Gender Identity in Everyday Life

Brief

Gender identity is one’s sense of one’s own gender. It is the result of socialization, but it also has a biological basis.

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss the difference between biological and social construction of gender identity

Key Takeaways

  • Gender identity is typically perceived as binary – individuals are expected to exclusively identify either as male or female, and to have a gender identity that aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth. However, some individuals have gender identities that do not align with their assigned sex.
  • Individuals whose gender identity aligns with their assigned sex are said to be cisgender. Transgender individuals are those whose gender identity does not align with their assigned sex.
  • Gender identity discourse derives from medical, social, and psychological conceptions of gender. There is vigorous debate over biological versus environmental causes of the development of one’s gender identity.
  • As gender identity disputes gain more social attention, new legal frontiers are opening on the basis that a male/female gender binary, as written into the law, discriminates against individuals whose existence is not acknowledged by the binary construct of gender.
  • Cultural variations in notions of gender indicate the socially constructed nature of gender identity.

Key Terms

  • Gender Binary – a view of gender whereby people are categorized exclusively as either male or female, often basing gender on their external genitalia.
  • Transgender – not identifying with culturally conventional gender roles and categories of male or female; having a gender identity that does not align with one’s assigned sex; having a gender identity that aligns with elements of both male and female, with neither male nor female elements, or having some other gender identity.
  • Cisgender – identifying with or experiencing a gender the same as one’s assigned sex, or that is affirmed by society, e.g. being both male-gendered and male-assigned.

Full Text

Gender identity is one’s sense of being masculine, feminine, a combination of both, or neither. Gender identity is typically seen as a binary – individuals are expected to exclusively identify either as male or female. However, some individuals have a gender identity that does not fit the binary construction of gender. These individuals might have gender identities that are a third gender or a mix of masculine and feminine genders, or their gender identity may be that they have no gender at all. Gender identity is socially constructed, yet it still pertains to one’s sense of self. Gender identity is not only about how one perceives one’s own gender, but also about how one presents one’s gender to the public, because one’s gender identity helps individuals determine their gender expression.

Cisgender and Transgender

Individuals whose gender identity aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth are said to be cisgender. Transgender individuals are those whose gender identity does not align with their assigned gender. (Gender assigned at birth is assigned based on the infant’s external genitalia, which is an incomplete measurement of a person’s sex since it does not include internal organs, chromosomal structures, or hormonal interactions, all of which influence a person’s sex.) Some transgender people require surgeries (called gender reassignment surgery) and hormone therapies in order to better match their gender identity to their socially perceived sex because, as humans are basically social animals, social acceptance is extremely important to our health. However, not all transgender people require physical changes to their bodies. Some might not need to undergo any changes at all, or they might need only some changes (such as undergoing hormone therapy, but not gender reassignment surgery). Recently, there has been growing recognition of people who are genderqueer. These are individuals whose gender identity does not match their assigned gender because their gender identity simply does not fit within the current social construction of gender at all. Their gender might be changeable, not static (this is called being genderfluid), or it is a third gender which is neither masculine or feminine, or they are both masculine and feminine, or they have no gender at all (this is called being agender).

Causes of Differences between Gender Identity and Assigned Gender

What causes individuals to sense a difference between their socially assigned gender and their gender identity? This question is hotly contested, with no clear answer. Some things, though, are certain: genetic regulation, hormone activity, and socialization all play roles in a person’s gender identity and gender expression. Biologically, gender is a function of sex, meaning that the genetic regulation and hormone activities that determine our sex also influence our gender identity. Scientists have not yet determined the exact extent of that influence, but it is agreed that gender is primarily a biological function. Still, socialization does have a role in how a person interacts with their own gender identity, which can influence how they perceive and express their gender. When an individual’s gender identity does not match their socially assigned gender, the socialization they receive will often indicate to the individual that there is something ‘wrong’ with their gender, which can impact their ability to understand and express their gender identity in socially accepted ways.

Gender Identities and Law

As gender identity disputes gain more social attention, new legal frontiers are opening on the basis that a male/female gender binary, as written into the law, discriminates against individuals whose gender identity is not acknowledged as real by the binary construct of gender. On college campuses, gender-restrictive dorm housing if facing opposition by individuals whose gender identity is neither ‘man’ nor ‘woman,’ but is genderqueer, genderfluid, third gender, or agender. Many public spaces and workplaces are instituting gender-neutral bathroom facilities. Gender identity has become a piece of international law as a branch of human rights doctrines. The Yogyakarta Principles, drafted by international legal scholars in 2006, provides a definition of gender identity in its preamble. In the Principles, “gender identity” refers to each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the person’s sense of the body and other expressions of gender.

Gender Identities across Cultures

Gender identities, and the social constructs of gender identity, vary across cultures. Though most cultures use a variation of the gender-as-binary construct, the malleability of that binary varies. In some Polynesian societies, fa’afafine are considered to be a third gender alongside male and female. Fa’afafine individuals are accepted as a natural gender and typically experience less social ostracism than transgender individuals in other cultures. They are assigned male at birth based on the appearance of their external genitalia, but their gender expression (how they dress and behave) aligns with the social norms Polynesians typically consider female. In the Indian subcontinent, a hijra is usually considered to be neither male nor female. The hijra are a third gender, although they do not enjoy the same acceptance and respect as cisgender individuals. These cultural variations in notions of gender indicate the socially constructed nature of gender identity.


Men in Montreal Dressed in Drag
The image above exemplifies the subjective and personal understanding people have of their own gender identities.

Source: Boundless. “Gender Identity in Everyday Life.” Sociology – Cochise College Boundless, 08 Aug. 2016. Retrieved 27 Feb. 2017 from https://www.boundless.com/users/493555/textbooks/sociology-cochise-college/gender-stratification-and-inequality-11/gender-and-socialization-86/gender-identity-in-everyday-life-497-10211/

Source: “Drag queens.”
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dragqueens.jpg
Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0.