The first thing that we notice when we look at another person is whether they are male or female. In fact, studies on first impressions tell us that we make this judgment within a millisecond of encountering someone. So what do we look at? Assuming you don’t live in a nudist colony, you don’t have access to information about a person’s primary sex characteristics. Instead the judgments about a person’s gender are based on their secondary sex characteristics — namely facial hair, breasts, voice pitch, bone structure, etc. </p>
We rely on the information that we can perceive about a person’s biology to determine their gender. However, gender is not always biologically bound. Think about an encounter with an androgynous person. Androgynous people don’t present typical concrete, distinguishable male or female characteristics. Androgynous people do have a gender identity, but it is atypical of how society conceptualizes gender. Gender ambiguity causes people to feel discomfort, or even anxiety, because it questions our usual process of categorizing it based on biological information. This is extremely problematic for gender nonconformists, but it even causes problems for gender conforming individuals. Why is it so important to understand gender? Moreover, why is it that our society enforces understanding gender through biological sex characteristics?
Intersex individuals experience the bulk of the repercussions of society’s demand to polarize gender. They are incapable of conforming to standards of being biologically male or female as society understands it, and many are coerced into sex surgeries in order to normalize their bodies. In understanding the ambiguity of gender through intersex and transgender issues, we get to the root of the problem in how we conceptualize the difference between “man” and “woman.” It is abundantly clear that society puts way too much emphasis on the body when defining gender.
Our society’s conceptualization of gender is binary, and consists of prototypical representations of a woman’s and a man’s body. A prototypical woman has breasts, a smaller waist-to-hip ratio, curvy legs, a high voice, and a vagina. A prototypical man has muscular pecs, defined biceps, an Adam’s apple, a low voice, and a penis. The list can continue for the different sex characteristics that men and women have, but the point is that there are certain standards that society has for gender representations. Intersex individuals challenge those standards, and they therefore challenge how we categorize genders. But other people tend to deviate from those sex characteristics too. Think about a woman with small breasts — is she any less of a woman? What about a man with “man boobs”— is he less of a man?
Here’s a question: where do we draw the line when a person deviates so much from the typical sex characteristics that they no longer are a man or a woman? Is it when they don’t have any reproductive capabilities? Is it when they don’t produce sex-typed hormones? I would argue that maybe we shouldn’t try to draw the line at all.
In my opinion, a woman who does not have a vagina but identifies as female is still a woman. Similarly, a man who has a male gender identity but does not have a penis is still a man. Gender is not biologically bound. We are taking the easy way out when we look to sex characteristics to make judgments about gender.
There is such a wonderful spectrum of expressions of womanhood and manhood that when you think of a prototypical man and woman, you shouldn’t be able to visualize anything. It is time society understands that gender is a psychological construct with biology being the afterthought. Instead, we insist that sex and gender are intertwined.
I understand that it is difficult to break your instinct to make judgments about a person’s gender based on your first impression of their sex. It is a learned response, and I accept that we don’t have a lot of control over inhibiting it. However, we do have all of the control over what happens next. Society needs to start being accepting of all the different ways that men and women live. And I think that comes from waking up and embracing the ambiguity of the question. Gender is a complex concept to understand, but that is absolutely okay. Let’s stop trying to define it — leave that to academia. Instead, let’s be interested in the person’s story and put our judgments to rest.