Welcome to Gender 101! If you’re looking to learn a little bit more about gender, you’re in the right place.
A person’s gender identity is the gender that a person knows themself to be. An individual’s gender identity may or may not align with their gender assigned at birth.
There is a whole spectrum of words which a person might use to refer to their gender identity, including but not limited to: woman, man, non-binary or genderqueer (usually describes a person whose identity is outside of the gender binary of man/woman), gender fluid (describes a person who experiences their gender identity as changing through time), and agender (describes a person who doesn’t identify with any gender).
When most of us were born, a doctor took a quick look at us and said either “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” This then became our gender assigned at birth. If a person grows up and continues to identity as the gender assigned to them at birth, then this person is cisgender. If a person grows up to have an identity different from the one assigned to them when they were born, then this person is transgender.
Gender assigned at birth is not necessarily the same thing as biological sex, which refers to a whole constellation of physical, hormonal, and genetic characteristics, many of which would not be visually apparent to a doctor in a delivery room. Further, recent science shows that biological sex, like gender, is a spectrum. The many characteristics usually used to define biological sex allow for a wide range of variation, and a significant percentage of people are intersex, meaning they do not fit neatly into either category of male or female.
Gender expression or gender presentation refers to all of the ways in which a person might outwardly share their gender identity with the world, including (but not limited to) their clothing, personal grooming, physicality, and pronouns. Just like gender and biological sex, gender expression is a spectrum, from masculine to feminine and everything in between.
A person’s gender expression does not necessarily have to align in a traditional way with their gender identity, sexual/romantic orientation, or gender assigned at birth. For example, one person could identify as a straight woman and present in a very masculine way; another person could identify as non-binary and present in a very feminine way. The most important thing to remember is that you cannot tell someone’s gender identity or sexuality just by looking at them.
A pronoun is a word used to refer to a person or people when not using their name. For example, if you take the sentence “Lucy went to the store” and replace Lucy with a pronoun, it becomes “She went to the store.”
Most of us are used to using the pronouns “he/him/his” and “she/her/hers” when referring to a single person. However, in English these pronouns have gender implications. So, some people use other pronouns, which are not gendered. The most common gender-neutral pronoun is “they/them/theirs.” In English, “they” can be used both for groups of people and for singular people: for example, “I can’t wait to meet my new teacher, I hope they’re nice.”
The most important thing to remember is that, like with gender identity or sexuality, you cannot assume what someone’s pronouns are by how they look. It is polite to ask someone what pronouns they use, and to offer your own pronouns when you meet someone for the first time. If you want to refer to someone but you don’t know their pronouns, it’s best to use the gender-neutral “they,” or better yet, just use their name.
First used by black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality refers to the ways different marginalized identities can interact, resulting in unique experiences of oppression. For example, Crenshaw explains that a black woman does not just experience sexism and racism separately, but faces a particular blend of the two which often intensifies the effects of both (this phenomenon was later named misogynoir by queer black feminist Moya Bailey).
Many organizations and activists today are striving to make their approaches more intersectional. This means they are trying to pay more attention to the ways that many different factors may affect the problems and issues people face, including but not limited to: gender identity, sexual/romantic orientation, race, nationality, age, religious affiliation, disability, economic status, record of offences, and family status.
A concept detailed in Judith Butler’s work on gender theory, performativity describes the ways that society makes it very difficult for a person to ‘opt out’ of the gender assigned to them at birth.
Butler explains that a person’s gender is not an innate characteristic which is then made immediately obvious to the rest of the world through the outward expression of that gender. Rather, through the choices we make about everyday actions such as the way we walk, the clothes we wear, and the ways we interact with others, we each continuously create our own gender, which is then interpreted in real time by the people around us. But these everyday choices are not always easy for everyone: society places an enormous amount of pressure on people to conform their gender expression to the gender they were assigned at birth.
Most importantly, saying that gender is performative means that while a person’s choices around gender expression may make reference to abstract concepts such as ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, there is no real ‘original’ gender from which we are all copying. How do we know this is true? Gender norms have varied widely from era to era: just a hundred years ago, baby girls were dressed in blue (considered a softer colour), while baby boys were dressed in pink (thought to be more energetic and virile).