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Gender is a set of culturally defined attitudes, behaviors, and roles associated with certain sexes. There are three overarching categories of gender. Man is a term which defines traditionally masculine roles and behaviors as defined by the dominant culture. Woman is a term which defines traditionally feminine roles and behaviors as defined by the dominant culture. These two categories tend to be associated, by default, with individuals who have been assigned male or female at birth. The final category is non-binary, a term which defines individuals who reject traditional view that sex and gender are automatically connected and construct their own identities based on their own internal sense of who they are.
Gender identity is this internal sense and identification with specific sets of gender roles and behaviors. There are two distinct sets of gender identity. Transgender identity is a gender identification with the gender roles and behaviors that are opposite those associated with the sex assigned to that person at birth. Cisgender identity is a gender identification with the gender roles and behaviors that are the same as those associated with the sex assigned to that person at birth.
Under the Transgender Umbrella
Transgender identity is a complex set of various gender non-binary identities. Therefore, it can be considered an umbrella term under which many different identities fall. Here are just a few identities which fall under the transgender umbrella:
- Transgender woman: a person who was assigned male at birth but who identifies with feminine gender roles and behaviors and identifies as female.
- Transgender man: a person who was assigned female at birth but who identifies with masculine gender roles and behaviors and identifies as male.
- Gender queer: a person who identifies as non-binary and constructs their own individual gender from different gender roles and behaviors.
- Bigender: a person who identifies with both masculine and feminine gender roles and behaviors.
- Agender: a person who does not identify with gender roles and behaviors.
Gender pronouns are the pronouns which are associated with an individual’s gender identity. Gender pronouns are defined by the individual, and using the correct pronouns is incredibly important because they serve as an affirmation and acceptance of an individual’s gender identity. While there are many different gender pronouns, here are a few common ones:
- She/Her/Hers: binary pronouns typically used by individuals who identify as a woman
- He/Him/His: binary pronouns typically used by individuals who identify as a man
- They/Them/Theirs: non-binary pronouns
- Ze/Zir/Zirs: non-binary pronouns
- Ze/Hir/Hirs: non-binary pronouns
It’s important never to assume you know what a person’s gender pronouns are. Ideally, individuals would introduce themselves with their name and gender pronouns, but this is more of an exception than a rule. You should never feel uncomfortable asking a person what their gender pronouns are and should use the pronouns they indicate they want used instead of the ones you assume they should use.
Words and Terms to Avoid
There are many words and terms which are common in everyday language which are offensive and oppressive to transgender individuals. You should avoid using these terms and should instead use terms which are not offensive or oppressive. Here are just a few terms which you should avoid:
- Hermaphrodite: this is an outdated medical term used to describe intersex people. Instead use intersex person.
- He/She, It: these terms used to describe transgender people are objectifying and dismissive of transgender identity. Instead use the person’s name or pronouns.
- Transsexual: this term isn’t intrinsically offensive. It is used to define a person who has undergone a medical transition such as hormone replacement therapy or gender affirming surgeries. You should avoid using this term unless the person defines themself this way. The reason this term can be oppressive is because most transgender individuals cannot afford hormones or surgery. Others may not want either. Instead use transgender person.
- Transgendered: adding -ed to the end of transgender implies that a person becomes transgender as opposed to having been transgender their whole life. Instead use transgender person.
- Shemale/Tranny: these terms are porn terms for transgender porn stars. These terms objectify transgender people and reduce them to sexual objects. Instead use transgender person.
- A transgender/transgenders: these terms are problematic because they reduce transgender people to their gender identity and remove their person-hood. Simply add person or individual or folk to the end of transgender to avoid offense.
Sex Assigned at Birth
People often conflate gender identity and sexual orientation. However, these two concepts are distinct, and one does not define the other. Sex is a biological marker based on our reproductive structures which is assigned to us at birth by physicians who make assumptions about our sex based on our genitalia. Traditionally, a binary view of sex has been predominant. The two markers under this view are male (i.e., having a penis and testes) and female (i.e., having a uterus and ovaries). The assumption is that these individuals have XY and XX chromosomes, the chromosomes which hold the DNA which drive the development of primary sex characteristics.
However, this assignment is not always accurate or affirming of intrinsic identification with gender because chromosomes only drive the development of primary sex characteristics (e.g., testes, ovaries) and not secondary sex characteristics (e.g. body structure, breasts). Moreover, determining genitalia can be ambiguous and is based on arbitrary standards of what “male genitalia” and “female genitalia” look like. A third category of sex, intersex, accounts for approximately 10% of the population. Individuals within this category have atypical genitalia development which makes their genitals ambiguous. Historically, doctors have determined sex based on the size of the genitalia and have made surgical corrections so that the individual can “have a normal life.” However, follow-up studies have found that these individuals tend to have severe gender dysphoria and identify with the sex opposite that assigned at birth. Therefore, sex assigned at birth does not determine gender identity.
