gender 101

[note: like everything else on this site, i wrote this page back in january 2002. since then, my views on gender have changed rather significantly. so while this gender 101 page is representative of how I viewed things back then, it is very much out of date. For a more up-to-date take on my views about gender and transgenderism, check out my 2007 book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity.]

this is a little primer i've put together to define the terms that come up all of the time when talking about gender and transgenderism. some of the ideas presented here may be new to many of you. there is a tendency in our society to see male and female as cut and dry concepts, so here i highlight a lot of the often overlooked in-between grey areas. people also often confuse the concepts of sex, gender and sexuality, so i have tried to describe the distinctions between these terms as well.

(note: most of what you read here is commonly accepted terminology. i try to be up front when i add my personal opinions. however, sometimes different people happen to use somewhat different language to describe the same things...)

so right off the bat, you may be asking "sex, gender and sexuality - aren't they all the same thing?" well, frankly, no they aren't. it's probably easiest to talk about sex first...


well first off, i am not talking about the act of having sex, but rather the word "sex" as it appears on your driver's license, as a way to describe whether somebody is male or female based on the anatomy of their body. in our society, we determine sex based upon a person's genitals. people also talk about chromosomal sex (females are XX, males are XY), but honestly, how many people do you know that have had their chromosomes checked out? plus, a person's chromosomal and genital sex may not actually match up. for example, people who have androgen insesitivity syndrome are XY, but their bodies do not respond to androgens (e.g., testosterone). as a result, their genitals and bodies develop female, despite the fact that they have testes and no female reproductive system. androgen insensitivity syndrome is just one example of an intersexed condition. intersexuality is defined bt the Intersex Society of North America as :

a set of medical conditions that features "congenital anomaly of the reproductive and sexual system." that is, a person with an intersex condition is born with sex chromosomes, external genitalia, or an internal reproductive system that is not considered "standard" for either male or female.

i'm sure most of you out there think that you've never met anybody who is intersexed before. well, you probably have - it is estimated that 1% of the population is intersexed in some way.


sexuality can mean a number of different things, but here i use the term to refer to the sex that a person is attracted to. most people use the word homosexual to describe an individual who is attracted to the same sex, heterosexual to describe an individual who is attracted to the opposite sex, and bisexual to describe an individual who is attracted to both sexes. personally, as a transsexual (see below), i don't like the terms homosexual and heterosexual. after all, i have only ever been attracted to females. one could say that as a boy i was heterosexual and as a girl i am homosexual. but, that makes it sound like my sexuality has flip-flopped, and i would argue that my sexuality hasn't changed at all: i'm still attracted to females. so, i prefer the terms gay (for male-with-male relationships), lesbian (for female-with-female relationships), and het (for male-with-female relationships). but even this is pretty clumsy. what is a person who is in a relationship with an intersexed person? or a transitioning transsexual? there are all kinds of variations that don't fall neatly into any one category.


okay, so then how is gender different than sex? well, there's a saying that goes "sex is what's between your legs and gender is what's between your ears". in other words, gender refers to whether a person is female or male with respect to their mind and personality. an individual's internal conviction about whether they are female or male is their gender identity and the outward expression of their femaleness or maleness is their gender expression. while a person's gender expression is evident in their appearance, dress, mannerisms, speech patterns, etc., you never really know a person's gender identity unless they tell you.

people often use the terms sex and gender interchangably. that's because they have never had to question their gender. most people who are born male (ie., sex) just so happen to feel male (ie., gender), and vice versa with females. however, in some cases a person's gender doesn't quite match up with their sex - these people are transgendered (abbreviated TG). now in the past, there have been other definitions for the word "transgender", but i use it here as it is most commonly used these days: as an umbrella term describing all people who's sex and gender are not quite matched up.

personally, i think the easiest way to get a feel for the concept of transgenderism is by imagining a sex/gender spectrum. on the left end of the spectrum are people who's gender and sex perfectly match up and on the right end are people who's gender and sex are completely opposite. now imagine starting at the left end of that spectrum and moving towards the right. at the extreme left are people who are not transgendered (the majority of the population). as we move further right, towards the center, there are people who's gender mostly matches up with their sex (for the sake of this exercise, let's call them "mildly" transgendered - this is my term, not a commonly accepted one). they identify and function well as a member of the sex they were born into, but they are likely to often imagine themselves being the opposite sex and they may occassionally take on the dress, mannerisms, persona, etc. of a person of the opposite sex. as you get to the middle of the spectrum, you have people who's gender is "equally" or "in-between" male and female. such people may see themselves as being neither gender or being bi-gendered. as you move right of center, you have people who's gender more closely matches the sex opposite to that which they were born. this is where i am on the spectrum.

