In Western society, gender and sex are presented as synonymous, static concepts. I remember viewing pictures of a Girls and Boys Day that a friend took at the private pre-school his children attended. As you can do doubt guess, the girls were dressed in pretty pastel coloured frocks, wore tiaras, had tea and pastries. The boys rough and tumbled it outside in the yard, made toy vehicles with juice boxes, and ran around in their pants and shirts. It was a clear, if extremely limited, example of Jamaica’s take on gender: what is to be feminine vs masculine. It’s social.
Sex seems simpler. We are born, the doctors identify us as male or female by our external sex organs: penis or vulva (the outer part of the vagina). As we physically develop, our chromosomal and hormonal make-up will cooperate, and we’ll have the deepening voices or growing breasts that our parents, peers and general society expects. We take off from there, everything aligned from birth to death, with space for little variation.
That is a popular perception but it is not the reality. Our understanding of gender and sex is evolving but there are many facts that we do know.
Biological sex includes external and internal sex organs, as well as sex chromosomes and hormones. Some persons internal structure may not match the external. Others may be born with ambiguous genitalia: neither obviously male nor female. For others, such variations aren’t detectable until puberty. It’s not really a surprise to learn that, biologically, humans fall along a spectrum. For those who fall somewhere along the middle of the spectrum, the catch-all term is “intersex”.
For many of us how we feel and think about our gender matches our biological sex. For many, it doesn’t. It is even possible that one may not feel wholly male or female. This is called our gender identity. Transgender persons most obviously fall under this concept. One does not have to be intersex to be a transgender person.
How we present our gender to society is called gender expression. One may identify as a man but behave or dress like a woman as it is understood by one’s particular culture. We all express ourselves as a particular gender, to varying degrees. Gender identity is internal while gender expression is external.
Finally, there is our sexual orientation: who we are sexually and romantically attracted to. Those attracted to the opposite gender are heterosexual. (By this definition, a transgender man attracted to a woman would consider it a heterosexual relationship.) Those attracted to the same gender are homosexuals. Pansexuals are those who are attracted to all persons regardless of gender.
Here’s a useful visual aid for illustrating what’s known as the gender spectrum. Imagine it as a numbered scale from 10 – 0, left to right. Spend some time to consider where you would fall. (Feel free to share in comments!)
Female <————————————–> Male
Woman <————————————–> Man
Feminine <————————————-> Masculine
Heterosexual <————————————–> Homosexual
All of this may be confusing at first. Learning a new language about how we relate to each other can be a hurdle for LGBTQI persons as well :-). It establishes how complex and beautiful an experience it is to be human. We excel at envisioning different ways to be on the earth. This is our right — and it’s a pretty harmless way of exercising it! However, we are aware of how others see this as disruptive, chaotic and “against nature”. Transgender, more so than other groups, bear the brunt of this stigma. TransWave is focused on presenting this trans* experience in all its complexity.