For today’s story, we will travel far afield from the typical domains of politics or science or law that have so often provoked our thinking into an often overlooked area of human relations:
To which gender do you belong?
It’s a simple question, or so common sense would tell us—either you’re male, or you’re female.
As it turns out, things aren’t quite so simple, and in today’s conversation we’ll consider this issue in a larger way. By the time we’re done, not only will we learn a thing or two about sex and gender and sexuality, we’ll also learn how to offer a community of people a level of respect that they often find difficult to obtain.
Do you get off casting hexes?
Assuming forms of either sexes
And oh…are you a boy or a girl?
–Imperial Drag, “Boy Or A Girl?”
The best place to start today’s story, I suspect, is with a story.
Regular visitors to this space will recall the recent conversation we had regarding the life and times of Gladys Bentley. The kind folks at the Bilerico Project (“daily experiments in LGBTQ”) asked me to repost at the site, and it was there pointed out to me that I was confusing gender and sexuality at various times in the diary.
It occurred to me that education was the solution here; to that end I located Lifelines Rhode Island’s “TGI/Gender-Spectrum Terminology Guide” (which, unless indicated otherwise, will be the source for the material you see here today). Tobi Hill-Meyer, who also posts at the Bilerico Project, was able to confirm to me that the information here “covers a lot more than most terminology lists I’ve seen”…and with a confirming source in place, I think we’re ready to move forward.
Actually, before we do that…a caveat. Everything that will be presented today is “in flux”. Terminology and attitudes and thinking evolve rapidly in this area, and Ms. Hill-Meyer would tell you to worry less about exact terms and to pay more attention to the general concepts that this discussion incorporates.
The first thing you should know is that biological sex, gender, and sexuality are three completely different things, neither associated with the other. What I mean by that is that an individual might be male, or female, some combination of the two (intersex persons)…or none of the above—but that has no bearing on whether that same person might find themselves sexually attracted to males, or females, or intersex persons…or no one at all.
Let’s start with biological sex.
The human body expresses sex in four different ways, the first being genetic. Genetic males carry an X and a Y chromosome, genetic females two X chromosomes. Intersex persons might have a single X chromosome (known as XO) or some combination of three or more X and Y chromosomes.
“Gonadal” males possess testes, gonadal females possess ovaries; intersex persons might possess undescended testes or streak ovaries.
Those persons who possess testosterone or DHT in the body are “hormonal” males. Estrogen and progesterone are found in hormonal females, and intersex persons might have levels of any of these hormones that are either high or low…or they might not have the “receptors” that allow the body to recognize the hormones that are present.
Morphological sex is expressed by the presence, in males, of the Wolffian duct and a penis. Females will possess a Mullerian duct and a vagina. Intersex persons might possess both a Wolffian and a Mullerian duct or incomplete internal sexual organs—or none of the above—and an enlarged clitoris, a “micro-penis”, or a shallow and fused vagina.
Perception, the folks at Lifelines would tell you, exists in two parts: gender, which is derived from the perception of whether you appear to others to be male or female, and gender identity, which is based on your own perception of yourself as male, female, neither, both, or whatever other label you might choose to attach to your gender identity. The “take-away” from this line of thought is that people are entitled to make their own choices regarding gender identity.
Sexuality, or sexual orientation as it’s used by Lifelines, can be a bit tricky, but it works like this: start with an individual’s chosen gender identity, then proceed to whom they are attracted to. For example, if your gender identity is female, and you are attracted to females, you would be a lesbian. Options include straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual…and pansexual, a term used by those who see more than two sexes—and genders—within the rich tapestry of human existence.
I ought, therefore I am.
–From Immanuel Kant’s “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals”
Everyone still with me on all this?
Good, because now we get to the heart of the matter…the “how to show respect” part…and if you’ve been keeping up, what’s coming next will be fairly simple to grasp.
Mispronounciation is the act of referring to someone with the incorrect personal pronoun—in other words, incorrectly referring to a “he” as a “she”. To avoid this, all you need to do is refer to the individual using the pronouns that match that person’s appearance.
If the person to whom you are speaking is visually expressing their gender as female, that person is referred to as “she”, and vice versa. The fact that the person might not be “passing” in a manner that you find entirely convincing is irrelevant, as is the fact that the person may or may not have had sexual reassignment surgery.
If that same person were to express their gender, on another occasion, as a male, you would refer to the same person as “he”.
In keeping with the admonition to not worry so much about every single term, but instead to make an effort to grasp the concepts presented here, we will not endeavor to define everything on the list; instead touching on just a few terms and explaining why they are important.
“Tranny” is considered offensive and should be avoided.
A “crossdresser” is someone who does not associate their clothing choice with a desire to express as a different gender. In other words, when Rudy Giuliani dresses as a woman—even as he views himself as a man while doing it—that’s crossdressing.
Drag Kings and Drag Queens are entertainers who express themselves in an alternative gender. If the person with whom you are speaking is not on stage at the time…these terms are probably inappropriate.
Transsexual persons are taking hormones and have had sexual reassignment surgery…most of the time. (Some people use the term to describe themselves even though they have not had surgery.) This term is often used within the medical community.
There are some people who do not prefer this term, either because it implies that a mental illness is somehow involved, or because it implies a change of sexuality, as opposed to a change of gender. (You should know that the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”, also known as the “DSM-IV-TR”, does in fact describe Gender Identity Disorder as a mental illness.)
The word transgender, which has been in common use to describe people who are expressing any number of gender options, is considered offensive by some people because it is sometimes used to describe a person’s gender choice, instead of the preferred “he” or “she”.
Androgyne persons do not wish to express a single gender choice, instead choosing to present themselves in a way that blurs the line between male and female. Someone who expresses their gender in this manner might or might not also express their sexuality the same way.
Trans is the currently preferred term to describe people who are…well, trans.
Someone who fits into any of the categories we have described here would be considered a trans person. A trans man would be someone who was female at birth, but is now expressing the gender choice of male; obviously a trans woman would be someone who was designated male at birth and is now expressing the gender choice of female. (“Trans” is a prefix defined as “across, over, or beyond”)
If you fit into none of these categories, but instead are always expressing yourself in the same gender as your birth gender, the term cisgender or cissexual is in current use; this derived from the prefix “cis”, which is defined as “on this side of”.
So what have we learned today?
We learned that there is a community of people who do not find the two gender choices “man” and “woman” representative of all the options available…and we learned that, within that community, there are people who might wish, from time to time, to vary their gender role.
Beyond that, we found out that gender and sexuality are separate and not interrelated, and that a person can change one while not changing the other.
We learned that addressing someone using the gender they have chosen is the best way to show that person respect—and the other thing we should be taking away from this discussion is that terminology changes rapidly, but the larger concepts presented here have more permanence, and over the long term I would expect those concepts to change less than the terminology.
So go forth and have some summer fun…and should the occasion arise, apply these principles, and summer will be more fun for those you meet up with as well.
And who doesn’t love that?