Men and women, right? Boys and girls, males and females? But is there
more to it than that? How does it work? If we talk about gender, are
we talking about "The Gays," like men who are effeminate, women
who are masculine?
Why yes, there is that … oh, but there's so much more. I'm here to
give you a brief tutorial on what gender is, and provide an
introduction to the studies of gender.
What is gender?
According to an
encyclopedia, gender is "an individual's self-conception of being
male or female, as distinguished from ... biological sex." That's
a good place to start – "a self conception" – but it goes
beyond the two categories of male and female. There is a huge range
of gender in us homo
all manifested in very different ways on different people.
let's back up. I'm sure you've come across this form, at some
point or another:
Either you're M or F, a boy or a girl, male or female, man or woman,
masculine or feminine, an innie or an outie.
come on; certainly most of us have felt some time that this M or F is
too simplistic, too limiting to the ways that we want to live in the
world and define ourselves. There are more ways to operate than the
strict one-or-the-other system of gender that we currently have in
place. We tend to divide people on the basis of their reproductive
capabilities, and in humans – as in many species – there are two
distinctive roles that biology takes. However, this isn't always
true. There are more variations in physicality than just two; take a
look at intersexuality – which is the updated term for
hermaphrodites. Biology isn't always as cut and dry as we'd like
Why can't we have:
Check as many of the following as apply:
(write your own)
probably heard some of these terms before – perhaps they confuse
you, or maybe you don't quite understand what they mean. Actually,
they are difficult to pin down and explain, because these concepts
and the studies of gender in general are incredibly new, and
everything is still changing. Also, one of the greatest and most
complex things about gender is the ways that it can invite people to
self-define; what I call "masculine" and what you call
"masculine" might be very different things.
the self-definition of gender could create an infinite amount of
different words and identities to define one's own gender.
You say. "Won't that unravel the very fabric of society as we
know it? What if I don't know if that person is a man or a woman!
What if I don't know how to act or react around them!" Well,
maybe you won't know. Maybe you'll start to treat people on the basis of their own humanity, and personalities, their interests, beliefs, values, and hobbies,
rather than on your expectations of their sex and gender.
How'd all this gender stuff come about? Where were all the gender outlaws
twenty, thirty years ago?
were there. We were just not quite fully articulated yet – there
was so much work to be done breaking down gender stereotypes, gender
roles, gender expectations before we were able to get to the point
that we're at now.
it great, that we can now express ourselves in so many varied ways?
Isn't it great that women are not forced to wear skirts, as we have
been in the past? Isn't it great that the "Help Wanted" section
of the newspaper isn't divided by "male" and "female," but
rather by different occupational categories? Isn't it great that we
have Utilikilts and Queer
Eye for the Straight Guy
and metrosexuals and house-husbands and women CEOs and – dare I
even say it! – a serious female presidential candidate?
this groundwork has been laid by feminist and queer rights activists,
in which gender activists have firmly planted roots, but were not
always forefront or even accepted. We were outcasts. There are many
concepts that gender gained from the queer and feminist movements,
but for the purposes of this article, we're going to skip the
historical stuff and move on to the fun stuff. See the resource list
if you'd like to know where to find more information about this.
we have more and more people being more and more articulate about the
ways that the M or F choice excludes their own experience and
expression, and confines us rather than celebrates us, we have more
and more people choosing genders beyond strict M-or-F. Some of the
most visible gender outlaws in this new gendered self-identification
have been trans folks – transsexual, transgendered, male-to-female
or female-to-male folks who often or occasionally take hormones and
have surgeries to change their body to reflect a different gender.
There are many, many questions and things to write about trans
experience, politics, science. What do hormones do? How does gender
identity work? What's the surgery like? Why would you choose or not
choose to have surgery or take hormones? I'm not going into all
this here – again, look at the resource list at the end.
the thing – trans experiences, politics, and identities are pushing
gender into new frontiers, into really exciting and celebratory
places where people feel more whole, more comfortable, better able to
move through the world, more loving and able to love. How cool is
that! Just like anybody else, transgendered people have a wide
variety of genders. And because of the ways that gender is adopted so
intentionally on trans folks, those of us who are not trans can learn
a great deal about the ways to articulate all sorts of varieties of
gender, no matter who you are, straight or gay or bi or ,
masculine or feminine or androgynous or .
English language actually lacks words for most gender identities.
We've got those few main words – androgynous, feminine, masculine
– but there are so many more differences in the concept of gender
that have yet to be articulated, named, labeled, categorized. You
might ask, "why do we have to categorize it? Can't I just be me?" Well yes, of course! Please be you! These categories and concepts are only ever meant to celebrate and enhance our own personal expressions, and should never make us feel like we aren't able to express parts of ourselves that we want to express. That's the whole point of dismantling this binary M or F gender system in the first place!
it, embrace it, do things that seem totally contradictory, do one
thing one day and another thing the next; perhaps you'll settle
into a place that feels the
most like you, or perhaps you'll love the variation and change that comes with
multiple modes of expression. Maybe you'll finally use all of your
we lack language for all these different gender identities, and there
are infinite possibilities, these concepts of gender beyond M or F
are very new. They are just starting to be articulated by various
radical communities who are doing this work. There is so much new
language used around gender.
