What is gender? OR Why the term is both meaningless and indispensible

This post is the first in a series on What is gender?


Why we need this pain-in-the-ass word.


Probably the greatest challenge in writing a blog about gender is that no one – myself included – has any idea what the damn word means. I risk sounding unbearably flippant, I know, but it’s necessary to clear the air about that abominable word.

And I mean abominable. The problem with “gender” is that it encompasses altogether too many things, to the point where it’s almost meaningless. It’s kinda like the word “science,” which is really a fancy buzzword that could be expanded to include half the universe. When we say “science,” are we talking about the natural world, empirical exploration in general, natural philosophy, peer-reviewed studies, the scientific method(s), anything that’s falsifiable, anything-that’s-not-metaphysics, math?

Gender is even worse. It’s a nice fat term to throw into the fray, but what the hell does anyone mean by it? And yet we need such an all-encompassing word to communicate one of the core human experiences. With all the things that gender may or may not be, one thing that’s certainly true of it is that it’s something we experience.

For much of the history of the English language, “gender” just meant a grammatical designation. Was the word masculine or feminine? What pronouns did you use to refer to a person?

Some readers may ask: why must gender mean anything other than that? After all, the word “sex” is completely sufficient to talk about what we mean by “men” and “women.” The contemporary definition of “gender” is just a postmodern smoke grenade thrown into the mix to confuse people about the natural sexual binary.

On some very basic empirical level, people who throw out that objection are correct. In the animal kingdom, there’s no real need for the word “gender.” Animal bodies are coded as biologically male, female, both, neither, or mixed. It’s simple. It simply is what it is. If an animal is male, it’s male. The reality is purely reproductive – a mechanism of nature within evolution to create diversity and propagate the species.

Human beings are, to the chagrin of some, an entirely different animal (pun intended). While the basic reproductive coding remains the same, the physical reality of this coding is overlapped and transformed by mental, spiritual, interpersonal, and sociological dimensions. Animals are generally divided between male or female, but humans are divided much differently: as Men or Women. We aren’t just biological arrangements, but personalized creatures who subjectively  experience and embody those biological arrangements. In the animal kingdom a creature simply has a masculine reproductive potential; in humans it is now a Man, a male person, who embodies that potential and swims in a sea of meaning stemming from his experience as that kind of person.

It is in light of this specifically human predicament that we need the word “gender,” because whenever we’re talking about the sex of a human person, we’re always talking about the massive world of meaning-structures attached to that sex.

Even the person’s sex is to some degree socially determined. Yes, a given person may have xy chromosomes and a penis. This is a brute biological fact. However, which of those discrete biological facts makes them (their whole person) male? Are they male because they have a penis? Or because they have xy chromosomes? This becomes an important question – or rather, we realize how important it has always been – when we’re confronted with intersex people, individuals with a mix of biological factors. If a person has xy chromosomes and a vagina, are they male or female? More importantly, are they a Man, Woman, both, or neither?

For more on the social construction of sex, I highly recommend Thomas Laqueur’s book “Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.” I don’t agree with all his conclusions, but the book is well-researched and points to real changes in the history of determining sex. 

There’s little argument about the discrete biological factors, and this is why the word “sex” is needed. The intersex person mentioned above in fact has xy chromosomes. They also in fact have genitals with a morphology we’d label “vaginal” and “female-typical.” It’s a brute biological fact. But there’s plenty to argue about regarding which discrete biological fact is determinative of the entire person, and what that determination means for their place in society. And as long as there’s plenty to argue about, we need the word “gender.”


What this pain-in-the-ass word means.


So we’ve established that sex – as opposed to gender – refers to biological factors that often exist on a binary. And gender – as opposed to sex – refers to how we interpret, embody, and personalize those biological factors, as well as all peripheral issues tied to them. The fact remains that we need that second word – gender – simply because humans do in fact interpret, embody, prioritize, and personalize their sex characteristics, and whenever we’re talking about sex, we’re inevitably talking about gender too. So the term is necessary, but it’s useless.

Why is it useless? Because gender means so many different things. When people argue about whether Caitlyn Jenner is a man or woman, more often than not they’re shouting past each other while wielding one particular facet of gender. When people from different parts of the transgender spectrum talk about their identities, they’re often pointing to completely different pieces of the gender puzzle. This is why the narratives of genderqueer and transsexual people often seem to contradict each other. The two groups are usually focusing on different aspects of gender.

So if we’re going to salvage the word, we need to break it down into its components. We need to realize that when the media soundbytes gender, it’s usually taking all these different substances and blending their most superficial aspects into a frankenjuice. Radical feminist gender theory, transsexual personal narratives, social commentaries, sex biology, and drag performance are smeared into one colorless conversation when really there’s about twenty different conversations we need to be having.

Here is a chart where I break down a few (only a few) of the major components of gender and their interactions with each other. As you can see, there’s a lot going on.

