As we grow, we learn how to behave from those around us. In this socialization process, children are introduced to certain roles that are typically linked to their biological sex. The term gender role refers to society’s concept of how men and women are expected to look and how they should behave. These roles are based on norms, or standards, created by society. In U.S. culture, masculine roles are usually associated with strength, aggression, and dominance, while feminine roles are usually associated with passivity, nurturing, and subordination. Role learning starts with socialization at birth. Even today, our society is quick to outfit male infants in blue and girls in pink, even applying these color-coded gender labels while a baby is in the womb.
One way children learn gender roles is through play. Parents typically supply boys with trucks, toy guns, and superhero paraphernalia, which are active toys that promote motor skills, aggression, and solitary play. Daughters are often given dolls and dress-up apparel that foster nurturing, social proximity, and role play. Studies have shown that children will most likely choose to play with “gender appropriate” toys (or same-gender toys) even when cross-gender toys are available because parents give children positive feedback (in the form of praise, involvement, and physical closeness) for gender normative behavior (Caldera, Huston, and O’Brien 1998).
The drive to adhere to masculine and feminine gender roles continues later in life. Men tend to outnumber women in professions such as law enforcement, the military, and politics. Women tend to outnumber men in care-related occupations such as childcare, healthcare (even though the term “doctor” still conjures the image of a man), and social work. These occupational roles are examples of typical U.S. male and female behavior, derived from our culture’s traditions. Adherence to them demonstrates fulfillment of social expectations but not necessarily personal preference (Diamond 2002).
U.S. society allows for some level of flexibility when it comes to acting out gender roles. To a certain extent, men can assume some feminine roles and women can assume some masculine roles without interfering with their gender identity. Gender identity is a person’s deeply held internal perception of his or her gender.
Individuals who identify with the role that is the different from their biological sex are called transgender. Transgender is not the same as homosexual, and many homosexual males view both their sex and gender as male. Transgender males are males who have such a strong emotional and psychological connection to the feminine aspects of society that they identify their gender as female. The parallel connection to masculinity exists for transgender females. It is difficult to determine the prevalence of transgenderism in society. However, it is estimated that two to five percent of the U.S. population is transgender (Transgender Law and Policy Institute 2007).
Transgender individuals who attempt to alter their bodies through medical interventions such as surgery and hormonal therapy—so that their physical being is better aligned with gender identity—are called transsexuals. They may also be known as male-to-female (MTF) or female-to-male (FTM). Not all transgender individuals choose to alter their bodies: many will maintain their original anatomy but may present themselves to society as another gender. This is typically done by adopting the dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, or other characteristic typically assigned to another gender. It is important to note that people who cross-dress, or wear clothing that is traditionally assigned to a gender different from their biological sex, are not necessarily transgender. Cross-dressing is typically a form of self-expression, entertainment, or personal style, and it is not necessarily an expression against one’s assigned gender (APA 2008).
There is no single, conclusive explanation for why people are transgender. Transgender expressions and experiences are so diverse that it is difficult to identify their origin. Some hypotheses suggest biological factors such as genetics or prenatal hormone levels as well as social and cultural factors such as childhood and adulthood experiences. Most experts believe that all of these factors contribute to a person’s gender identity (APA 2008).
After years of controversy over the treatment of sex and gender in the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (Drescher 2010), the most recent edition, DSM-5, responds to allegations that the term “Gender Identity Disorder” is stigmatizing by replacing it with “Gender Dysphoria.” Gender Identity Disorder as a diagnostic category stigmatized the patient by implying there was something “disordered” about them. Gender Dysphoria, on the other hand, removes some of that stigma by taking the word “disorder” out while maintaining a category that will protect patient access to care, including hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. In the DSM-5, Gender Dysphoria is a condition of people whose gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with. For a person to be diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria, there must be a marked difference between the individual’s expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her, and it must continue for at least six months. In children, the desire to be of the other gender must be present and verbalized. This diagnosis is now a separate category from sexual dysfunction and paraphilia, another important part of removing stigma from the diagnosis (APA 2013).
Changing the clinical description may contribute to a larger acceptance of transgender people in society. Studies show that people who identify as transgender are twice as likely to experience assault or discrimination as nontransgender individuals; they are also one and a half times more likely to experience intimidation (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs 2010; Giovanniello 2013). Organizations such as the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs and Global Action for Trans Equality work to prevent, respond to, and end all types of violence against transgender, transsexual, and homosexual individuals. These organizations hope that by educating the public about gender identity and empowering transgender and transsexual individuals, this violence will end.
Real-Life Freaky Friday
What if you had to live as a sex you were not biologically born to? If you are a man, imagine that you were forced to wear frilly dresses, dainty shoes, and makeup to special occasions, and you were expected to enjoy romantic comedies and daytime talk shows. If you are a woman, imagine that you were forced to wear shapeless clothing, put only minimal effort into your personal appearance, not show emotion, and watch countless hours of sporting events and sports-related commentary. It would be pretty uncomfortable, right? Well, maybe not. Many people enjoy participating in activities, whether they are associated with their biological sex or not, and would not mind if some of the cultural expectations for men and women were loosened.
Now, imagine that when you look at your body in the mirror, you feel disconnected. You feel your genitals are shameful and dirty, and you feel as though you are trapped in someone else’s body with no chance of escape. As you get older, you hate the way your body is changing, and, therefore, you hate yourself. These elements of disconnect and shame are important to understand when discussing transgender individuals. Fortunately, sociological studies pave the way for a deeper and more empirically grounded understanding of the transgender experience.
For more information on gender identity and advocacy for transgender individuals see the Global Action for Trans Equality website.
Watch the following video to think more about the social construct of gender:
Think It Over
How is children’s play influenced by gender roles? Think back to your childhood. How “gendered” were the toys and activities available to you? Do you remember gender expectations being conveyed through the approval or disapproval of your playtime choices?
1. The term _______ refers to society’s concept of how men and women are expected to act and how they should behave.
- gender role
- gender bias
- sexual orientation
- sexual attitudes
- a cross-dresser
- It is strictly biological and associated with chemical imbalances in the brain.
- It is a behavior that is learned through socializing with other transgender individuals.
- It is genetic and usually skips one generation.
- Currently, there is no definitive explanation for transgenderism.
- gender dysphoria:
- a condition listed in the DSM-5 in which people whose gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with. This condition replaces “gender identity disorder”
- gender identity:
- a person’s deeply held internal perception of his or her gender
- gender role:
- society’s concept of how men and women should behave
- a term that refers to social or cultural distinctions of behaviors that are considered male or female
- an adjective that describes individuals who identify with the behaviors and characteristics that are other than their biological sex
- transgender individuals who attempt to alter their bodies through medical interventions such as surgery and hormonal therapy
Self-Check: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
You’ll have more success on the Self-Check, if you’ve completed the three Readings in this section.