How sex and gender play out in individuals’ lives is much more complicated than it once was. Today, we understand that people can vary with respect to biological sex, gender identity, gender roles, and sexual orientation – but what do those terms actually mean?
As our understanding of sex and gender has become more nuanced, these issues have garnered increased attention. They also have increasingly become sources of friction among people from different generations and who hold different political and religious views. With the holidays upon us and multiple generations gathering around the table, it is a good time to get our heads around these issues and to think about how to facilitate productive conversations.
My personal interest in developing a better understanding of sex and gender roles, identities, and orientations stems back to a conversation I had about 10 years ago. I met a person at a conference who described herself as a “butch lesbian transgender woman.” I study gender issues for a living, and I did not know exactly what that meant. At the time, I thought that surely I was not the only person who was confused, and confusion seems to persist today as well. So let’s work through this example to better understand terminology related to sex and gender
First, let’s tackle “transgender woman.” Biological sex refers to chromosomal makeup at birth. Two X chromosomes, it’s a girl. An X and a Y, it’s a boy. But things can get more complicated from there. Transgender refers to gender identity. For many people, their gender identity matches their biological sex. If they have two X chromosomes, they “feel like” a girl/woman. With an X and a Y, they “feel like” a boy/man. These individuals can be referred to as cis-gender.
However, for transgender individuals, their gender identity does not match their biological sex. When we say “transgender male” or “transgender female” male or female refers to their gender identity rather than their biological sex. So, someone who was born with two X chromosomes (a biological girl) but develops a male gender identity (feels like a man) would be referred to as a transgender man. The transgender woman giving a talk at my conference, then, was born a boy (XY chromosomes) but grew up to identify as a woman. In other words, she perceived herself as a woman, used female pronouns (she/her), and wanted others to perceive her as a woman too.
The second part of her self-description was “butch lesbian.” Being a lesbian has to do with sexual orientation, or who individuals are attracted to. Most people know that heterosexuals are attracted to individuals of the other gender (i.e., men attracted to women, women attracted to men) and homosexuals are attracted to individuals of their own gender (i.e., men attracted to men; women attracted to women). Both homosexual men and women can be referred to as gay, and homosexual women are often referred to as lesbians.
These are not the only categories though. Bisexuals are attracted to both men and women. In addition, the definition of pansexual is not completely agreed upon yet, but the idea is that sex/gender does not determine pansexuals attraction to others, or that pansexuals are attracted to others for reasons other than their sex/gender.
Returning to the example, though, recall that the person I met at the conference was born a biological male but identified as a woman. Because she perceived herself to be a woman and was attracted to other women, she identified as homosexual and a lesbian.
The last piece of her self-description was that she was “butch.” For this, it is helpful to think about gender role orientation. Decades ago, researchers thought of being male and being female as opposites ends of a continuum; people could either act manly or like a woman. However, in the 1970s, Professor Sandra Bem and others conducted research that advanced how gender roles were conceptualized. They defined masculinity as including personality traits such as being direct, assertive, and logical. Feminine traits included being warm, supportive, and kind. Individuals could have either masculine traits, feminine traits, or both. The degree to which individuals have masculine and feminine personality traits is referred to as their gender role orientation. Colloquially, a lesbian (or another woman) is sometimes referred to as butch if she has a masculine gender role orientation or masculine personality traits. This term is sometimes considered offensive; however, the woman I met described herself as “butch,” suggesting that she was comfortable with the term.
Putting it all together, then, the “butch lesbian transgender woman” I met was: (a) born as a boy, (b) grew up to identify as a woman, (c) had masculine personality traits, and (d) was sexually attracted to women.
Newer perspectives also tend to think of sex and gender as more fluid than originally thought. That is, similar to other aspects of identity, contemporary perspectives suggest that gender roles, gender identity, and sexual orientation may develop and change over the life course.
Having a common vocabulary, such as that described above, can facilitate potentially complicated conversations about sex and gender. There are other guidelines that may be useful to follow as well.
1. Be respectful and prioritize relationships. We differ from our friends and family on many dimensions, such as what we like to do in our spare time, favorite foods, and movies, and so on. For the most part, these differences do not interfere with our relationships. This is probably because we value our relationships more than we value the significance of these differences.
If we can adopt a similar perspective in regards to sex and gender, our relationships will benefit. For some people, doing this is challenging due to religious beliefs or their own upbringing. Nevertheless, embracing the idea that maintaining our relationships with friends and family is more important to us than their identification in regards in regards to sex or gender is an important step toward treating one another with mutual respect.
2. Be patient as others come to understand contemporary perspectives on sex and gender. Young adults are often immersed in subcultures (e.g., college) in which there is a relatively strong awareness and acceptance of diversity in terms of sex and gender. From this perspective, relatives or family friends who use outdated terms or have more traditional views can be frustrating.
Some relatives or family friends who do this probably do have negative perceptions of contemporary perspectives on sex and gender. However, many aunts, uncles, and grandparents are doing their best to understand evolving views regarding sex and gender. Oftentimes, they just don’t know what to say or how to say it. Having patience with relatives and family friends who are open to updating their way of thinking is likely to pay off in the long run. In fact, their willingness to learn more about current perspectives on sex and gender can serve as an important foundation for productive conversations.
3. If all else fails, talk about the weather. There is a reason why some people say to never discuss religion or politics. Discussing these topics can reveal meaningful differences between people and lead to conflict. In general, I think that sweeping differences under the rug is not helpful and that instead we should be open and learn to talk about differences productively. Having said that, I also believe that there is a time and place for these discussions. Adopting a holiday agenda of changing others’ deeply-held views may result only in a disastrous day. For some families, sex and gender may be a fine choice for dinner conversation. If this is not the case, saving the conversation for a different time may be a better approach.
I no longer remember the name of the woman I met at the conference who introduced herself as a butch, lesbian, transgender woman. However, I am thankful to her for prompting me to become more knowledgeable about sex and gender roles, orientations, and identities. Doing so has made me a more informed participant in conversations about sex and gender in our changing society. The world that we live in is not stagnant, and changes are inevitable. I am hopeful that adopting a common vocabulary and following the tips above will increase the chances of productive conversations and co-existing in an increasingly diverse world.