Some people talk of a gnawing dissatisfaction inside themselves, while others try to pass off their interest in nail polish and flowers as just trying to find other ways to be masculine. Similarly, some people try to laugh off their interest in dapper fashion or short hair as more practical; but of course, they're still women.
While these signs may not mean that the person is transgender or another gender identity, it can be a sign that the person is fully aware of gendered expectations and critiques them. "Men can be pretty and wear bright or pastel colors" does not fit the social gender expectations found in American culture, for example.
Sometimes our relationships with our own gender get complicated compared to using all-encompassing terms like "man" or "woman." It is certainly a cause for self-exploration. First, let's look at the difference between sex and gender. Then, we'll give you five things you can do to help learn more about yourself as you explore this interesting and very personal dynamic.
What Is "Sex?"
Sex is tricky to define. One definition relies upon the biological and anatomical sex organs. There is a lot of variation on this in biology, too. Many people do not undergo DNA testing so people identify sex at birth based only on observation.
Yet conditions such as a newborn with an observable clitoris considered "longer" than expected at birth (half inch to an inch), or the ratios of hormones like testosterone and estrogen in a person, are also biological variations that occur in many people. These variations are known as intersex conditions, or differences in sexual development. We're finding out that variations in biology may be found in as many as 1 in 100 people. The simple binary of "male and female" sex aligning with "man" and "woman" as gender, respectively, does not seem to hold true, and there's research to prove it.
What Is "Gender?"
Gender tends to be defined loosely as performance, identification and roles. We see the use of multiple genders in various cultures, from the two-spirit of some First Nations cultures to the six genders classically identified in the Talmud.
Depending on culture, though, one can be a man without the expectation of holding an interest in violence. Depending on culture and the era, women went into business and/or managed complex estates for self-sufficiency and trade purposes. It was something that was expected at that time in that culture, if not in others.
Someone who identifies with the gender everyone expects of them based on sexual characteristics is considered cisgender. Someone who does not identify with the gender expectations of society based on sexual characteristics at birth is considered transgender.
What Is "Sexual Orientation?"
Sexual orientation is different from the previous terms. It describes attraction. In the English language, however, many words exist to further define orientation in a way that addresses the gender of the person. A lesbian, for example, is generally defined as a woman who is attracted to women. When we consider sex and gender, sexual orientation labels can become cumbersome and complicated before we know it.
5 Tips to Help You Explore Your Gender Identity
1. Examine Your Expectations of Gender
Gender is often defined as in our heads rather than the bits between our legs. So, some parts of gender include roles and expectations that we know often affect our social experience. Some of these expectations are contradictory. We may think of "feminine" as "mother." Yet we also associate the feminine with seduction or with less intelligence or devalue the work most often done by women, such as household work. (These are real effects: The Washington Post examined some of this through their coverage, and there have been numerous studies examining pay gaps, perceptions of work, etc.)
In some segments of society, these gender roles arose from religious beliefs. Some of us are used to associating the feminine with softness and weakness. Yet, most women do not view themselves as weak. Some view masculinity as toxic, as violent and rough around the edges. Blackstone's "Gender Roles and Society" is a good introduction to examining this along with some of our dissatisfaction that may come from roles imposed on us or what others say about us if we do something against those expectations.
Men can wear bright colors and flowers in their hair just as women can wear sharp angles and go into business. That does not necessarily mean the person does not identify as anything other than their assigned gender. However, for people examining their gender or their expectations of their own gender, this is a great step to see if the discomfort originates from you or from society's expectations of you.
2. Think About Pronouns
The Pronoun Dressing Room is a great way to look at pronoun usage. For some, it is difficult to pinpoint any discomfort and identify dysphoria. The feeling of dysphoria is often vague. There may be no dysphoria around anatomy. That is valid also. Not every person experiences dysphoria! Yet, the feeling of being referred to by another name, or by another set of pronouns, can feel like a relief. This is called gender euphoria.
The Pronoun Dressing Room is also useful when you have a friend who goes by a pronoun set other than "he" or "she" and you want to get used to the pronouns! I (Lily) have a friend who goes by multiple sets. They wore a badge that listed zie/zir, they/them, as well as at least four others. The Dressing Room has a "closet" with various pronoun and neopronoun sets to try on and see how they sound.
