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Gender Identity: Why Terminology Matters

When I think of sexuality, I see it as being on a spectrum. However, I now also see gender as being on a spectrum. When I think about gender, I no longer see just “male” and “female.”  Having the experience of my young cousin coming out as transgender and a friend as genderqueer, I now understand that there are many dimensions of gender. These dimensions are body,  identity, and social gender. 

Body dimensions are our experience with our own body. Male and female bodies are more complex than we realized. Some bodies do not fit either category, such as intersex bodies. Intersex are people born with chromosomes patterns, gonads, or genitalia that are not typical binary notions of male or female. I watched a documentary about twins who were born assigned male. One twin was born intersex, so the parents and the doctor decided to assign them as female.  In the past, the doctors and their parents made this choice of gender of an intersex child. Today parents are letting intersex children choose their gender. An intersex body shows that gender exists across a spectrum of possibilities. Bodies are gendered by cultural expectations of what is masculine and what is feminine. Being a Cuban cisgender male, I am expected to have “machismo,” be the provider, protector, and aggressive. A cisgender Cuban female is expected to cook, clean the house, and take care of the children. Even if she is a doctor and works in the hospital all day, these expectations still apply. So in Cuban culture, if you are attracted to a transgender or genderqueer person, you are considered less than a man. 

Having a transgender cousin whose parents are a same-gender couple,  her parents had a hard time with the loss of their daughter. They felt that all their dreams for their daughter died when they came out as transgender. However, seeing them thrive as the boy he always knew he was, they now see him as the daughter they never knew they wanted. They now let people know they have a daughter and a son, and they do not entertain society’s norms of what is male and female. 

Gender Identity is the internal experience of naming how you identify. It can correspond with what you are assigned at birth, or it could be something different. The understanding of our gender usually comes early in life. About age four, most children have a good sense of their gender. Gender identity is an intricate part of our makeup. People have no control over their gender and cannot change it. However, the words used to express our gender identity are evolving, and naming our gender can be complicated and dynamic. What language we use to name our gender was always limited. It was just “boy” or “girl” (or man and women). Often these are the only two genders that people will recognize. However, now we have more language to the dimensions of gender identity. 

Agender is someone who does not identify as any gender. 

Cisgender is a person that identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth. 

FTM meaning female-to-male. Female-to-male is a person assigned female at birth that is transitioning to become a male by taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT). FTM may choose to have top surgery to help with gender dysphoria. However, some choose not to have any surgeries and do not take HRT drugs but still identify as male. 

MTF meaning male-to-female. Like FTM, a male-to-female is a person who is assigned male at birth but identifies as a female. While transitioning, they will use HRT drugs. Being MTF is very dangerous for women of color as they are more likely to be harassed, assaulted, or murdered for being who they are. 

Genderqueer is an umbrella term used to describe someone who does not identify with conventional gender identities, roles, expressions, or expectations. For some, genderqueer is a non-binary identification, and for others, it is not. 

Genderfluid is when a person interchanges between genders. They may present as a female one day and a male the next. Genderqueer people experience their gender as dynamic and changing, and they do not see gender as static. 

These are just a few types of language we are now using to describe how we identify in the gender spectrum. We should not look at someone and assume their gender. If you don’t know, use they/them pronouns.

Social gender is the third dimension of expressing ourselves to society through clothing, hair, and mannerism. It is also how individuals, communities, and society try to attempt to alter our gender. Gender roles and expectations and how society exploits them to adhere to contemporary gender norms are part of social gender. I have a friend who is genderqueer. They use they/them and she/her pronouns. They dress very “androgynously” and are always mistaken for a cisgender male because they feel more comfortable in male-identified clothing and cut their hair short. They have a child, and people ask them how they are raising their child. They always say, “to be a great human being who does not judge people on what they see.”   

Everything is assigned a gender; some examples are toys, clothing, and colors (blue for boys and pink for girls). Children are taught gender from the time they are born, with the narrow stereotypes of binary gender. Expectations of gender are communicated throughout life. Some examples are from family, religion, and media. The good news is that this is changing. Some businesses now ask a person’s pronouns, and other cultures such as Australia, Mexico, and Native Americans recognized characteristics in gender such as “brother boys” and “sister girls” in Australia, Muxe in Southern Mexico, and “two spirits” in Native American culture. The rich diversity of gender has always existed. It is not a new phenomenon but rather a new conversation in which many are only just now engaging in. 

Pedro Segura-Moore, BA

Psychotherapist

CORE - Center of Relational Empowerment, PC

[email protected]

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