Society has a policy of segregating people into binaries. At the time of birth, every new-born is assigned an identity based on their reproductive organs. Male or female, either this or that becomes your sex, and goes on to determine your gender identity as well. But who assigns it? Definitely not you.
Increasingly, people are questioning the science behind such a binary assignment of sex because it leaves out intersex people – individuals who are born with a physiology or genetic makeup that doesn’t fit into the binary boxes. They could have ambiguous genitalia or internal sex organs, such as both ovarian and testicular tissue. Or they could have a chromosomal arrangement that is different from XY or XX. Intersex infants are often coerced, by medical systems and familial agents, to undergo surgery that changes their bodies to conform to the norm.
This makes one question the validity of assigning sex at birth. It is vital to understand that we all exist on a physiological spectrum – as our bodies needn’t necessarily fit into the sex expectations born out of our assigned sex – and this doesn’t just apply to just intersex people, but instead to all.
Once such an assignment is completed, our childhood is replete with learning through observation and experience, or explicit instruction about the “right” behaviors ascribed to our identity.
Welcome to gender!
Conscription into the baffling world of gender binaries
The ubiquitous term, gender, gets thrown around so easily to represent, assess and conform a person. Have any of us really been taught what it means?
In a broad sense, gender is nothing but the expectations society has about a person’s sense of identity, characteristics and behavior that are supposed to be in consonance with their assigned sex at birth. The framework given by Gender Spectrum makes it easy to properly comprehend what gender encompasses.
Gender and its multiple dimensions
Gender can be understood as an interrelationship between three dimensions, namely the body, the identity and the social gender or gender expression.
This dimension covers a person’s relationship with their body, how societies gender bodies with certain attributes, and how systems interact with a person based on their body. Enter the gendered dimension to your body image issues, the patriarchal hold on sexuality and our humanity’s obsession with external beauty dictated by the male gaze..
2) Gender Identity
Gender identity is your internal sense of self, how you feel on the inside and how you express such feelings to the outside world. It also covers the language that is used to represent and be represented. This is why pronouns matter, so as to represent a person authentically.
We have been taught that gender is binary, there are only men and women. Seeing as how the post-colonial world has been made to revolve around these identities, and language was created to cater to them, it is also important to understand how pronouns are not conclusive markers of a person’s gender identity.
Some people identify with their assigned sex; they are cisgendered people. There are those who don’t identify with the expectations of their assigned gender. Their gender identity may be within the binary or beyond its confines. In all such instances, where their gender identity varies from what they’ve been assigned at birth, they fall under the umbrella term transgender.
3) Social Gender / Gender Expression
The social dimension covers the roles and expectations that societies enforce, to ensure conformity to existing gender norms. It’s the way in which we express our gender to the world, and the ways in which the outside world perceives such expression, to conform people to the binary.
The incessant enforcement of gender conformity
Patriarchy is obsessed with imposing gender norms, very strictly, along the narrowly defined binary genders. Men should behave a certain way; women should behave in another. There is an incessant need to teach and to condition people into hypermasculine and hyperfeminine roles. Anybody stepping out of such boxes faces strong emotional and/or physical violence.
We face it in our homes, schools, workplaces. For instance, popularity in school is often achieved by those that fit into such hyper-defined gender roles – such as your sports jocks and pretty cheerleaders. Or in the Indian context, your conventionally “hot” boys and “pretty” girls. Boys must be tough and strong, whereas girls must be pretty and sensitive. Sensitive boys and tough girls are labeled gay, as otherwise their identity is deemed too hard to fathom, introducing confusion of gender identity with sexual orientation. There’s rampant bullying that people, who don’t conform to conventional gender norms and roles, constantly face.
We often grow up around such violent hate for anybody or anything that disrupts the status quo of gender norms, learning all about it right from our childhood. Something that carries forward, but at magnified proportions, into our adulthood. Such a lack of agency in exploring one’s gender identity as well as expression causes dysphoria as a result of their assigned gender being restrictive or incongruent with their own experiences.
Fighting gendered standards through a spectrum of expression
Increased connectivity has enabled many of us access to virtual collectives – such as through blogs, social media groups and other digital collaborative platforms – giving us the opportunity to share our journeys with a wider audience, learn from our peers’ explorations, and re-affirm one another’s experiences, struggles and wins along the way.
Similarly, diverse representation in books, films and TV shows is helping people feel more comfortable with sharing our stories with the larger audience. However, there is a long way to go to rid our communities of the appropriation of the heteronormative male gaze and express our truths in public spaces as well.
People who identify as gender expansive, like to expand the commonly held definitions about gender, expressions, identities, roles and norms. Transgender is a term that can be used broadly, to represent people whose gender identity is different from that they were assigned at birth. People who are gender non-binary/ agender/ genderqueer/ gender neutral have identities that go beyond the confines of masculine or feminine. And then there’s gender fluidity, where the experience people have with gender is dynamic and changing.
The post-colonial world is already witnessing the courage that millennials have shown in discovering and embodying new ways to express gender. Increasingly we are beginning to hear stories about baby boomers who are finding the strength to figure out the gender expressions that work for them. The first step to any such change, and to ensure its longevity, is in understanding people and giving them the space to be themselves. Thereafter, systems need to be amended to accommodate this new understanding.