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Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation


Our attractions and identities are powerful and intimate parts of who we are. More and more, people are understanding gender identity and sexual orientation as aspects of life that don’t fit neatly into boxes. This chapter addresses these separate yet intertwined topics that affect our relationships with ourselves, each other, and the world.

Challenging Sex and Gender

Moving beyond the concept of two fixed gender identities is a new challenge for some of us and a very personal story for others.

"Sex" and "gender" are two separate yet connected concepts. Sex is commonly understood to be based on a person’s biological features: the penis, testicles, vagina, uterus, etc., that anatomically define a person as male or female. "Gender" is used in several ways. It may refer to gender roles or expression: the behavioral characteristics considered "masculine" or "feminine" in a particular culture at a particular time. These can range from hair and clothing styles to the way people speak or express emotions. "Gender" may also refer to gender identity: our internal sense of ourselves as man, woman, or transgender (not fitting conventional norms). In mainstream U.S. culture, gender is believed to follow directly from one's sex. In other words, a baby born with a vagina is considered female, called a girl, and expected to grow up to be a woman who acts, dresses, and talks in a "feminine" manner, who dates boys, marries a man, and has children.

Many people challenge the expectation that the genitals we are born with should dictate almost all of our physical, emotional, and psychological attributes. Feminists and others have long objected to strict gender roles that require women to be "feminine" and men to be "masculine." And some people are contesting the idea that our gender identity is inextricably tied to our biological sex and that there are only two genders. What if being a woman isn’t about having a vagina? What if people don’t have to fit neatly into "masculine" or "feminine" boxes? For some of us, how we see ourselves and how others perceive us in the galaxy of masculinity, femininity, and the million points swirling between them cannot be constrained within the two simple categories of man and woman.1
Recently, I have been in the process of informing others of my true gender identity. What I am is androgynous both man and woman. What my birth sex is, is irrelevant. I’m finding . . . that more and more people are saying things like “What sex is . . . he? . . . she?,” though always to friends, never to my face. I’m finding this very pleasing, although I wish people would say it to me. I do take it as a compliment!

Some of us grapple with and analyze our gender; others take our gender for granted. Where does gender come from? Its source may not be the same for all of us. Our race, class, geographical, physical, and sexual identities affect and shape our gender, and it may change over time; some people maintain that gender is not necessarily an identity that remains the same from birth to death.

Some women believe that gender norms should be expanded or eliminated altogether, so that the full range of human behavior is accepted in all people. We may not fit traditional stereotypes of how women should act, yet we still consider ourselves women and question why a particular feeling or experience cannot be a woman’s experience. Other people born with female sexual anatomy want our adoption of a masculine gender identity to be accepted. We, too, may not fit traditional stereotypes of how women should look or act, but we call ourselves transgender. Others of us were born with male sexual anatomy but identify as and want to be recognized as women.

The idea that gender is separate from sex has opened doors for many of us to express ourselves in ways that may conflict with how society dictates we should look and act.

Excerpted from the 2005 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, © 2005, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

1 The idea of a galaxy of gender was previously published by Gordene O. MacKenzie, Fifty Billion Galaxies of Gender: Transgendering the Millennium, in Kate More and Stephen Whittle, eds., Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siecle (New York: Cassell, 1999).


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