There’s been some controversy about gender identity lately. Laverne Cox, well-known for her role as Sophia Burset in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, is a transgender woman–meaning she was born biologically male, but identifies as a woman. She plays a transgender woman in OINTB and actively speaks against transphobia. Personally, I love OINTB. I have never seen such a progressive show in…well, never. Not only does it address trangender issues, but homophobia, gender inequality, racism, etc.
As someone who identifies as both gender fluid, gender identity and the controversy over it is very close to my heart, so I’m making this post as a means to clarify some of the misconceptions around gender identity. And don’t worry. I’ll clarify all the jargon I use here.
(I am by no means an expert on this issue. Most of this is from personal experience.)
1. What is gender identity?
Gender identity is simply an individual’s personal concept and/or experience of their gender. Don’t confuse this with “sex.” Sex is an individual’s biological classification, namely male or female.
2. What is “transgender” and “cisgender”?
“Transgender” is a term to describe when someone’s sex and gender identity don’t match in the binary system.
Example: Jane was born male, but she identifies as a woman. She is transgender.
“Cisgender” is a term to describe when someone’s sex and gender identity match in the binary system.
Example: John was born male, and he identifies as a man. He is cisgender.
3. What is a “binary system”?
I’m sure you’ve noticed that a majority of societies have a rigid system of classifying people as either man or woman. This is called a “binary system” of gender classification because there are only two classes (bi- meaning two).
4. What about people who don’t identify as either man or woman?
This is where it gets sort of…wibbly-wobbly-gendy-bendy. I think America and several other societies are becoming more aware that a great many people don’t fit the binary system we have. We would call these people non-binary, and their identities can range from multiple genders (2+) to no gender (agender). And most, if not all, of the people I know in my life–friend or otherwise–have times when they feel less and/or more masculine/feminine. Gender is much more flexible than many of us want or care to acknowledge.
5. What is “genderqueer” and “gender fluidity”?
“Genderqueer” is an umbrella term for people who don’t fit the binary system. This includes everything from multiple-gender to agender. Another term for someone who doesn’t fit the system is “non-binary.”
“Gender fluidity” fits under “genderqueer,” but it’s something of an unusual identity, in that it describes someone who shifts between genders (sometimes from day to day). I identify as gender fluid, which is a strange experience in this society.
Example: One day when I was ten, I rejected all the dresses and skirts in my closet. I didn’t know where my sudden hatred for the clothes had come from, but it just wasn’t ME. So I put on a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a baseball cap, and started playing soccer with the guys, feeling that I was more masculine than feminine (regardless of what everyone else said). This masculine feeling wouldn’t last. A couple days later, I’d be playing with dolls and trying to figure out make-up. And years later, I still wouldn’t know I was gender fluid because everyone kept relating to me as a woman. Because I have curves, 32 H bra size, and an average 5’6″ height. But there are days when all I want is to wear my baggy cargo pants, a hoodie, no make-up, and sit without crossing my legs. Just as there are days when I want to wear a dress and heels and make my face a work of art.
6. What does gender identity have to do with sexual orientation?
Absolutely nothing. Gender identity concerns an individual’s personal experience of their gender. Sexual orientation concerns an individual’s sexual attraction to another gender. The only reason you would consider both of them at the same time is when you’re determining which gender is attracted to which.
Jane is a cisgender female. She’s heterosexual, so she’s attracted to men.
John is a transgender female. He is heterosexual, so he’s attracted to women.
Anna is a cisgender female. She is bisexual, so she’s attracted to men and women and (possibly) non-binaries.
Jack is a transgender female. He is pansexual, so he’s attracted to men and women and non-binaries.
Taylor is a transgender male. She is asexual, so she’s not attracted to men nor women nor non-binaries.
Concerning agender people, who don’t identify as any gender, you’d have to ask them their preference for men, women, non-binary, or none. They may relate their orientation to their sex (e.g. an agender male identifying as a homosexual because they’re attracted to men). Of course, if you do ask someone their gender and/or sexual orientation please do so respectfully and in private. Under no circumstances should you out them. Doing so can occasionally be life-threatening.
7. So why all the controversy?
I don’t really have an answer for this. There’s a lot of hate toward us in the genderqueer community. The only reason I haven’t dealt with that hate full-on is because I tend to present myself as a woman and use feminine pronouns for myself. (Mostly because I still haven’t found what I’m comfortable with, and there’s a certain safety that comes with hiding behind my sex.) I have many other genderqueer friends who have dealt firsthand with the hatred toward us. One of my transgender friends was harassed so much in school that she tried to commit suicide and thankfully failed.
There’s something disturbing to others about the idea that someone doesn’t conform to the norm, that they’d dare be different. I really don’t understand this hate. It’s absolutely baffling to me that someone could want to hurt or even kill another human being just because that person isn’t who popular culture says they should be. (I mean, I don’t like asparagus, but I’m not going to go around burning down all the farms that produce asparagus.) And I’m sure this hate runs much deeper than simply being repulsed by things that don’t fit the norm. I’m sure this hate has more to do with the hater’s reluctance to introspect, for fear of finding the thing they hate in themselves.
There was a boy in my school who called me a dyke every time he saw me. I shrugged it off because getting called a dyke was hardly the worst insult I got in my everyday life, and about halfway into the school year, his friend caught him doing the horizontal monster-mash with another guy. The rumors blew up, and eventually I did, too. When two of the guy’s former friends were talking shit to the guy in front of him, I lost my shit and yelled at them for at least two full minutes before they got annoyed with me and stalked off. So there I was with a guy who’d called me a dyke for half a year, and he just stared at me with these sad fucking eyes. I swallowed my pride, gave him information for an LGBT youth center, and traded numbers with him. And we’re still friends to this day.
Everyone’s different and facing their own battles. So don’t make it worse.
Here’s a video that sums up gender fluidity quite nicely.