Let’s Talk About Sex … and Gender
Right now there is a great deal of anger about the topic of sex and gender. As with most things that cause this amount of upset, clear definitions and knowledge can help us get to the root of the problem and start finding real solutions.
In this essay, I will be discussing the many definitions of the words “sex” and “gender”, how they work together and against each other, and most importantly, how they interact with society, religion, and the law. While I can not give you all the answers, the information can help all of us finally move forward in making the world understand our differences and accept them.
This topic is complicated. It is especially complicated by the fact that for generations, sex and gender were considered interchangeable, so we as a society have never learned the difference between them. These differences are fundamental to changing the way we think, how we act, and how our laws are written and enforced.
Until the past decade or so, sex and gender were always talked about as being the same thing. Male or female was your sex AND your gender, intersexed persons were forced into one of these two categories, and nobody really questioned that approach.
Despite the fact that we have been aware of genetic differences that do not fit this binary mold, as well as the many different trans persons, for decades (or really centuries if you take into account the many stories, traditions, and artworks that suggest trans persons), we never considered the implications of not working hard to keep these two things from being interchangeable.
We will get deeper into the many and varied definitions in the next couple of sections, but the very basic fact of the matter is that sex is a physical characteristic while gender is a psychological one, and when they don’t match up exactly we get one of several groups in our beloved community. Transgender, transsexual, transvestite, gender fluid, non-binary, and more… these are all the result of the physical not matching the mental within the same body.
In other words – Sex is physical… it is body parts and chromosomes. Gender is psychological… it is entirely mental and emotional.
The very first step is to stop using these terms interchangeably.
Things start getting really murky when you realize that there is more than one force trying to define these words for us. The word “sex” has definitions in science, the law, and society, and they don’t always have anything to do with each other.
Genetic science currently recognizes 6 different sexes but has named only two (Male and Female). The other possible sexes, which are known (if rare) mixtures of these two main genetic sexes, are included under the term Intersexed.
Biological science also recognizes Male, Female, and Intersexed. Instead of using the genes to decide this, however, biology looks at the reproductive organs and some secondary sexual characteristics to decide the sex of a person. Having only male organs/characteristics makes you biologically male, same for biologically female, while having some or all of both male and female organs/characteristics defines you as biologically intersexed, which used to be called Hermaphadite.
Society tends to believe that a persons sex has a specific set of strength, weaknesses, attitudes, and behaviors. Men have their place. Women have their place. What those places are changes from culture to culture, but within each society there are rules, and most people simply follow them because it does not contradict who and what they are all that much.
The law further complicates things by creating an even more solid idea of what is male and what is female based solely on the body parts of the person being discussed. While this is slowly starting to change, until only a few short years ago, the law – state, local, or federal – did not care what you thought or felt, only whether you had a penis or a vagina.
So what happens when your mind tells you that your body, science, society, AND the law are all completely wrong about who YOU are?
For the majority of any society, it is hard to understand how your body could say you are female, but your mind tells you that you are male. It becomes even more difficult for that majority to understand that sometimes your mind thinks you’re male while others it believes you’re female, or that your mind rejects both male and female and just flat feels “other”. The “average” brain simply matches the body that contains it.
As close as the majority could come is to remember your teen years, that time in your life when you didn’t know what to do with all the raging hormones, your body sometimes felt like it did not belong to you, when your emotions were out of control. Imagine that feeling, how horrifying and uncomfortable it was… now imagine that you felt that way before puberty hit you, then you felt that way PLUS having puberty.
Now imagine that all of that never went away. It never ended. You have spent your entire life fighting to find the balance between your mind and your body, struggling to control yourself and failing no matter how hard you try. Now add on the fact that you have people calling you a liar, a fake, a freak. Others telling you to get over it. Still others telling you that you are going to hell, you’re a sinner, you’re disgusting. No one in your life believes that you have a real problem, they consider you a drama queen, a whiner, an attention whore.
On top of all of that, for most of you enduring this struggle, being attacked from all sides – your family is going to disown you completely… or make you wish they had. They will kick you out of the house, never talk to you again, or, if you are really unfortunate, they will force you into abusive programs that will drug you, keep you from sleeping, deprive you of food and water, bombard you with images and sounds, beat you, and verbally harass you until you are “fixed”. And you will be “fixed”, or at the very least you will be in such terror for your own life and sanity that you fake “fixed”, probably for the rest of your life.
