Exploring the spectrum of sex and gender
For many individuals, sex is something static. You’re assigned male or female at birth, and that is how you identify for the rest of your life. But this raises a very important question — without referring to any physical identifiers, how do you know that you are a man or a woman?
Ideas of gender and sex vary among cultures and societies around the world. From the Indian transgender identity of hijra to the Native American concept of “two-spirit” identities, in many cultures, there are accepted roles of a third gender identity, or an unlimited spectrum of what gender a person may be.
Pamela Wool, director of family services and administration at Gender Spectrum, an organization that provides education, training and support to help create a gender sensitive and inclusive environment for all children and teens, said there is not only a lot of fluctuation in understanding across cultures, but in biology and nature as well.
“We talk about gender variation in nature,” she said. “There’s lots of different species that have varying genders.”
The most accepted view of differences between sex and gender are that sex is the physicality of differences — chromosomes, hormones and genitalia — while gender is how a person feels they identify.
Sam Killermann is a social justice comedian and creator of “It’s Called Metrosexual,” which is a “one-man comedy show about snap judgments, identity, and oppression,” according to his website.
“Gender is essentially a way of classifying personality, while sex is a way of classifying a person’s body,” Killermann said.
But Maxie Mettler is a transgender Ithaca College student, and she said learning more about the differences between gender and sex has made her realize there may not be so much of a difference after all. The idea of sex may be just as socially constructed as the idea of gender, she said.
“Basically, right out of the womb people are sorted into male or female, which is just as much of a gender as it is sex,” she said. “You have people who are born with anatomies that don’t fall between the binary of male and female.”
The idea of gender is something that many people think of as fixed, but that is often not the case. Not only do some people fluctuate between “man” and “woman,” but there can also be a vast number of identities that fall between or beyond the two socially accepted genders.
“We have a very binary understanding of gender,” Killermann said. “If you don’t identify as male or female, you’re essentially not existing.”
The idea of a gender binary (or the concept of gender as male at one end, female at the other) has been around for a long time, especially in Western culture. According to The Gender Wiki, an online community for learning about gender, nonbinary genders are “gender identities that don’t fit within the accepted binary of male and female,” and suggests thinking of gender in more of a three-dimensional model “with axes for male, female, and how strongly you feel attached to that gender identity have been suggested.”
“We’re only taught that there are two boxes for gender — one male and one female and there is nothing else,” Wool said. “We’re not taught about anything else beyond that and that’s really restrictive for all of us.”
The most important thing to remember about people who identify as nonbinary is that there is no singular or “correct” way to identify as non-binary, according to Nonbinary.org: “Most nonbinary people are primarily motivated by the desire to be comfortable and true to themselves rather than attempting to follow any particular gender role.”
Mettler believes a big reason more people aren’t more accustomed to the idea of nonbinary identities is because there is a lot of comfort in trying to put people into categories of male or female. But it’s important to recognize that there are many people who identify with any number of combinations, including or excluding the societal understanding of gender.
“[Gender] dictates how we think about ourselves and how we interact with other people,” Mettler said. “It’s helpful for everyone to recognize that the distinctions between men and women are very arbitrary for the most part.”
The lack of media representation contributes to the idea that gender is a fixed binary, Wool said.
“We don’t see images of people who don’t fit the binary in media, there aren’t many books about it, we’re never taught about it. It’s just not something that’s talked about, so we want to start talking about more and more,” she said.
While many people may feel as if they don’t need to discuss gender since they’re comfortable with what they were assigned, Killermann argues exactly the opposite.
“This isn’t an issue of the other, this is an issue that affects all of us — gender is something we all have and if we take the time to explore it, a lot of us have questions about it and a lot to learn. We all have a gender and it’s something that affects all of us,” he said.
Mettler emphasized the importance of everyone using proper language and terminology is discussions about sex and gender. Even if a person does identify with the gender they’re assigned with at birth, it’s helpful to identify as “cis-gender,” Mettler said.
“It prevents trans*-ness from being an ‘other,’” she said.
Wool said that it’s important to use correct terminology for everyone, because everyone has a gender. She said when she does an activity where she asks participants to line up with female at one end and male at the other, most people put themselves somewhere in the middle.
“We all exist, and most of us don’t exist strictly in those two boxes,” Wool said. “When people fall outside those boxes, people can get bullied, people can get all sorts of flack for it and that leads to all sorts of isolation and depression and suicidality.”
Over a tenth of students physically assaulted are attacked because of their gender identity, according to the PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) New York City website. The threat of diverting from the normalized idea of gender can be truly life threatening. Killermann thinks that it’s important to respect all people, regardless of skin color, ethnicity, personality or anything else, so gender should be treated in the same way.
“You would never argue with someone when they tell you their name,” he said. “It’s one of the ways I define myself — pronouns and gender identity labels are two of the ways folks use to get you to understand them better. Ultimately what they’re trying to do is help you get a better snapshot glimpse of who they might be and understand them as an individual person.”
Wool agreed, explaining that like any marginalized group, self-identity is really important and correct pronouns and terminology create a space where you can feel safe.
“The more sensitivity to different pronouns expands that definition that there’s not just two [genders] — there’s not just he, there’s not just she,” she said.
“We’ve created [gender] as a way to understand people, and it doesn’t have to have these dire implications for people,” Killermann said. “That benefit is for everybody, it’s for cis-gender people, it’s for trans* people, it’s for non-binary people — it’s a very valuable conversation to have.”
Samantha Guter is a sophomore journalism major who likes to break down social constructions and norms for fun. Email her at sguter1[at]ithaca.edu.