Of all the words in the English language, the one whose generally accepted meaning has changed (and is changing) the most must be GENDER. This is quite a long post but I hope you will persevere and add your comments to get some discussion going.
Growing up I, along with most people my age I imagine, linked gender with the physical attributes of our bodies. There were boys and there were girls and they were well defined by their bumps, curves and dangly bits. If I were to be completely honest (And that’s kind of the point of this blog…) then I still thought in those terms until relatively recently, the last few years or so.
What I have come to realise is that it isn’t the definition of the word that has changed. That’s important.
It isn’t that the OED has suddenly changed it’s wording. It isn’t that a group of people has been mangling the English language (Well it is, that group is “almost everyone” in global terms). The movement is currently towards using the word in it’s ACTUAL context as defined over the last few hundred years and as described in the OED etc; not it’s colloquially understood definition that I (And most people) grew up with.
The entry for “gender” in the Oxford English Dictionary reads:
The state of being male or female (Typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)
This is revolutionary and allows for a much expanded language surrounding a persons “state of being” that is more accurate, sympathetic and downright “true”.
As a contrast, the word “sex” as used in a similar context has the meaning of
Either of the two main categories into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive function.
As a further expansion, the definition of “male” in a “sex” context is
Of or denoting the sex that produces gametes, specifically spermatozoa, with which a female may be fertilised or inseminated to produce offspring
So, two completely different sets of definitions which unfortunately use the same two terms of “male” and “female”. It is unfortunately completely correct from a language point of view to say “I am a (sex) female (gender) male” which isn’t very helpful although it does illustrate the point.
The “sex” definition isn’t absolutely perfect as it excludes people born with physical indicators and expressions of both or neither “sex”. It kind of refers to this by using the term “…two main categories…” though.
So, we have gender and we have sex. It’s complicated further by gender not being a binary system in the real world. It’s all very well to say that it refers to societal males and females but in reality a lot of people show traits applicable to both. Gender is much more of a spectrum than a switch that is one way or the other.
After realising all this I started to look at myself and see how I fit in. I should say that I also know that I have a long way to go before I understand this subject anywhere near perfectly, and I think that it’s an area that is still having its boundaries pushed so there is probably no-one who has that perfect understanding. Most recently I have read an article on the difference between “Gender expression” and “Gender identity”; and so it goes on. I find the whole subject absolutely fascinating so will continue to try and improve my understanding.
Anyway, back to me!
To use the “sex” term, I am male. That’s a pretty easy one for me. My body is built the way you would typically expect a (sex) male to be built. I should add that I am also a cis male in that my gender identity matches my body.
The interesting bit for the purposes of this post comes when I start to try and analyse my own gender. I think that I am talking about “gender expression” here, but that’s a sub classification that I am still working on my understanding of so please do comment on whether I have this right.
I have a beard. Not a big bushy one but a full face beard none the less. This obviously scores a point in the direction of a male gender expression. I wear and feel comfortable in what my society considers to be attire appropriate to the male gender so there’s another point towards it. I use male pronouns and would rather other people do too so there is another.
I am not competitive at all. I have no drive to win be that in a computer game, a running race, or in my career. In these terms I think that is a more female expression. When I sit down on a chair I cross my legs, and if I am on a sofa I tend to fold them beside me. Again, more of a female expression.
If I were to go through all of my behaviour and drop each one into those slots I think I would be on the male side of the centre of the spectrum, but not by a huge amount. I am happy and conmfortable with that.
I hope that you enjoyed this little intro to my understanding of gender. If you are on this journey with me then please let me know your understanding. If your understanding differs or you think I am way off mark please dive in and let me know.