“Wahhh…” A newborn cries as it leaves the mother’s warm womb to face the baffling world. The doctor joyously announces, “it’s a girl” or “it’s a boy.” The baby is identified by the pronoun -she or he, based on which the life of an infant is mapped out. From the clothes they wear to the toys they play with, from the emotions they can express to their probable profession, the seemingly distinctive categories of male and female becomes a pertinent determinant. Further, our society traditionally expects that only a man and woman can be attracted to each other. Sounds familiar, right? But just because we are conditioned to look at things a certain way, it doesn’t tell us the entire story! It is now time to move beyond the binary vision that makes us comprehend the world in black and white, or in this case pink and blue. When we perceive things through a prism of possibilities rather than a non-dichotomous lens, the rainbow of sex , gender and sexual identity emerges. Wait, what? don’t they all mean the same? Absolutely not! Come, let’s try to unravel them one by one-
‘Sex’ entails physiological characteristics like genitalia, chromosomes, hormones, and genes that we are born with. But guess what? Our biology can blur the line of distinction between “male” and “female” bodies with the diversity and variation it offers. Yes, intersex individuals have physiologically reproductive traits that do not conform to the “typical” sex assignment. No, there is nothing faulty or unhealthy about an intersex identity. So, do our genitals dictate our ways of being? To answer this, let us put the spotlight on the term ‘gender.’
1) Gender–biologically determined or socially constructed?
An increasing line of evidence shows that the experience of gender is a complex interplay between nature and nurture. A meta-analytical study by Todd et al. (2017) revealed that a preference for “male typed” toys or “female typed” toys cannot only be attributed to cultural expectations but also biological predisposition. Despite variations in the geographical location of the study, culture setting, provision of gender neutral toys, presence or absence of adults and the year of publication, there remained a significant difference in toy preferences among girls and boys. These differences remained consistent across countries that rated high on gender inequality and those that scored low on the dimension, suggesting an innate influence on the toy selecting behavior. However, fundamental differences embedded in biology should not confine individuals to a particular way of thinking, feeling, or behaving. Our intrinsic differences are plagued by rigid gender norms that society propagates. This is where the social forces of gender steps in.
Rhoda Unger (1979), a feminist psychologist illustrated that the terms ‘sex ‘and ‘gender’ are not synonymous. While sex suggests biological differences, gender is a socially established role arbitrarily allocated based on this biological distinction. We let the labels, female and male, guide our everyday behavior and choices across situations through the process of socialization. “Why are you weeping like a girl? Learn to play it cool (it doesn’t matter if you are dying inside).” “Who is this horrible driver? Must be a woman.” These are the voices of the everyday gender roles and stereotypes that we subscribe to. We invariably assume someone born as a male to epitomize “masculine” qualities associated with being assertive, unemotional, dominant, and daring. On the other hand, someone born as a female is expected to embody “feminine qualities” recognized as sensitivity, dependency, gentleness, and passivity (Williams and Bennett, 1975). However, instead of regarding “masculinity” and “femininity” as two ends of a pole, androgyny implies a union of both. On the Bem Sex Role Inventory, designed by psychologist Sandra Bem (1974), high scores on femininity don’t necessarily mean low scores on masculinity. Yes, one can score high on both the dimensions simultaneously! In other words, you can express your gender in ways that renounce the rigid dichotomy of “man” or “woman.” This also brings us to the next concept.
2) Gender identity
Gender identity is one’s self-conception or internal sense of who one is based on their association with “feminine” and “masculine” gender roles. A transgender individual might feel that their biological sex doesn’t do justice to their subjective experience of gender, elucidating that we are more than our anatomy. Our identity brings with it a universe of possibilities, existing across an infinite continuum. Gender diverse individuals can move across this spectrum, feel they belong somewhere in between, or choose not to associate with any gender at all. They may identify as non-binary, gender-queer, gender fluid, agender (to name a few), or not label themselves at all. What matters at the end of the day is that self-expression can be myriad, varied, colorful and yet valid!
The discussion around multiple forms of expression remains incomplete without addressing sexuality. Our sexuality is the romantic, emotional, and /or sexual attraction (if at all there is any) towards others. Just like the rest of the concepts discussed here, there are no prizes for guessing that sexuality too exists on a spectrum. Alfred Kinsey (1948), devised a rating scale that ranges from exclusively ‘heterosexual’ to exclusively ‘homosexual’ (the term is outdated and considered offensive. Avoid using it!). This suggests that people can experience their sexuality in ways extending far beyond our listed categories. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, bi-curious, asexual, aromantic demisexual, and pan-sexual are just a few of these diverse identities, each adding its own unique hue to the rainbow.
While many individuals wish to express themselves in unique ways, they continue to face discrimination, injustice, and isolation because their identity doesn’t align with society’s definition of “normal.” A recent study conducted by UNESCO (2019) tried to understand the experiences of participants (18-22 years) who identified as members of the LGBT community in Chennai’s educational institutions. The results divulged that 60% of the respondents had faced physical bullying and 43% sexual harassment in school. Consequently, they suffered from depression, anxiety, and were more likely to drop out of school. How do we challenge this status quo? The way forward lies in questioning the hetero-normative narrative that promotes strict gender binaries and advocates heterosexuality as the norm. The essence of a pluralistic and inclusive culture is in celebrating differences and accepting all forms of expression as legitimate.
While navigating the evolving constructs of gender and sexuality is an ongoing process, may you define and redefine yourself in unbounded and unapologetic ways, breaking free from the pigeonhole!
You told me the box is where I belong
But I could hear the rainbow call me, all along
You told me my identity is something to hide
But in being myself, I take immense pride.