Here are some examples:
are some fairly obvious ones, which probably make sense to most of
identities don't necessarily have specific terms to differentiate
them, so they are more like adjectives used to generally describe
queer communities, identity descriptors are more widely used. The
identities of butch (masculine), femme (feminine), and androgynous
are most common. Many people add words to make a compound descriptor,
which they feel are more accurate, such as:
folks identify as all sorts of other things – below is a list of
terms people might choose to use to identify. While of course each
individual will interpret them differently, here are some very loose,
very approximate definitions of how I have seen them used:
Tranny, Trannyboy , Trannygirl, Transsexual, Transman, Transwoman,
Transgender, MTF, FTM
– all different terms used by folks who consider themselves to
have generally moved outside of compulsory femininity or
masculinity. The self-definition within trans communities is hugely
varied and often as simple as "man" or "woman," or as
self-defined as a string of adjectives, for example, "faggy trans
drag-king dyke." MTF usually means a male-bodied person who has
transitioned to be female; FTM is a female-bodied person who has
transitioned to be male
– a softening of "boy," used by some queer women who identify
– a tougher version of "girl," implies a sort of punkness, or
rejection of the sugar & spice version of femininity
A girl who is more aligned with traditionally masculine hobbies,
such as sports. Often used in adolescence and childhood, some adult
women still identify as such
– someone who likes both terms and sees themselves occupying both
– someone female-bodied who identifies with a feminine version of
– Spanish for ‘father,' but occasionally used to describe a
sexy masculinity in both males and masculine women. A character on
the TV show The L Word was named Papi
– often used to describe a masculine and somewhat aggressive
– someone identified with traditionally western styles; often
implies boots and chivalry, and a strong masculinity. I've known
both biological males and trans men who have identified as such
– fairly flamboyant style of masculine dress, including colors and
of "fag," spelled differently to portray reclamation and
intentional use of the word
– the term means "a rascal; rogue; scamp," defined in the 18th
century as "a rude, awkward, boisterous, untaught girl."
– often used to describe a masculine and somewhat aggressive
female-bodied person, generally who dates women
–female-bodied but male-identified and service-oriented, and
enjoys domestic duties
– a reference to the 1995 film that examined cross-dressing and
queer life in Tokyo, Japan, following female-born folks who live as
– someone who believes there are more than two genders
– someone who has rejected a gender role for themselves
– in some Native American cultures, there were believed to be many
genders, not just men and women. Those who were not singularly "men"
or "women" were often referred to as having more than one spirit
– a faggy dyke or a dykey fag, someone who identifies with queer
expression of both gay men and lesbians
girl, Elf boy, Fairy
– either male or female, someone who identifies with the fantasy
elements of gender
– the name of a traditionally gay male organization for social
gatherings; often adopted by pagan-identified men
– often male-bodied folks who identify as feminine
– a boy who identifies with very feminine aspects of accessorizing
and costuming such as glitter, sequins, and nail polish
queen, drag king
– usually used by someone who does not spend the majority of their
life dressing as another gender, but who occasionally enjoys
dressing up (and sometimes professional performing) as a gender
other than their own
– trans dyke, usually a male-to-female trans woman who is dyke-identified
– someone feminine and usually fairly submissive, used by both
female- and male-bodied folks, though most common with male
– someone who rejects gender binaries and is not aligned with
traditional masculine or feminine genders.
are hundreds of ways to personally identify one's own gender - some
of us see ourselves as combining aspects of female and male, some of
us fall between female and male. Some of us consider that we fall
completely outside of this gender binary. Some people who don't
identify as strictly anything identify as genderqueer.
identity and expression at this level of detail can possibly give us
more ways to express ourselves, not less. It can validate more modes
of expression, more range, more experience than we've ever been
able to articulate before.
it out! Play with different terms, see what you come up with. Take
the time to define yourself. You never know what you might discover,
lurking in the shadows, partying in the basement, ready to come out
Sexsmith, a self-defined kinky queer butch top, has a B.A. in gender
studies and writes about sex, gender, and relationships at Sugarbutch
is a Noun by S. Bear Bergman (Suspect Thoughts Press). Fantastic
personal essays about what it means to be female bodied and
identified with masculinity. Self-defined butches will adore it,
those who love butches will find it useful, those who don't have
any idea about gender will enjoy it.
Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us and My Gender
Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or
Something Else Entirely by Kate Bornstein. Genius books
Trouble, and Undoing Gender by Judith Butler. One of the
most famous postmodern gender theorists, whose theories on
performativity have significantly changed the theory discourse.
Unfortunately, she's very difficult to read; I would suggest a
primer on Butler rather than her actual texts.
Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman
Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, edited by Joan Nestle.
Published in 1992, still one of the best (and only) anthologies about
butch and femme genders.
Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary, edited by Joan Nestle, Riki
Wilchins, and Clare Howell. Published in 2002, this anthology
includes all sorts of writings from a wide variety of perspectives.
Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender by Matt Bernstein Sycamore
Gender And Expanding The Law: Toward A Social And Legal:
Conceptualization Of Gender That Is More Inclusive Of Transgender
People" by Dylan Vade. University of Michigan Journal of Gender and
Law, July 2005. Vade's article introduced the concept of the
"gender galaxy," which I find to be particularly brilliant.
a Stud, She's a Slut, and 49 other Double Standards Everyone Should
Know by Jessica Valenti, editor of Feministing.com.
More about the double standards of gender roles (primarily
Theory, Gender Theory by Riki Wilchins. A fantastic theory
primer. Very easy to read, concise, and covers everything important.
Pretty much summarizes everything important that I learned in my
gender studies courses. Wilchins runs the organization Gender PAC,