Gender is an idea created by people, culture, and society to help categorize and explain the world around us. The two genders that most people know are boy and girl (or man and woman), At birth, most of us are assigned a sex based on how our bodies look, and that sex corresponds with a gender that society assumes for us. However, this assumption doesn’t always match how we feel inside.
Often people think there are only 2 genders, but in fact, there are many more! Throughout human history we know that many societies did — and still do — understand gender as a universe, something not limited to only two possibilities.
There have always been more than two genders
Since ancient times, there is evidence from around the world of many more genders than “man” and “woman.” The Pueblo of Zuni have lived in the area of New Mexico for the last 3000-4000 years.
In Zuni culture there are women, men, and a third gender called lhamana. Lhamana wear masculine and feminine clothing, and move between the rights and responsibilities of males and females. They act as an important bridge and balance in Zuni society. Some lhamana take part in the North American two-spirit community. Some other gender expansive identities include the burrnesha, hijra, waria, and more.
We’wha, a Zuni Native American from New Mexico (pictured above), was a famous lhamana weaver, potter, hunter, and spiritual leader.
Gender Identity & Gender Expression
Our gender identity is our internal sense of who we are and which gender we identify with. This could be girl, boy, or any other gender. Our gender expression is how we present our gender to the world, including things like clothes, hairstyle, name, and pronouns.
Gender expression is independent from a person’s gender identity. Just as cisgender girls can wear pants, transgender boys can wear dresses. While being nonbinary does not mean someone has to dress in a gender-neutral style.
Both our gender identity and the way we express it can shift over the course of our lives, or even moment to moment.
Cisgender & Transgender
At birth, most of us are assigned a sex based on how our bodies look, and that sex corresponds with a gender that society assumes for us. However, this assumption doesn’t always match how we feel inside.
Cisgender people feel comfortable with the gender corresponding with their sex assigned at birth. Transgender people may be assigned a gender that does not match who they are. GLAAD estimates that 3% of the U.S. population identify as transgender, that’s almost 10 million people!
Do people choose to be trans?
No, our gender identity is part of who we are, just like our eye color and height. People cannot choose to be transgender, just like we can’t choose what eye color we’re born with. Think of the people you know whose internal sense of gender matches their body. Did they “choose” to be that way?
Here are just a few of the trans and nonbinary celebrities you might know: Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, Jonathan Van Ness, Laverne Cox, Indya Moore, Carmen Carerra, Jazz Jennings, Sam Smith, Caitlyn Jenner, Kim Petras, Juliana Huxtable, Chaz Bono, Janet Mock, Cara Delevingne, Angel Haze, Amandla Stenberg, and Alok Vaid-Menon.
A binary is a system only encompassing two options. The Gender Binary is the idea that “man” and “woman” are the only two genders, that they’re opposites, and that every person must be comfortable in the gender identity, expression and role that is assigned to them at birth. The gender binary is limiting for people both inside and outside it, and it fails to reflect the true diversity of genders in existence.
The gender binary also can assume that sex assigned at birth and gender identity are the same thing. Meaning that being a man means one is assigned male at birth, or being a woman means one is assigned female at birth. This binary also does not reflect the real diversity of experiences in gender.
In many societies the two binary genders — boy/man and girl/woman — are the only ones recognized as being legitimate. People of binary genders, whether cisgender or transgender, are unfairly privileged compared to nonbinary people.
A nonbinary person is someone who’s gender identity cannot be defined within the margins of the gender binary. They understand their gender in a way that goes beyond simply identifying as either a man or woman.
Nonbinary is an umbrella term for a spectrum of gender identities and expressions, including agender, bigender, genderqueer, neutrois, and genderfluid. Agender people do not identify with any gender. Not all nonbinary people identify as transgender, and not all trans people identify as nonbinary.
Are all nonbinary people transgender?
There have always been transgender people who felt that their gender identity didn’t fall neatly into the two binary categories of “man” or “woman.” In the past, trans people who felt that way used the words genderqueer and genderfluid to describe their experience. Those words are still used today, and are a part of a larger umbrella term commonly described as the “nonbinary umbrella.”
Many people who describe their gender identity as nonbinary also call themselves transgender — but not all. The word nonbinary has grown in popularity and it now means many different things to different people.
The main thing to understand is that there is no one right or wrong way to be nonbinary, just like there is no right or wrong way to be transgender. We need to listen to how someone identifies, and respect the words they use to describe themselves.
Being intersex is different from being transgender or nonbinary. Someone who is transgender has a gender (such as male, female, or nonbinary) that is different from what was assumed when they were born. Someone who is intersex developed one or more bodily characteristics that don’t fit neatly into stereotypes about “male” or “female” bodies. Someone can be both intersex and transgender, but being intersex doesn’t automatically make someone transgender or nonbinary, just like being transgender or nonbinary doesn’t mean that someone is intersex. To learn more read BLOOM’s Intersex article.
Gender Roles & Stereotypes
Do you believe that some activities are “only for girls,” and some “only for boys?” Where do you think these ideas come from?
Each culture has its own gender expectations. These include how to act, talk, dress, feel emotion, and interact with other people. In the U.S.A. there are traditionally very defined gender roles that describe what it means to be a boy or a girl, masculine or feminine. We learn what’s expected of us at a very early age from our caregivers, family, friends, culture, religion, television, and movies.
Masculinity and femininity are equated with certain physical attributes, labeling us as more or less of a “real” man or woman based on how our bodies look. This gendering of our bodies affects how we feel about ourselves, and how others perceive and interact with us.
Toxic masculinity is a term to describe cultural pressures on men and boys to behave in a certain “manly” way: by being tough, aggressive, and power-hungry. Toxic masculinity is also characterized by rejecting anything deemed feminine, such as showing emotion or accepting help.
Not only is toxic masculinity harmful to boys and men, it is damaging for everyone else in society. Just as it can encourage unhealthy behaviors like heavy drinking and smoking, and discourages men from taking care of their mental and physical health; toxic masculinity is also linked to gender-based violence, sexual assault, and gun violence.
Whatever your gender, if you feel like you’re experiencing the negative effects of toxic masculinity and are ready to address that, seek assistance, like support groups or a behavioral health clinician.
So much of how we experience our gender, and how others interact with us, is based on all of our intersecting identities. Things like our ethnicity, family dynamics, religion, skin color, language(s) we speak, and so much more play a huge role in how we experience our gender.
Two people might each identify as nonbinary, but have very different experiences because of their language and family culture. One family might show love and support in very different ways compared to another family, and that’s OK!
Often, conversations about gender come from a very White perspective. It’s important to amplify stories about gender that capture how diverse the world is and how complex many of our identities are.
Understandings of Gender are Always Changing
Norms relating to gender change across societies and over time. Did you know that before the 1950s, pink was thought of as a color for boys, and blue was for girls? A 2017 GLAAD Harris poll found that 12% of U.S. millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. That’s 1 out of 8 people! According to research by Wunderman Thompson, 56% of U.S. youth, aged 13-20, know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns (such as they/them).
Imagine how much our understanding of gender might change over your lifetime!
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