people on the right side of this sex/gender spectrum generally have a strong desire to be a member of the opposite sex and/or a strong conviction that they were born into the wrong sex. the medical term for this condition is gender identity disorder (abbreviated GID - also called gender dysphoria). for a person with GID, pretending to be a member of the sex they were born into is extremely difficult and causes a great deal of mental and emotional stress and pain. there is no way to change a person's gender (most experts believe that gender is hard-wired into the brain before birth). the only known treatment for GID is to alter one's sex to match their gender. People who do this are called transsexuals (abbreviated TS). a person who is born female and changes their sex to male is female-to-male (FTM). a person, like myself, who is born male and changes their sex to female is male-to female (MTF). the process of going from one sex to the other is called transitioning or sex reassignment.

so what all is involved in transitioning? well, there are lots of different things a person can do to change their apperance to that of the opposite sex. the most common step that most transsexuals take is hormone replacement therapy (i.e., taking estrogen for MTFs; taking testosterone for FTMs), which allows one to develop the secondary sexual characteristics of the opposite sex. in addition, many transsexuals choose to have surgery to reconfigure their genitals to resemble those of the opposite sex - this is called sex reassignment surgery (abbreviated SRS - formerly called a "sex-change operation"). before they have SRS, a transsexual is considered pre-op; after surgery they are post-op. a significant number of transsexuals choose not to have SRS and they are called non-ops. it should also be noted that most FTMs undergo "top" surgery to remove breast tissue and make their chests resemble those of biological males. similarly, some MTFs chose to undergo breast augmentation and/or facial feminization surgery to help them look more like biological females..

in general, after a transsexual transitions, they live full-time in every aspect of their lives as a member of the opposite sex. this distinguishes them from crossdressers, who are people that live part-time or occasionally take on the persona of a member of the opposite sex. some people make distinctions between different sub-types of crossdressing based on the crossdresser's sexuality (for instance, using the term crossdresser/transvestite when the individual is heterosexual and using the term drag queen/king when the individual is homosexual). while many crossdressers are likely to fall into the "mildly" transgendered or bi-gendered regions of the sex/gender spectrum i described above, this is not necessarily the case. some crossdresers do not consider themselves to be transgendered at all; for them, crossdressing may be more about acting and entertaining or about transgressing societal norms as a form of political or artistic expression. other self-described crossdressers may eventually consider themselves to be transsexual and seek out sex reassignment (as in my case).

so are transgendered people homosexual? not necessarily. gender identity (whether a person sees themselves as male or female) has nothing to do with one's sexuality (whether a person is attracted to the same or opposite sex). in my case, as a young adult, i appeared to the world to be a straight man. now i am a lesbian transexual woman. other transsexual women are heterosexual (ie., attracted to men), and of course, many transgendered people are bisexual as well. while all transgendered people are not necessarily homosexual, you could say that they are all queer. these days, people generally use the word queer as an umbrella term for anybody who's gender, sexuality or sexual practices fall outside of societal norms (in fact, some people prefer the word "genderqueer" to describe people who are queer because of their gender or sex rather than their sexual orientation). a person who is not queer is said to be straight.

so what pronouns should one use with crossdressers and transsexuals? well, some people have tried to create gender neutral or third sex pronouns (e.g., s/he, h/her, shim, herm), but these never quite seem to catch on. generally, the safest bet is to call a person she/her if they are presenting as female; if they are presenting as male, use he/him. things really start to get crazy when you talk about transsexuals in the past tense. for example, in my case, i used to be tom but now i'm julia. so what about things i did before transitioning? did tom play little leaugue when she was a little boy? does julia remember the name of his first little league team? this is where the english language utterly breaks down. personally, i believe my gender has always been female, so i prefer the use of she/her even when refering to me in the past as tom or as a boy.

so in the previous paragraph i used the word "presenting" - what did i mean by that? well, let's put it this way: you can never be sure of a person's sex unless you've seen them naked (remember, in our society "sex" generally refers to a person's genitals). and how many people have you seen naked? probably not that many. so, we generally assume that a person is male if they are presenting themselves as male, and vice versa for female. there are many societal "cues" that we use to present ourselves as male or female: clothing, hairstyle, etc. we also use secondary sexual characteristics as cues to help us figure out a person's sex (eg., men have beards, women have breasts). we tend not to think of ourselves as "presenting" male or female, but as simply being male or female. but the whole concept of presenting becomes important when referring to people who are presenting themselves as the opposite sex (e.g., crossdressers and transitioning transsexuals). for example, an MTF who is wearing a dress and make-up is presenting female. if the rest of the world believes that this person is a biological female, then we say that she can "pass" as female. if someone figures out that this MTF is actually a biological male, then she has been "read". it is also worth noting that there are other ways you can present yourself other than male or female. if you have a hairstyle or are wearing clothes that are generally worn by both males and females, then you are presenting unisex. if you are sending out mixed gender cues, then you're presenting androgynous.

so there you have it! i hope this has been helpful. if you find this all confusing, well, that's probably because life is confusing...

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julia serano ©2001-2002