Biological sex, gender, and sexual orientation are three separate concepts that are sometimes confused in discussions of gender.
Biological sex – or just sex – refers to the chromosomal and physical structures that make us male or female. Even at this basic physical level we see individuals who do not conform to binary expectations, such as hermaphrodites, intersex individuals, and people born with chromosomal abnormalities such as Turner Syndrome (WHO).
Gender identity is the internal sense a person has of themselves as a woman or man, girl or boy. In more recent times, we’ve paid more attention to those who do not conform to standard gender expectations held in mainstream cultures thus far. Gender non-conforming people exist in many positions on the gender spectrum: from agender – those with the sense of having no gender – to those who feel they have traits of both genders, who may identify as androgynous, pangender, or non-binary. Some dislike gender labels and prefer neutral pronouns for various reasons. Some experience their gender expression as more changeable, and may call themselves gender fluid and adopt different dress or mannerisms as they wish. Some people are transgender, where they feel they were born with the wrong biological sex, a condition defined in the DSM-V as Gender Identity Disorder. Of these, some opt to shift their identity through adopting a new name, preferred pronouns, and a new mode of dress and gender presentation. Other transgender individuals experience Gender Dysphoria, intense chronic dissatisfaction with their bodies, and in particular the traits of their biological sex. People with gender dysphoria experience acute distress about the ways their physical forms defy their sense of themselves, and some take medical and cosmetic measures of varying degrees to align their bodies with their felt gender.
Gender roles are the range of behaviors expected by society from a given gender, and gender typing is the process children go through of learning about society’s expectations about gender roles and the traits people of each gender “should” exhibit. When we make assumptions about how a person will behave and what they will be good at or prefer based on their apparent sex, we are gender stereotyping them. Gender stereotypes are limiting and harmful to everyone involved: they put pressure on us to limit the range of emotional expression allowed to males and to devalue the social and emotional work expected of females, to name just two specific far-reaching examples.
Furthermore, the near universal assumption of a gender binary that exists for males and females, where each gender is “known” to have opposite abilities or inclinations, is demonstrably false. The observable reality is that many traits we think of as being gendered are in fact universal human traits that vary in a natural bell curve for men, women, and everyone in between. Men are on average statistically stronger than women in objective comparisons, but the overall strength curves are very close to each other on a graph – in reality some women are stronger than some men and vice versa (Harwood 513).
Sexual orientation is a matter of who we are emotionally, romantically, and sexually attracted to and with whom we interact intimately and sexually. Kinsey’s research using extensive interviews and the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale showed that sexual orientation also exists on a spectrum, with homosexual and heterosexual behaviors ranging from zero, or completely heterosexual, to six, or completely homosexual (Kinsey Institute). There is considerable evidence that most human traits exist on a spectrum, including gender identity and sex characteristics. Keeping these ideas in mind as they apply to gender and sexual orientation and in light of the enormous pressures to conform in society, it’s likely non-conforming people are a somewhat larger portion of our population than surveys indicate.
Gender non-conforming people and everyone else on the LGBTQ spectrum are at greatly increased risk for depression, suicide, murder, and assault. Even if non-conforming people manage these risks, we clearly face enormous stress from living in a culture with so much built in friction and marginalization. This creates tremendous harm over time and reduces the odds of a healthy, fulfilling, and productive life. The assumptions, stereotypes, and discrimination faced by people who do not conform to expectations from society about gender identity or sexual orientation – or both – pose a serious threat to mental and physical health and overall well being and productivity.
For those of us who do not conform, we should be mindful of our emotional well being and choose our companions and behaviors carefully to cultivate our greatest possible mental and physical health and resilience.