Oh… and one more thing. If you accidentally manage to survive all of that and make it out into the world at large, you only think you now have the freedom to be yourself. There are strangers who will stop you on the street to harass and abuse you. There are strangers that will beat you to the point of a hospital stay because their friends saw them hanging out with you and teased them. There are strangers who will murder you because you looked in their direction across the bar. Every person you meet for the rest of your life could be one of these people.
That’s right… your existence is now an everyday life or death struggle to reclaim your body, mind, and soul.
That is as close as any member of the majority will ever get to understanding Gender Dysphoria.
It is time to reject that a person’s gender has anything to do with their genetic or biological sex. Gender is a psychological state, a matter of the mind and the emotions. The sooner we reclaim gender as a separate entity from sex, the sooner that the law and society can start adjusting to include our trans and other gendered members as valuable and as equals.
And here is where religious teachings tend to rear up and start causing problems. As with every generation struggling to understand the nature of their chosen God(s) and/or Goddess(es), people tend to read their religious texts in accordance with their own personal understanding of the universe at large. That means that our own biases often shade anything we come in contact with, and the shade on religious texts tends to be pretty deep, considering the number of hands (and biases) any text of that age passes through before we actually get to read it.
As I sit here at age 42 in 2018, I can tell you that in my childhood, teens, and early adulthood “trans” ONLY meant crossdressers, drag queens, funny flamboyant men in dresses that made me jealous cause I’d never look that good or sing that well… I did not know until much later in my life that there were people out there that had the mind of one sex and the body of the other, and only in the past few years was I introduced to the idea that there are people that feel BOTH OR NEITHER gender, no matter what their physical body says about them.
So, if I – being only 42 years old – had no clue for at least the first half of my life of these sex vs gender issues and am still working out how to appropriately deal with these new gender concepts… how likely is it that the writers of centuries-old texts would have a strong hold on those concepts? What are the chances that God, Jesus, Zeus, Hera, Budda or Mohamad (or any of their reporters/followers/apostles) used “he” and “she” or “man” and “woman” and even paused to have a thought that sex and gender might be two separate issues when they used those words?
I would suggest that no long-standing (older than 50 years) religious text in existence says anything about gender because no religious writer had a concept of gender as a psychological state that might differ from sex. I would also suggest that while religious texts can be helpful in many ways even to those with gender issues, they need to be read in the proper context. We must remember that even 50 years ago the idea of “gender fluid” “agender” or “transgender” as we understand them now simply did not exist, there is no way that they were specifically included in texts that are hundreds or thousands of years old.
Sex and gender are not easy issues. Not for those who have a gender difference, and not for those that have lived their whole life with the understanding that sex and gender were the same thing and had no reason to question that “fact”.
It is a maddening, and horribly sad, fact that humans do not deal well with change that they themselves do not cause to happen. Being forced to give up something you knew was true to something you don’t understand is difficult, even for those that are truly willing to try.
For those that really need the change to happen, the agonizingly slow pace at which anything changes can seem like a crushing weight on your chest, slowly suffocating you, killing you. Being forced to live as someone or something that does not represent you is a torture that should never be done to anyone.
This struggle of needs – the need to resist change and the need to hurry change – causes a lot of tension, and that tension shows up in some very strange places. There is literally a war over the words “they” and “them”. On side having so much trouble dealing with a lifetime of teachings that they and them are plural, the other side desperately needing to be recognized as gender-different AND a human being.
I believe there is a solution. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I believe there is one. And I believe we start finding it by all parties recognizing the needs of the other, truly recognize those needs with empathy. It starts with the little things… one example being “them” and “they”, and all the other pronouns.
If you are asked to use “them” and “they”, use them, it’s really that simple. Use the pronouns others ask you to refer to them by. And it’s not just them and they, that goes for ze, he, and she too. It’s such a small thing to you for them to ask to be recognized in that way, with one or two little words, but for the person asking, it can be a sanity-saving breath of fresh air for just one person to remember and use the right pronoun.
And on the other side, please remember that when you ask others to use “them” and “they”, you are asking someone to change their entire education and lifetime of knowledge… some are going to forget, and some will have trouble remembering to use a pronoun that does not match the visual before them. Most of those that forget really mean no disrespect, they are simply programmed by years of education and it takes time and effort and repeated use in order to change that program. Just keep telling them, kindly, when they slip up.
Just a tiny bit of respect for others, just a few consistent and gentle reminders…
That is how real and positive change starts.