I recently answered some questions on the Gender Neutral Parenting Facebook page that were asking about non-binary genders. I found with this person’s questions, like many others, I have to first correct misconceptions about sex and gender before we can even begin talking about the intricacies of gender.
If you find this stuff confusing don’t feel bad! I was born in the seventies and went to school in the eighties. I can say for sure if you are my age or older (and many people younger) there is no conceivable reason you would understand sex and gender (unless you work in the fields of human sexuality). Why? We were taught it incorrectly!
People sometimes get so defensive in being corrected about these topics and it really isn’t anything to be upset about and I’ll tell you why.
You know how in 1975, when I was born, no one had a home computer? I think it was 1988 before we got a computer and I, being middle class, got it before lots of people. In school we played Oregon Trail on a DOS computer, right? My point is – look at us now! I’m writing this on my iPad as I lie in bed. This tiny device isn’t hooked to anything. It is magically pulling information out of the air for me and holds more power than NASA used to put a man on the moon.
If computer technology went so far, so fast in the last forty years then why wouldn’t the study of psychology? Child development? Sexuality?
Would you insist on using FORTRAN when you can use a newer (and less eye stabby) computer language? No way! Times have changed and you’ve happily left your middle school science class in the dust because YOU KNOW BETTER NOW.
For some reason we feel that psychology, the study of the human mind, was complete when Freud laid it down in 1885. What? The human mind is so much more complex than this ipad and yet we accept that what we learned in seventh grade must be true 25 years later?
It is just silly! So, let me give it to you straight: THERE IS NO REASON IN THE WORLD YOU SHOULD KNOW WHAT I’M ABOUT TO TELL YOU ABOUT SEX AND GENDER. Please don’t feel bad. Your seventh grade teacher told you what they knew to be true at the time. Times change and you’ve been busy living your life which probably didn’t involve chromosomes or dipliod cells. It’s ok not to know this stuff.
For those of us of a certain age EVERYTHING we know about sex and gender is WRONG. Not your fault. Not an idictment of you as a person or meant to call you stupid. You aren’t stupid and you aren’t a bad person. You just haven’t learned what we now know about sex and gender.
So, please, it is without any shame or judgement that I share this information with you. Because I didn’t know it either and I’m glad someone told me.
Here is my answer to the person asking about gender but saying “male and female” because I think it will help lots of us!
First: male and female are names of SEXES not of genders. Sex is comprised of both chromosomal arrangement (called genotypic sex) and physical presentation (called phenotypic sex). Neither of these are binary. There are dozens of chromosomal arrangements in humans. For example xy, xx, xo, xxx, xxy, and so on. There are millions of arrangements of physical sex characteristics from one you’d never know about like an xy individual having androgen insensitivity and developing characteristically female body parts despite being genotypically male to a wide array of genital presentations that are neither male nor female.
I imagine you aren’t asking us about sex but about gender. Gender is asocial construct. That means it isn’t a concrete or scientifically observable phenomonon (unless you’re an anthropologist!) it is merely an idea social groups of humans use to make sense of their world. Social constructs can be bad. E.g. Race. There is not a “biological” concept of race, rather it is something humans make up to divide us. Social constructs can be good. E.g north, east, south, and west. These things don’t exist in any quantifiable way. They are simply ideas we’ve all collectively decided to use to help us navigate our space.
Gender, as a social construct in most western countries has developed thus: we see (erroneously) two sexes and we are going to set rules for how each sex should behave and then call this gender. Because of this incorrect definition of gender we have the social concept of two genders: man and woman or boy and girl. In non-western cultures these man-made rules are completely different and many societies haven’t incorrectly assumed that there are only two sexes and thus their idea of gender is also not binary.
Simply because gender is a social construct doesn’t make it any less real.Money is a social construct too and people kill and die for it all the time. Should I say “money doesn’t exist” because it is a man-made idea? No. Same with gender. Gender may be man-made and culture-specific but within those cultures it is very important.
Here’s the good thing about social constructs though: than can change when we learn more. As a society we can no longer ignore the millions (yes, millions) of people born everyday that do not fit into the male/female sex binary nor that millions are born that do not fit into the man/woman gender binary. Our social concept needs to catch up with reality.