trans.cafe

Sex, Gender, Sexuality + Beyond: An Introduction

Questioning, Male-To-Female, Female-To-Male, Gender Fluid, In Transition, Non-Conforming, Family, Community + Allies, SocialKC Clements
Image by Rebecca Lieberman

Image by Rebecca Lieberman

By KC Clements

The past few years have seen an exponential rise in the visibility of transgender people, particularly in popular media. Many such representations have done the work of showing transgender people in a positive (or at least neutral) light, taking down some of the stereotypes about us that have prevailed for decades.

While such representations have been key in fostering a certain amount of acceptance for transgender people, it is crucial that these narratives are backed up with educational and informational resources about our community.  

For folks who are just starting to learn about transgender and gender non-conforming people, the terminology can be a little confusing, especially since many of our long-held ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality are being called into question. But it’s essential for friends and allies of transgender people to develop a fluency in these concepts in order to support us and to go on to educate other folks who might not be accustomed to talking about these things.

That’s why I will be writing a series in which I’ll help break down some key concepts that will help you have a clearer understanding not only of transgender and gender non-conforming identities, but of sex, gender, and sexuality as a whole. This piece is the first of the series, introducing some of the basic terms that we’ll deep-dive into in the coming weeks.

SEX

We’ll start out with sex. Seems pretty basic, right?

Most of us have grown up being told that there is a sex binarymeaning there are two sexes, male and female. Furthermore, we’ve probably also been told that the male-versus-female binary is an immutable biological fact.

But let’s talk about what determines a person’s sex. Is it what’s between your legs (genitals), in your bloodstream (hormones), or in your DNA (chromosomes)?

A closer look will show that sex is actually much more complex than any of these individual components or even the combination of these components, especially when we consider transgender and intersex people.

GENDER IDENTITY

Once we explore deeper into the nuances of how we go about defining sex, we’ll take a look at gender identity. Again, most people believe that there is a gender binary—meaning there are two genders, man and woman.

Related to what I said above about sex, most of us tend to think of gender as the social expression of sex. We may not even know what this means—but the basic idea is that we are taught to assume people’s genitals / hormones / chromosomes determine gender. That is, people who are assigned male at birth (AMAB) on their perceived genitals are assumed to be men and people who are assigned female at birth (AFAB) are women.

The term “cisgender” refers to those whose gender aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender folks are those whose gender identity does not align with their assigned sex at birth. And then there are a whole range of other gender non-conforming identities that fall outside of the categories “man” and “woman.”

In this series, we’ll soon learn about some of those identities while getting a better sense of how gender identity works independent of sex and socialization.

GENDER EXPRESSION

Before I continue, I’ll note that gender identity isn’t the only factor in how we identify and how we are perceived. The way we express and present ourselves to the world is known as gender expression. We tend to think of there being two different types of gender expression—masculinity and femininity. 

However, as many transgender and gender non-conforming people have noted, masculinity and femininity exist along a spectrum, and people of all genders exhibit both stereotypically masculine and feminine qualities. We’ll find that while, for some folks, gender identity and gender expression are aligned (according to social expectations), for others this is not the case.

Folks who identify as women can be primarily masculine, while folks who identify as men can be primarily feminine. And there are a whole bunch of possibilities in between!

SEXUAL ORIENTATION

One thing that really tends to trip people up is the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. A lot of people want to conflate gender identity (particularly non-normative gender identities) with sexual orientation, assuming that being gay or queer is the same thing as being transgender.

But while our gender identity and expression certainly factor into who we date and have sex with, gender is about how we understand OURSELVES and our own identities, while sexual orientation is about who we find attractive.

What’s more, people who are transgender or gender non-conforming have a whole range of sexual orientations; transgender folks can be gay, straight, bi, queer, and more. This section will not only further clarify the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation, but will also provide more detailed information on a range of sexual orientations that can exist for trans folks and cis folks alike!

In the final section of the series to come, we’ll talk about oppression and privilege, both of which are relevant when talking about non-normative gender identities—and the other markers of identity that factor into how others regard us.

Specifically, oppression is the systematic discrimination and unjust treatment of a group of people based on their race, gender, class, ability, age, size, religion, or other factors. Oppression operates on a large scale through barriers to access to institutions (such as education, health care, employment, etc.), as well as on a small scale through the actions and behaviors of individual people.

Privilege, on the other hand, is the systematic advantaging of a group of people based on these same factors. This section will outline the forms of oppression that transgender and gender non-conforming people face, paying particular attention to intersectionality. Intersectionality refers to the specific impact of having multiple oppressed identities. We’ll conclude with some helpful advice for cisgender allies on how to use your privilege to help educate folks on issues trans and gender non-conforming people face.

So that’s the bare bones outline of what we’ll be talking about in this 101 series, which will unfold over the upcoming weeks. Be sure to stay tuned, and even write in your own questions and responses by writing to submit@trans.cafe.

 

 

KC is a queer, non-binary, white, able-bodied writer based in Brooklyn, NY. They hold an M.A. in Gender Politics from New York University. You can follow their writing at aminotfemme.wordpress.com.