[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 so while this gender 101 page is representative of how I viewed things back then, it is very much out of date.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
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
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
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...
do you want to move onto the my story section
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