I try to keep my mother up to date on my weekly platter of lady friends. It’s a roller coaster, I know, between casual dates, coffee dates, restaurant dates, Sadler Center dates and dates-that-aren’t-really-dates; not to mention cute cuddle buddies, not-girlfriends, friends whom I occasionally kiss and platonic boyfriends. But, bless that woman, she tries her best.
The other afternoon as we chatted during our daily phone call, I mentioned that a potential suitor had visited me. “Oh, how was she?” my mom asked, having met the friend in question prior to this.
I corrected her, “He.”
“He?” she repeated.
“He,” I confirmed.
She paused and then said confidently, “She.”
“No,” I amended. “He.”
“He?” I could practically hear her brow furrowing.
This thread of conversation continued on for a few minutes as I established, yes, this is the friend she met. No, he is not a she. Yes, he has breasts and a vagina. No, he’s not transgender. And yes, non-binary is a legitimate gender identity. That, of course, led to a discussion about my sexuality. For argument’s sake, if I’m sexually interested in someone who is female-bodied but identifies as male, am I still a lesbian?
I hadn’t thought of that before. A few hours after the phone call, I asked a friend over a plate of soggy fries, “Am I still a lesbian if I’m interested in him?”
She replied, “You can be whatever you want.”
And I think she put it best. Sexual and gender identity is a personal experience that matters only in an individual context. Of course, the personal is also the political, but I’m not even going there today.
For the uninformed, sex and gender identity are indeed different. Sex has a chromosomal basis and is rooted in genetics, whereas gender identity is an individual’s sense of self in the context of a culture with binary, sex-based social structures. Gender identity can fall on a spectrum between masculine and feminine, or it can eschew the masculine or feminine binary altogether. That said, sex — or more aptly, the gender assigned at birth — and gender identity do not necessarily match up. When the assigned gender and gender identity are the same, individuals are cisgender; when assigned gender and gender identity differ, well, there’s a whole dictionary’s worth of labels that may or may not be used to describe them.
A transgender individual is typically a person whose gender identity falls on the binary gender spectrum and identifies as male or female, contrary to that person’s assigned gender. A transwoman may be a male-bodied person who identifies as female, and a transman may be a female-bodied person who identifies as male. On the other hand, a non-binary individual’s gender identity falls outside the binary gender spectrum. Non-binary people often abstain from the male/female and masculine/feminine dichotomy. Neutrois, bigender and androgyne are a few identities that fall on the non-binary spectrum.
Transgender and non-binary individuals may experience dysphoria, which is the persistent feeling that something is off, wrong, or generally not right about their bodies, the gender they were assigned at birth, or their social acceptance based on their assigned gender and their gender identity. Dysphoria can be characterized by both physical and emotional discomfort, depression and anxiety.
Now, how many ambiguous words can I throw out before the average person’s head explodes? Cisgender, transgender, genderqueer, agender, bigender, genderfluid, neutrois, androgyne, intersex, cissexual, third gendered — are you overwhelmed yet?
It’s complicated. I spent an hour trying to nail down an accurate definition of sex and another 50 minutes defining gender, and that’s coming from someone who is fully entrenched in queer culture.
However, the most important thing to remember, beyond all the fancy jargon, is that an individual’s gender identity is immensely personal, and an outside party’s opinion doesn’t really matter. Let’s rephrase that with the impersonal “you”: Your feelings about someone else’s gender identity don’t matter. Don’t even think about telling people they aren’t the gender with which they identify.
Kalyn Horn is a Behind Closed Doors columnist and thinks that pronouns should be used with great caution.