3. Respecting Identification and Wishes. Always.
This sounds obvious, but hear me out.
There are a lot of words for gender identities. Refinery29 has a long list and a glossary co-created with GLAAD. Some of them, like the difference between gender fluid and gender queer, may depend on the individual's interpretation. If someone comes to you and says, "I'm gender queer," or "I think 'demigirl' fits me best," it is not your place to say otherwise.
(The only possible exception I've seen is the use of two-spirit or terms used by indigenous populations that are used by people who are not from those communities. If that is your concern, you can bring that concern up without necessarily insulting or gaslighting that person. You're not them, you don't know their history. Just politely bring up a concern and leave it alone.)
Likewise, if you read terms for gender identity trying to figure out what best describes yourself, it's OK to change between them! Maybe you first think that gender queer works great as an umbrella or catch-all term, but demiboy sounds more accurate. Go for it! Maybe you just want to be beautiful and don't feel any set idea of "gender" at all, but in ten years your relationship with yourself changes. Totally fine! Agender is a valid gender identity as well.
While we want a world without labels, labels can be a good starting point for people to be able to say, "There's a word for how I feel about myself! I'm not alone!"
4. Respect Any Name Changes, Including Nicknames
This goes along with the previous tip. If someone you know as Nick comes to you, and says, "Hey, can you call me Nicole? I want to see how it sounds when people call me Nicole," don't be a jerk and say, "Why? Your name is Nick," or "But you don't look like a Nicole." If a friend is coming to you with those sorts of requests, they trust you and are already reaching out from a place of fragility. Don't stomp on that.
Legal name changes often take time, at least several hundred dollars depending on jurisdiction, legal help (for some), and maybe even court appearances. Do not press anyone with, "But that's not your ACTUAL name, is it?" Maybe someone is waiting for a court order to become effective and is asking classmates to use their name already. You don't necessarily know the exact circumstance. Would you ask a divorcee if that was their real name or a kid who changed names after adoption to go by what you perceive would be their "real" name? Would you demand their papers like the court order or letters from a doctor? It comes across as you just antagonizing and questioning their knowledge of themselves and cutting them down. Don't do it.
Also, nicknames are pretty common for everyone, no matter their gender. So giving people serious heartache and headaches based on nicknames can cost friendships and relationships. Wil Wheaton has a great rule: don't be a dick.
5. Respect the Expectation of and Request for Privacy
Also, if a partner requests this, respect their privacy. They may experiment with names and pronouns in the bedroom where there is the excuse of spicing up play. Maybe it doesn't leave the bedroom. Or, they may use it as a springboard and testing ground for examining their gender. If they bring the subject up to you at all, it means they feel safe with and value you. Respect that as much as possible, even if you feel confused, intimidated or hurt. Their questions and their process do not mean they want to hurt you; nor does it mean you can veto them.
Never Out Someone Without Their Permission
The social consequences of transitioning or even defying societal gender expectations often leads to people becoming victims of violence and hate crimes, losing their jobs and being refused help. In many U.S. states (except California), "trans panic" is a defense in murder cases and violence cases just like "gay panic" was not so long ago. Even quick tours around gender-related hashtags and tags reveal stories of hospitals denying care to anyone deemed insufficiently feminine or masculine; of doctors refusing to treat flu symptoms or broken arms because "they don't do transgender care." There are stories about apartment applications denials, as well as many other horrific actions that deprive individuals of what they need to simply exist.
If you're examining your gender, and it might take awhile, maybe making alternate accounts such as locked Twitter accounts or an alternate blog may help. For privacy and security help, going through a resource such as the Crash Override Network may help as well. Many people who identify as women, as another gender (not male), or who identify as being lesbian or gay or asexual in orientation, etc., often experience heightened online harassment and abuse particularly targeting sex, race, gender and orientation.
We hope this helps you find more resources, and that you're able to stay safe. While we want you to thrive, survival is key. Do what you need to do to survive. If you want to examine your gender, you are not alone. More people lend their voices and hands and their pride every day.
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