Monday, December 6, 2010

Gender Terms: An introduction to the lingo of gender in the Anglo-white West

image is from here
Increasingly, for now, I am wanting to analyse how dominant society presents information about "gender". My experience  within my own queer realms, is that in the last twenty years, there has been a concerted effort to de-politicise gender, presenting it instead as an ever-increasingly fluid and complex social reality, as if whte het male supremacy has effectively disappeared as an ideological and institutionalised force that determines a great deal about how gender is expressed, enforced, and sometimes survived.
From Below The Belt blog: 1.14.2010. Please click on the title just below to link back. My comment follows, along with a couple by another member of Below The Belt, who goes by the moniker aqueertheory.

Gender 101

My previous (and first post) dealt with the concept of femme gender and whether or not it needs to be legitimized. An excellent suggestion was made that I make myself clear on what I mean by gender and the terms that I’m using and that I do a little Gender 101.

Usually with a 101, we start with vocabulary so that we can understand the words being used. Here are some common terms that are used when talking about sex and gender:

Sex: A term used to describe a type of physical body, can be based on primary and secondary sex characteristics, hormones, and/or chromosomes.

Primary Sex Characteristics: Sex characteristics that are directly related to the reproductive system and encompass genitals

Secondary Sex Characteristics: Sex characteristics that are not directly part of reproductive organs and develop during puberty (such as breasts)

Genitals: External sex organs that are directly related to the reproductive system

Reproductive System: The organs of a body that allow a species to reproduce

Gender: A social and psychological identity

Gender Roles: Sets of behavior and assigned by society that are supposed to correspond to traditional ideas about gender

Male Sex: Usually assigned at birth based on primary sex characteristics, such as the presence of a penis, scrotum, and testicles. The assignment can be based on hormones, other primary sex characteristics, secondary sex characteristics, chromosomes

Female Sex: Usually assigned at birth based on primary sex characteristics, such as the presence of a clitoris, vagina and vulva. The assignment can be based on hormones, other primary sex characteristics, secondary sex characteristics, chromosomes

Man: A gender identity socially assigned to those who are assigned with the male sex at birth as well as a gender identity that one may come to through experiences and identification.

Woman: A gender identity socially assigned to those who are assigned with the female sex at birth as well as a gender identity that one may come to through experiences and identification.

Gender Fluid: A person whose gender identity and presentation fluctuates

Third Gender: A person whose gender identity and presentation does not fit within concepts of man or woman

Intersex: Intersex bodies are that do not fit within the concept of an exclusively male or female sexed body.

Biological Sex: A term used to describe the sex of the physical body – a controversial term

Cisgendered: A term used to describe those whose gender identity matches that of the sex they were assigned at birth

Transgender: An umbrella term to describe those whose gender identity falls outside of the normative assignment of male sex = male gender and masculine behavior and gender presentation, or of female sex = female gender and feminine behavior and gender presentation

Transsexual: A term originating in the medical field to describe one who has through medicine changed a part of their sex either through hormones or surgery

Feminine: Characteristics of a person that are associated with femaleness and female gender roles

Masculine: Characteristics of a person that are associated with maleness and male gender roles

Butch: Can be used to mean a masculine gender identity for a person assigned female at birth, or a masculine gender identity for a gay-identified man or a gender identity that encompasses some masculine or what is defined as butch characteristics originating in the lesbian community

Femme: Can be used to mean a feminine gender identity for a person assigned female at birth that identifies as a lesbian, or a feminine gender identity for a gay-identified man or a gender identity that encompasses some feminine or what is defined as Femme characteristics originating in the lesbian community

Boi: Usually a term for a young masculine or gender fluid identified person who was assigned female at birth, also commonly used among young gay-identified men

Boy: Used as a term for a young masculine or male-identified person, sometimes used by anyone with a young masculine gender identity

Girl: Used as a term for a young feminine or female-identified person

Grrl: A term originating among third-wave feminists to replace traditional ideas of young girls as tender and passive

Effeminate: Gender characteristics associated with the behavior of gay men
Normative: Follows cultural and social norms

We are usually taught that there are two sexes – male and female-and two corresponding genders to the two sexes – man and woman, in some circles, that is considered the end all and be all of sexed bodies and gender identities. In other circles it is acknowledged that there are more than two sexes, that there are those who are intersex, and that the range of sexed bodies is quite large with no clear demarcation between the two. Historically and currently in some areas, the concept that there are two sexes has been considered a simple fact of biology and that there are two corresponding genders a simple organizing principle of society.

