Untying the Societal Link of Sex and Gender

I’m sure that many of us have encountered an individual and not been able to determine exactly what their sex is or what gender they are portraying. This need to classify the sex and gender of someone can have a huge emotional impact on individuals whose sex or gender may be in question. Determining the difference between sex and gender is a task that may be more difficult than you may think. These terms have somewhat, yet important, differences and as a result create daily issues for individuals whose gender and sex do not immediately correspond. Until recently even I was under the impression that sex and gender were for the most part the same thing and that the only choices were male and female and that they would be matching for most individuals. However, some peoples’ sexual identities do not match their gender identities. Society creates the need to classify individuals into one of the "two" gender categories, male or female. This categorization is called the gender binary and by placing people whose sex and gender do not match into one of these two choices causes anxiety and trepidation to individuals who fall outside it.

Although the words sex and gender may seem similar, or even the same, they are somewhat different terms. Sexual identity is the genetic and anatomic makeup of individual’s reproductive organs. They either have a penis, a vagina, testes, or ovaries. The sex of an individual is determined at birth by doctors and assigned based on the doctors’ determination of their sexual organs. However, just because a doctor determined that an individuals’ sex is either male or female does not mean that that individuals’ gender will match the doctors’ assignment of sex.

Gender identity is the gender that an individual feels that they are from within regardless of their physical genetalia. They feel internally that they are man or woman or a little bit of both. The gender of an individual is self-determined and comes from their internal and emotional experience of what sex they feel they instinctively belong to. This determination is based on the internal feelings of the individual and do not always match the sex of the individual. A person whose sex is male but feels from within that they are female would identify with the gender of woman and visa versa. The lack of knowledge in the differences of the terms sex and gender creates a society that is unwelcoming to individuals whose gender identities don’t match the sex of their bodies. Often, people who feel this way may go so far to surgically correct their bodies to match their identities and are called transsexuals.

Some transsexuals go so far as to have corrective surgery to change their sex so that it matches their gender identity. This is an extreme surgery that many individuals have in order to feel more complete with themselves. Completely physically changing their sex is not a simple decision or process to endure. Raven Kaldera described his FTM (female to male) sex reassignment surgery as something that made him realize that he “didn’t have to live with discomfort. Change was possible and reasonable and didn’t need to be justified (to the people who count, anyway) except to say, ‘This is right for me now.’” (Kaldera 160). Sex reassignment surgery is a serious and permanent step that an individual can take to surgically match their sex to their gender. Transsexuals take on the gender of the sex they feel that they instinctively belong to.

Individuals who correct the disparity between their sex and gender feel more complete after, as if they are now whole and if there is any confusion of their sex and gender, it’s no longer their problem but societies. An example of someone who feels this way is Aaron Link, who was born female but now identifies as a man. Aaron wakes up from gender reassignment surgery and realizes that now “the other person [society] is the one with the little fucking problem dealing with reality. The little miracle of surgery is the way the surgeon can take your mental disorder and graft it on to someone else,” (Link 90). The ‘mental disorder’ Aaron is speaking of being ‘his confusion’ of his sex and gender. Now when Aaron is passed as male by society it is because he identifies both his sex and gender with male and man.

Allie Lie’s transsexual experience is another great example of someone whose sex does not match his or her gender. Allie Lie was born male and is in the process of transitioning to living her life as a female. Her transsexual experience illustrates some of the difficulties that individuals whose sexual bodies and displays of gender aren’t matching.

Allie complains that while looking in the mirror “the disparity between what I want to see and what actually greets me is too great,” (Lie 167). Her inner struggle with her sex and gender leave her feeling out of place, vulnerable, and struggling to “pass,” as the sex she feels she inherently is. Allie is confused for a woman as well as confused for a man. Cashiers use both masculine and feminine terms to identify her and men question themselves when seeing her in the men’s room and often “look[ing] back to double-check the sign on the door,” (Lie 168). These examples show how society, from the grocery store employees, to men in the men’s restroom are confused over what terms they should use to classify Allie’s gender; her physical attributes, her perceived sex, her name, attire or her perceived gender. These examples of societies confusion show that sex and gender can be two separate things. These puzzling and often emotional responses by both society and transsexuals confirms the stigma that people feel that they must have one sex, one gender, and that these two must be matching.

The misunderstanding of someone’s sex and gender can create anger, anxiety, and stress for those who feel as though they must try to “pass” as one sex and gender or the other. Although some individuals are the most comfortable having opposite sex and gender, society is often times not as comfortable and “read,” these individuals as having a “mental disorder,” like in Aaron’s story. Sex is the physical, anatomical and external representation that a body has king it male or female. Gender is the outward representation that an individual portrays making them man or woman. What is important to remember is that just because you personally cannot determine someone’s sex or gender or both does not mean that they are confused with that classification as well. Once we realize that gender isn’t necessarily linked to sex, we can recognize that there is freedom in our gender choice and with what we feel most comfortable being.

Gender roles should not be glued to the assigned sex and there should be a freedom and independence in the labeling and categorization of man, woman, male, and female identities. The idea of woman as a gender is based on the idea of females as a sex and men in gender based on males as sex. However, gender doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to sex giving male and female-bodied people the freedom to identify as men and woman.

Additional Resources

This is a general overview and definition of what Gender is according to Wikipedia.

This is a general overview and definition of what Sex is according to Wikipedia.

What is gender
This is a description of what The World Health Organization means when they say, “sex,” and “gender.”

Gender Society
This is an online community with forums, videos, chat rooms, photo galleries, personals, blogs, newsletters for transvestites, cross dressers, transsexuals and transgendered

Works Cited

Kaldera, R. “Do It on the Dotted Line.” Genderqueer; voices from beyond the sexual binary. Ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, Riki Wilchins. New York; Alyson Books, 2002. 90-94. Print.

Lie, A. “Passing Realities.” Genderqueer; voices from beyond the sexual binary. Ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, Riki Wilchins. New York; Alyson Books, 2002. 90-94. Print.

Link, A. “Freaks.” Genderqueer; voices from beyond the sexual binary. Ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, Riki Wilchins. New York; Alyson Books, 2002. 90-94. Print.

Wilchins, Riki. Queer Theory, Gender Theory. New York: Alyson Books, 2004. Print

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