender, is important as we move toward change.
“Western culture has come to view gender as a binary concept, with two rigidly fixed options: male or female, both grounded in a person’s physical anatomy (genderspectrum.org).” At birth we are assigned male or female, but this binary concept fails to account for the rich variation that exists. The gender spectrum is a linear model ranging from 100% male to 100% female, with various states of androgyny in between. This model is much more inclusive & encompasses all people rather than just those who fall into the gender binary.
This “Genderbread Person” is a great illustration explaining the gender continuum, as well as sexuality & expression which can aid in better understanding gender identity.
Gender Identity vs. Biological Sex
Biological sex consists of the physical traits we are born with, including genitalia, hormones, body shape, voice, etc. A person’s biological sex does not always correspond to their gender.
Gender identity is a person’s private sense or internal perception of gender, which is separate from physical sex, it is how someone feels inside, whether male, female or somewhere in between or outside these labels.
When our gender identity & assigned sex at birth match up, we are considered gender normative or cisgender.
So, in basic terms, being transgender is when what is assigned at birth doesn’t fit with how we feel internally.
The way we outwardly convey gender, through dress, demeanor, actions, & interests makes up our gender expression. Gender expression is influenced by gender norms, so someone may have been assigned male at birth but internally identify as female and continue to dress & act male in order to fit into societal norms.
Who we are attracted to, emotionally, romantically, sexually, is independent from our gender & gender identity. People who are straight typically have feelings mainly for people of the opposite sex, while those who are gay or lesbian have these feelings for those of the same sex, & those who are bisexual have feelings for both. People who are asexual experience little to no attraction to either sex. Just as someone who is cisgender (or gender normative) may be gay, straight, bisexual, queer etc., the same is true for someone who identifies as transgender. We all have a gender as well as a sexual orientation and one does not infer the other.
As with any group of people, there is a lot of diversity and variation. The transgender umbrella encompasses all of this variation, from gender queer, gender nonconforming, transsexual, bigender, third sex, gender fluid, and more.
There are many terms & definitions and it is okay to make mistakes, especially when you remain open, curious, and non-judgmental. Understanding gender identity and all of the terms all at once can be a lot to take in. I will provide an overview of terms and do’s & don’ts in my next post. In the mean time, acknowledging & reconsidering our culture’s gender binary model & understanding that just as with personalities, race, & culture, there is a wide array of diversity within gender & sexuality for us to embrace, respect, and value.