About 5 years ago I realized that I was not going to stop being uncomfortable with my body and my assigned gender by ignoring how I felt. It was obvious that my life had to change. I did not have many ideas as to what those changes might entail, but I knew one: I needed to talk with my partner. It was an awkward conversation. “Well, see, I used to really enjoy imagining I had a romantic connection like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy did in their old movies. The only thing is, I always imagined myself to be Tracy.”
While he immediately understood that I was wrestling with something personally profound, he could not understand what exactly it was. And he did not understand when we talked the second time. Or the third time.
The one issue that he persistently found himself stuck on was the separation of sex and gender. “But you have a female body, so aren’t you inherently female?”
Nope, that’s not how it works.
Sex and gender are corresponding but not identical concepts. Sex is a biological categorization, referring to chromosomes, hormones, reproductive organs, external genitalia. Gender, on the other hand, is a social categorization. It is a complex amalgamation of history, religion, values, traditions, to name only a few contributing factors, that influence how we experience ourselves and how those experiences manifest. Our genders are reinforced by every interaction that we have with our peers, the media, the clothes we wear, the activities in which we participate.
The distinction between sex and gender has been hugely important for transgender people. It has allowed us to understand and talk about ourselves. It has allowed us to start dismantling the structures upon which so much of the discrimination against us has been built. It allowed me to understand that, despite my body, what I knew about myself was not false. Unconventional, maybe, but not false.
Our ability to talk about sex and gender also gives us room to examine gender for a biological component. If our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings were strictly a result of our upbringing, babies would be something like moulding clay, shaping themselves willy nilly to cultural influences but not having forms of their own. This does not appear to be the case, though. Some little girls will really enjoy playing with the toys, wearing the clothes, and liking the things our culture thinks little girls should like. Some boys will, too. And, sure, they might like those things because they are cool. For those boys that persist despite bullying from misguided parents, peers, and the rest of our cultural structure, though, it is possible that their genetic makeup has resulted in a predisposition. That is not to say there is a gene for wearing dresses, but that biology gives us a leaning and culture supplies us the behaviors.
While sex does refer to our physical selves, it is important to note that sex does not refer to an immutable biological truth. Our definitions of femaleness and maleness are less of a biological fact than most would assume; these definitions are more a combination of biological knowledge and socially-determined ideas. We know how females generally look (on the inside and the outside) and we know how males generally look, and we assume that everyone should fall into one of those two categories. But there is no one biological feature or any consistent combination of biological features that unquestionably proclaim one’s sex. Some people who are listed as female on their birth certificates have breasts, some of them have ovaries, some of them have vaginas, some of them can have children, some of them have XX chromosomes — but not all.
Additionally, socially-determined ideas can have a big impact on science.
You probably remember high school biology class, when our science teachers taught us about the so-called sex chromosomes. The Y chromosome, they said, is correlated to sex determination, specifically male sex determination. Current research indicates that this understanding is only part of the truth. The X chromosome, as well as a number of autosomes contain genetic information that affects one’s sex. The presence of a Y chromosome, then, no more ensures maleness than it ensures a masculine gender identity.
How might society have influenced the science of sex? You see it depends in the sexuality of the persons, for example the sex toys for females are totally different than the male sex toys available, which is why there’s a differentiation from the very beginning. It is unlikely that the reason science stood by the chromosome binary for as long as it did is because of brilliant usages of the scientific method or the unquestionable quality of the resulting evidence. It is more likely that breaking down sex differentiation into to an easily understood binary, XX for female and XY for male, reflects our social ideas of there being two biological categories of people, two genders of people.
Sex and gender are complicated concepts. Perhaps equally as complicated is the process by which our society’s assumptions about fixed and cleanly divided bodies and people became as accepted as they are. It took my partner a while to examine his thinking. Fortunately for me, he came around. He now understands that, though I have all the bits that are typically seen as female, that does not make me a woman. Imagining myself as Spencer Tracy? Turns out it is not as weird as my partner originally thought.