Gender breakdown 3 Each and every one of these is its own conversation, its own conundrum, and its own locus of problems for people who don’t fit into a gender binary. It’s absolutely vital that we keep all these elements in mind when we talk about gender. If we’re going to talk candidly, we need to break away from the false debate between biological essentialism and gender ideology. Both sides want to reduce sex-gender complexity down to an easily-digestible single idea, but both sides in doing so cover up the factual complexity.

To biological fundamentalists who believe the entire sex-gender matrix can be reduced down to what’s between your legs, you’re fighting against the facts. The fact is that male-female sex id is complicated. The fact is that coding blue as “masculine” and pink as “feminine” is a recent historical construct. The fact is that some males are naturally feminine, and it has nothing to do with childhood trauma.

To gender ideologists who believe the entire sex-gender matrix can be reduced down to oppressive social constructs, you’re fighting against the facts. The fact is that human sex usually exists dichotomously and bears experiential meaning that goes beyond social groupings. The fact is that many cisgender men and women are naturally masculine and feminine irrespective of social pressure. The fact is that many transsexual people experience first-hand the reality of physiological and hormonal sex differences that go deeper than social conditioning.

In other words, both essentialists and deconstructionists are at once right and wrong. We need to stop parsing out the facts in an oppositional way and start looking at the big picture without taking a side in a cultural agenda. Ockham’s Razor needs to be as discerning as it is useful.

Instead of formally defining each term, I’m going to talk about how they each serve as sites of gender embattlement for people who don’t fit into a rigid binary. There’s an important intersectionality between all people who deal with gender, whether they’re female-to-male transsexual or bronies, and I don’t want to lose that sense of interconnectedness. But since all aspects of gender are so often conflated, I think it’s important to highlight different kinds of gender narratives.

I want to delve somewhat in depth into each of these gender conversations, so as a primer allow me to first outline why each one is its own conversation. Many different people identify as transgender or queer, but not all of them do so for the same reason. An intersex guy who was literally assigned a sex at random by doctors because they couldn’t figure out what he is might identify as transgender because the doctors guessed his biological sex wrong. A transsexual who feels like a woman even though her body is male-typical might identify as transgender because although the doctors perceived her body correctly, they made massive assumptions about her sense of embodiment and how she would experience her sex. A transgenderist who lives as a “male woman” or “female man” might identify as transgender because they don’t fit into the expectations of masculinity or femininity placed upon them and want to live according to the gender expectations placed on the other sex. A genderqueer person might identify as transgender because they don’t feel like they fit in as a boy or girl and want an identity that will allow them to simply be themselves. Many other people might sympathize with the transgender movement because they have aspects of themselves that are stereotypically associated with the other sex, like sensitivity in men or tomboyishness in women. Each of these “types” of transgender people are headbutting against one aspect of gender, although it’s a different aspect for each of them.

End of Part 1. Proceed to Part 2


Table of contents:

Part 2, the conversation on “gender as determined sex.”

Part 3, the conversation on “gender as subconscious sex.”

Part 4, the conversation on “gender as a social grouping.”

Part 5, the conversation on “gender as behavior.”

Part 6, the conversation on “gender as role.”

Part 7, a personal plea for gender sanity.


22 thoughts on “What is gender? OR Why the term is both meaningless and indispensible

  1. Pingback: Well, that’s the last time I go to Mass in boy clothes | Voila Viola!

  2. Pingback: What is gender? Part 2: Gender as determined sex | The Catholic Transgender

  3. Pingback: What is gender? Part 3: Gender as subconscious sex | The Catholic Transgender

  4. Pingback: What is gender? Part 4: Gender as social grouping | The Catholic Transgender

  5. Pingback: What is gender? Part 5: Gender as behavior | The Catholic Transgender

  6. Pingback: What is gender? Part 6: Gender as role | The Catholic Transgender

  7. Pingback: What is Gender? Part 7: A Personal Plea for Gender Sanity | The Catholic Transgender

  8. Pingback: Binary “Gender Ideology” Refuted: The Complexities of Gender | Queering the Church

  9. Pingback: Binary “Gender Ideology” Refuted: The Complexities of Gender | The Queer Church Project

  10. Pingback: annamagda4christ on “WHAT IS GENDER?” Part 1 (Reblogged) | The Queer Church Project

  11. Pingback: The difference between Gender Theory and talking about “gender” | The Catholic Transgender

  12. Pingback: AnnaMagdalena 4Christ, on “WHAT IS GENDER? PART 2″ (Reblog) | The Queer Church Repository

  13. Pingback: A PERSONAL PLEA FOR GENDER SANITY (Reblog) | The Queer Church Repository

  14. Pingback: GENDER AS ROLE (Reblog) | The Queer Church Repository

  15. Pingback: GENDER AS BEHAVIOR (Reblog) | The Queer Church Repository

  16. Pingback: GENDER AS SUBCONSCIOUS SEX (Reblog) | The Queer Church Repository

  17. Pingback: GENDER AS SOCIAL GROUPING (Reblog) | The Queer Church Repository

  18. Pingback: “Transgender Catholics hope to build bridges in the Church” (news) | Catholic Trans*

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