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AS IT IS Transgender Awareness Week, it seems appropriate to explore ‘man made’ labels about gender and identity.
Meet the Genderbread Person – not an original image of mine but one I find helpful in my work with the UK’s longest running LGBT youth group.
I have used this resource with the youth group this week to help them understand how much (or how little) they conform to our society’s concepts of gender, and how much the prejudice of transphobia and homophobia are based on traditional gender stereotypes.
Gender is a tough subject to tackle. We have all been conditioned in such a way that our first impressions may be lacking. Here to help is The Genderbread Person!
The Genderbread Person is an easy to understand visual that breaks the social construction of gender into four strands to promote awareness of diversity and acceptance of those of us who don’t conform to traditional gender norms. These are:
- gender identity = who you think you are
- gender expression = how you demonstrate who you are
- biological sex = what’s ‘under your bonnet’
- sexual orientation = who you are attracted to.
Each is shown as a continuum to indicate that there is more to gender than the ‘opposites’ suggested by traditional gender roles. People tend to assume someone has to be on either the left end or the right end of the continuums above e.g. born female, becomes a woman, behaves in a feminine way, and is attracted to men.
In fact, the four lines are not connected. Here’s how they work:
Gender identity is about how you think about yourself. Do you think you fit better into the societal role of ‘woman’, or ‘man’, or does neither ring true for you? Are you somewhere in-between the two, or do you consider your gender to fall outside the continuum completely? The answer is your gender identity.
It is believed we form our gender identities around the age of three, after which it is incredibly difficult to change them. Formation of identity is affected by hormones and environment just as much as biological sex. Problems can arise when someone is assigned a gender based on their biological sex at birth that doesn’t align with how they come to identify. See ‘Biological Sex’ below.
On the left we have ‘woman’ and on the right we have ‘man’. In the middle, we have the term ‘genderqueer’ which some people use for an identity that is somewhere between woman and man. Some prefer the term ‘transgender’ to describe how their gender identity differs from the social expectations for the biological sex with which they were identified at birth. Often, society conflates sex and gender, viewing them as the same thing. But gender and sex are not the same thing, as those who identify as transgender demostrate.
Gender expression is about how you talk, walk, dress, and interact – consciously or unconsciously. It’s about how the way you express yourself aligns or doesn’t with traditional forms of gender expression. Gender expression is interpreted by others perceiving your gender based on traditional gender roles (e.g. men wear trousers, women wear dresses). Like gender identity, there is flexibility – gender expression may change, depending on the situation. Many of us move along this continuum without even thinking about it.
On the left we have ‘feminine’ and on the right we have ‘masculine’, the two terms normally associated with ‘woman’ and ‘man’. In the middle, we have ‘androgynous’ which describes an ambiguous or mixed form of expressing gender.
Biological sex refers to organs, hormones, and chromosomes. Being female means having a vagina, ovaries, two X chromosomes, predominant oestrogen, and the potential to become pregnant. Being male means having testes, a penis, an X and a Y chromosome, predominant testosterone, and the potential to fertilise a female’s egg to produce a baby.
More commonly than most of us realise, some people have varying combinations of the above. For example, someone can be born with the appearance of being male (external organs), but have a functional female reproductive system inside, just one of the ways in which a person may be ‘intersex’. Statistics from the Intersex Society of North America which describe the frequency of intersex births suggest that the proportion of people whose bodies differ from standard male or female is one in every 100 births.
So, on the left of the continuum is ‘female’ and on the right is ‘male’, the two biological sexes we all grew up knowing about. The middle term, ‘intersex’, describes someone whose sexual organs are not strictly male or female. The term ‘hermaphrodite’, which you may have heard used to describe an intersex individual, is stigmatizing as ‘hermaphrodite’ means someone who is entirely male and female, a biological impossibility.
Sexual orientation is about who you are physically and emotionally attracted to. If you are male and you’re attracted to females, you’re straight. If you’re a male who is attracted to males and females, you’re bisexual. And if you’re a male who is attracted to males, you’re gay. This is the one most of us know most about, right? Maybe.
Pioneering research by Dr. Alfred Kinsey uncovered that most people aren’t absolutely ‘straight’ or ‘gay’. He asked people to report their fantasies, dreams, thoughts, emotional investments in others, and frequency of sexual contact. Based on his findings, he broke sexuality down into a seven point scale (see below), and reported that most people who identify as straight are actually somewhere between 1 – 3 on the scale, and most people who identify as lesbian/gay are 3-5:
0 – Exclusively Heterosexual
1 – Predominantly heterosexual, incidentally homosexual
2 – Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual
3 – Equally heterosexual and homosexual
4 – Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual
5 – Predominantly homosexual, incidentally heterosexual
6 – Exclusively Homosexual
On the left of the continuum is ‘heterosexual’, attracted to people of the ‘opposite sex’ or ‘straight’. On the right is ‘homosexual’, attracted to people of the same sex, ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’. In the middle is ‘bisexual’, meaning attracted to people of ‘both’ sexes. However, the above evidence about the diversity of biological sex suggests ‘bisexual’ may be an inadequate term as ‘bi’ means ‘two’. The term ‘pansexual’ is gaining ground among people confident enough to identify themselves with gender diversity, as ‘pan’ means ‘all’.
While considering gender and sexual orientation as a continuum can be helpful, it is also limiting for those who do not identify with any of the above terms. For example, there is no place on the sexual orientation scale for someone who is ‘asexual’, experiencing a lack of sexual attraction to others. Similarly, some people consider their gender identity to fall outside of the traditional (and limited) woman to man continnum. These identities may be called ‘agender’, ‘third-gender’, ‘bigender’, or ‘two spirit’, among others. The lesson is not to make assumptions but to allow an individual to define themselves.
Interrelation versus Interconnection
So, although the four continuums are interrelated, they are not connected. Gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation are independent of one another. Sexual orientation doesn’t determine gender expression; gender expression isn’t determined by gender identity; gender identity isn’t determined by biological sex, and every other combination of the four strands. They are certainly related, but they do not determine one another.
If someone is born with male reproductive organs and genitalia, he is very likely to be raised as a boy, identify as a man, and express himself in a masculine way. We call this identity ‘cisgender’, when your biological sex aligns with how you identify, as opposed to ‘transgender’ where it does not. Being ‘cisgender’ i.e. in the majority, grants a lot of privileges). It’s something most of us who are cisgender don’t appreciate nearly as much as we should. Many of those who are transgender are reminded regularly that they are not in the privileged majority, which is why Transgender Awareness Week ends with Transgender Day of Remembrance, when the LGBT community is invited to remember those who have died due to transphobia, through murder or suicide.
Adapted from the itspronouncedmetrosexual.com website. Click the link to read the full text.
In the youth groups this week we introduced this model, then each youth worker took a representation of themselves as a gingerbread person and placed themselves on each of the four lines to indicate how we identify ourselves. The aim was to model the gender diversity of the workers and enable young people to have confidence to identify themselves.
Each young person was invited to use the template above to represent themselves in their own way, then photocopy it three times and place one on each line according to where on the continuums they see themselves. As teenagers and young adults how they define themselves becomes increasingly important, and that includes gender identity and sexual orientation.
So gender is not simply about ‘opposites’ – a lot of us don’t sit comfortably on one or other end of the continuum. Since this diversity is more common than most people realise, our society needs to be more open to those who don’t conform to the ‘man-made’ labels it gives us.
For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.