Sex does, however, play a role in defining sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is romantic and physical attraction based on biological stimulation and psychological characteristics. While there are hundreds of sexual orientations, here a just a few:
- Asexual (Ace): this is an umbrella orientation for individuals who have low to non-existent sexual attraction to other people. Some Ace individuals have sexual attraction, but only after a deep romantic attachment has been formed. These people would identify as demisexual.
- Bisexual (Bi): this is a term for individuals who are romantically and sexually attracted to both men and women.
- Gay/Lesbian: this is a term for individuals who are romantically and sexually attracted to members of the same-sex.
- Pansexual (Pan): this is a term for individuals who can be romantically and sexually attracted to any person and whose attraction is not limited by sex or gender identity.
- Straight: this is a term for individuals who are romantically and sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex.
- Polyamorous (Poly): this is a term for individuals who are romantically and sexually attracted to, and in committed relationships with, multiple consenting partners.
The Science Behind Identity
Sexual orientation and gender identity form part of individual identity. Gender identity tends to develop around the age of three. At this age, children start to become aware of gender roles and behaviors as they engage in gender exploration. Children who are free to explore gender will begin to adopt the gender roles and behaviors which best define their identity. Over time, this will develop into gender expression (i.e., the way our gender manifests itself). Some children will begin to define themselves as the sex opposite that assigned at birth, while others will identify with the sex assigned to them at birth but will be gender non-conforming. Both of these trends are perfectly normal paths of social and identity development, and these children will have healthy developmental outcomes over time. Conversely, children who are restricted in gender exploration and are expected and forced to conform to gender roles and behaviors associated with their sex assigned at birth tend to develop gender dysphoria over time and do not have health developmental outcomes.
Sexual orientation develops later in the lifespan, usually with the onset of puberty. Before puberty, children do not have sexual urges. Once these begin, sexual attraction to others emerges. Some children will demonstrate emotional attachment to other children of the same or opposite sex, but this may or may not develop into the patterns of sexual and romantic attraction that make up sexual orientation. Research across cultures has found that children who identify with gender non-conforming behaviors but identify with the sex assigned at birth tend to develop same-sex attraction. However, gender non-conforming behavior is not an automatic precursor to same-sex attraction. Those with opposite-sex attraction can have gender non-conforming behaviors, and those with same-sex attraction can have gender conforming behaviors.
As with gender exploration, sexual exploration is an important component of healthy psychosocial development. Adolescents who free to explore their sexuality and are accepted by their family and friends tend to have healthy developmental outcomes. However, adolescents who are restricted in exploring their sexuality and feel that they will be rejected by friends and family if they embrace their sexuality are at increased risk for mental health issues, risky behaviors, substance abuse, and health problems later in life.
What causes same-sex attraction and transgender identity is unclear. There is some evidence to suggest that exposures to androgens in utero can influence the development of birth. Moreover, the environment in which children are raised can also play an important role, particularly environments in which children are free to explore their gender and sexuality. Genetics are also a factor, with evidence supporting X-linked inheritance (i.e., maternal) of sexuality.
Debunking Common Myths
There are many common myths about LGBTQ+ people that are perpetuated by the media and anti-LGBTQ+ activists and organizations. Here are just a few:
LGBTQ+ Identity is a Choice
Identifying as LGBTQ+ is a choice to the extent that we choose to embrace and accept our intrinsic sexual orientation and gender identity. We do not, however, choose who we are romantically and/or sexually attracted to. Sexual orientation is a key part of sexuality which develops with puberty. Moreover, we do not choose our gender identity. Gender identity is a key component of personal identity which develops around the age of three.
LGBTQ+ People are Predators
Research into sexual predators has not found a link between sexual orientation or gender identity and increased risk for becoming a sexual predator.
Allowing Children to Explore their Sexuality or Gender Identity is Abusive
Actually, not allowing children to explore their sexuality and/or gender identity is abusive. Children who feel free to explore their personal identity tend to have healthy psychosexual development, while children who are restricted in identity exploration are at increased risk for mental health issues, social maladjustment, and health issues later in life. Every major professional medical and psychological association supports the exploration of sexuality and gender identity in children.
Sexuality and Gender Identity can be Changed
While organizations like NARTH advertise conversion therapy as an effective treatment for reversing same-sex attraction and transgender identity, research has continuously found these therapies to be both ineffective and psychologically detrimental. All major psychological and medical professional organizations denounce conversion therapy and agree that it is impossible and unethical to change sexual orientation and gender identity.
LGBTQ+ Parents Raise Dysfunctional Children
Children of LGBTQ+ parents do tend to be at increased risk for mental health issues, but this tendency can be explained by a lack of familial acceptance, legal recognition, and peer victimization. Children of LGBTQ+ parents are more likely to feel loved and accepted by their parents and tend to have healthy psychosocial development in the absence of a toxic, anti-LGBTQ+ environment.
Same-Sex Attraction is Unnatural
There are plenty of examples of same-sex attraction in animal species. Indeed, same-sex behaviors are observed in over 1,500 animal species. In animal societies, same-sex couples tend to play the important social role of adopting and caring for orphaned and rejected offspring. This is especially common among penguins.
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