When I first started writing the blog series on “Parenting LGB Teens,” a lot of people asked, “Where’s the T?” T, in this acronym, stands for transgender, and I decided to keep it for a separate series. Our knowledge of transgender health, challenges and treatment is relatively new, and many people are less familiar with transgender issues than with gay/lesbian/bisexual issues. This series will focus on transgender issues in general, and transgender adolescents in particular.
Before we discuss transgender, we have to discuss gender. And to discuss gender, we have to discuss biological sex.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that people have one of two biological sexes: male and female. Males have XY chromosomes, male reproductive organs, and male secondary sex characteristics like facial hair and a lower voice. Females have XX chromosomes, female reproductive organs, and female secondary sex characteristics such as breasts and hips. This is a very basic way of looking at biological sex: as two buckets, and people go into one or the other. (Please note this is a simplification, and the truth is much more complicated.)
Now let’s look at gender. Gender, according to the World Health Organization, is “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”
Notice that there’s nothing in there about chromosomes, organs, and the like. Gender is an expression of one’s masculinity or femininity. Babies are not born with a gender, although one could argue that as soon as someone pops a pink or blue hat on their heads, they have one (even if they didn’t have much of a choice.) It is more useful in our society to look at gender as a spectrum, with male at one end and female at the other. Something like this:
On the far right is the most masculine person you can imagine; perhaps a sweaty man in a loincloth hunting a bear. On the far left is the most feminine person you can imagine: a devoted mother of ten that wears fluffy pink dresses and loves crying and teddy bears.
I would venture that none of us are on the far ends of this spectrum, nor would we want to be. Existence would be stifling were we forced strictly be “manly” or “womanly” all the time. Maybe the bear hunter wants to take a relaxing hot bath and drink herbal tea. Maybe the devoted mother wants to put on an old pair of jeans and fix the car.
Take me, for example. I am a woman and I am comfortable in my body, but I also have short hair, prefer pants, and lift weights. My society seems fine with my gender expression, even though it incorporates some traditionally male aspects. In a different society, I might be ostracized for some of my more “masculine” traits. Gender norms are put into place by different societies, and each culture has different parameters and expectations for expression.
While we often feel like certain gender expressions are “natural,” many- some argue all- are not. For example, in Western culture pink used to be considered the appropriate color for boys, and blue for girls. It was completely appropriate for men to cry in public if they felt emotion. Careers that were once stereotypically masculine or feminine have broadened their scope; a male nurse or female engineer is no longer an anomaly in Western society.
So that is a my short discussion of sex and gender. Next week we’ll discuss what transgender means, what it doesn’t mean, and look at some societies that challenge the notion of two genders being the “obvious” way to go.
Thoughts, questions, comments?