Having been reading bits of Revisioning Gender, and being so affected by gender and hyperaware of gender, I’ve been continually trying to make sense of what gender is.
First of all, I have to highly recommend the book. At least for me, it contains a lot of really beautiful conceptual discussions and challenges a number of assumptions we tend to make.
However, both from the book and from the discussions it has provided for, I’ve come up against something that I’d like to share.
It’s common thought (so far as I see it) among us gender aware people to make a distinction between sex and gender. This is in part due to gender ambiguities among those who are not gender typical, but also in part due to a conceptual need to account for trans* individuals.
One of the chapters argues that the sex/gender distinction is unworkable and actually an improper way to go about doing things, because we tend to assume sex as an objective biological duality and this may in fact be more socially/culturally driven than we think. I will leave this aside for now, because while I think it has some merit and should be investigated further, it is only the golden thread by which I arrived at this idea.
My idea is this:
We cannot account for the diversity of gender, nor its origin, by a simple sex/gender distinction. “Gender” simply means too many things, and as such is a fuzzy term. I argue that we should make further distinctions to make sure that we know what we are talking about.
I believe we should define the following (or something similar):
- Sex - Biological sex, not defined as binary, but in purely biological terms. Sex is gendered, but gender is not sexed. Thus, intersex people and ambiguously sexed individuals are sexed as they are, but this carries with it no inherent value. While biological sex DOES affect behavior/development, so do a variety of other biological functions and circumstances, and as such it is not a simple category. To quote Kinsey, “It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories.”
- Gender Role - Socially defined nodes of identity, with the expectations involved with such a role. This is not necessarily dual, as it could carry three or more places easily. Most importantly, I see this as cultural definitions of gender. There is MAN and WOMAN and HIJRA* and TWO-SPIRIT* (etc). These are placeholders and discrete categories. I also argue that there is a necessary OTHER category while existing nodes are exclusionary. Thus, our American/Western culture would recognize three places, MAN, WOMAN, and OTHER. The first two are obviously valued more than the third, and the third is poorly defined, and certainly a negative definition (defined by a lack of something) rather than a positive (defined by a presence of something) one. We may be moving towards a more nuanced system (particularly in queer subcultures), but for now this is how I see it. This is also the stage where sex is gendered. Bathrooms are evidence of this. This is relational from the outside in.
- Gender Identity, First Form - One’s personal identity. If I see myself as a man, or a woman, or a trans girl, or genderqueer, those are all personal categorizations. This is a more complex relational position, because it seems to function in a more circular fashion. Fundamentally, it is one’s identification from the inside, filtered through Gender Roles (defined through but not necessarily within culturally defined Gender Roles — you could come up with something else, but then it takes the position of something else), and back to one’s identity. There must be some function of non-socially-created gender, to account for the occasional split between externally assigned gender and internally/fundamentally assigned gender. I don’t think that gender identity functions in discrete categories, but rather works through the matrix of cultural Gender Roles. Thus, Gender Role and Gender Identity are in a feedback loop. This part alone is probably one of the most complex in my entire model, and much more needs to be said on it.
- Gender Identity, Second Form - I don’t know how else to define the difference between the two forms of Gender Identity. Both of them start from a place of innate identity, some sort of self-place that then relate somehow to the world. The difference comes in how they do so. This one is the one that specifically relates to one’s body. If I feel that my body is the right one for me, or the wrong one, or that I like certain aspects of my body but not others, then this is how. One can have different positions between the two Forms of Gender Identity. It is both for this reason and to account for the relation of transsexual people to their bodies that I feel this category is necessary.
- Gender Expression - If Gender Identity is one’s identity within a category, then Gender Expression is one’s expression of that identity. This category may not be necessary, instead working as a subprocess/nuance of Gender Identity. How this would work is again through Gender Roles, but would not carry with it the categorical weight of Identity. Rather, it would define one’s position within that identity — masculine/butch, feminine/femme, that sort of thing. Whether this would be a simple line between the points of masculine and feminine; a circle where masculine and feminine are at opposite points, androgynous (both) at a third point, and agendered (neither) opposite that; or something entirely different is likely contingent upon culture.
*Hijra and Two-Spirit are both cultural genders (Indian and Native American), and there are legitimate reasons to refrain from calling yourself one or the other without being of that culture/ethnicity.