Recent developments in gender studies, and findings in anthropology and sociology have challenged both viewpoints. Several theorists, namely Anne Fausto-Sterling have challenged the idea that sex as we know it is a biological fact. She points out that the range of sexed bodies is far larger than simply male or female and that historically and currently our concepts of what constitutes ‘male’ or ‘female’ hormones, the penis and/or the clitoris as well as secondary sex characteristics have been socially influenced for as long as the concepts have been around. Other challenges on Western concepts of gender can be found in comparative Anthropological gender studies show that many other cultures have a different gender structure, they may have more than two genders or entirely different characteristics assigned to the genders they have, even if they two follow the male=man and female=woman taxonomy.

However, one does not necessarily need to look to academia to understand and know that many people’s lived experience differs from what is considered normative in terms of sex and gender. Communities of differently sexed and differently gendered folks, and other sexual minorities such as the BDSM-Leather-Fetish and LGBT communities, have a wide variety of gender identities that are created, celebrated, contested and that move into other communities. The world at large includes a plethora of sexed bodies and gendered experiences and the ways in which I have experienced the world as someone who identifies as a Femme, but not necessarily a woman, and the experiences of others all across the sex and gender spectrum are the types of experiences I would like to examine, celebrate and delve into in my writing. This is just the tip of the iceberg – it is Gender 101 and I look forward to Gender 201 and beyond.

Nice post! One of the best things about setting out a list of definitions is that they can then be played around with and the nuances in them can really be brought out. Just some things I would add: 

Sex: A term used to describe a type of physical body, can be based on primary and secondary sex characteristics, hormones, and/or chromosomes. Nevertheless, some people's assigned sex, usually given at birth, might not match the sex that they feel themselves to be. Hence, sex may also be a psychic, experiential and mental phenomenon. And others might not feel a belonging to any particular sex, preferring to identify as "genderqueer."

Gender Roles: Sets of behavior, life-style patterns, occupations (the list can go on...) assigned by society that are supposed to correspond to traditional ideas about gender

Third Gender (this could be agender, genderqueer, fourth, fifth gender etc...): A person whose gender identity and presentation does not fit within concepts of man or woman
Saturday, January 23, 2010, 9:42:03 AM
Cisgendered: A term used to describe those whose gender identity matches that of the sex they were assigned at birth. Perhaps we need to differentiate between sex and gender here, because there doesn't necessarily need to be a "match" between sex and gender. For instance, Julia Serano understands the terms "transsexual" and "cissexual" to refer more to people who identify and live as a sex that is different from the one they are assigned at birth:
“Trans” means “across” or “on the opposite side of,” whereas “cis” means “on the same side of.” So if someone who was assigned one sex at birth, but comes to identify and live as a member of the other sex, is called a “transsexual” (because they have crossed from one sex to the other), then the someone who lives and identifies as the sex they were assigned at birth is called a “cissexual.”
One thing that we might reconsider, also, is defining primary sex characteristics and genitals in terms of reproductive function or the reproductive system. I think it might be better to emphasize that these organs function also for pleasure and relaxation, for bonding with a partner, for excretion etc... The argument that penises and vaginas' main function is reproductive is usually used by conservatives to claim privileges and superiority for heterosexuality and the two-parent heterosexual family. On the other hand, recognizing the multiple functions of these body parts might be essential to free us from the idea that the most legitimate sex is the kind that occurs for reproductive purposes. Actually, I would wager that most of the sex in the world does not occur with that goal in mind. 
In any case, really interesting post, looking forward to Gender 201 and to more discussion on these definitions!

Julian Real
I just want to add to the list:

Asexual: someone who doesn't desire or wish to participate in compulsory sexual cultures. Sometimes this term is used to describe people who have no identifiable "libido" or "sex drive" or sexual attraction and interest as that is generally understood to occur in the human population.

Intergender: an identity or experience of not feeling like either of the two enforced Western/non-Indigenous genders, and/or someone who feels like both of them.

And to add to this one:

Intersex: Intersex people are those whose bodies or physiologies don't match what dominant society says "a male person" or "a female person" are supposed to biologically be or physiologically look like. There are various conditions identified by the dominant medical establishment as "intersex conditions" of birth, some of which may become more noticeable during puberty.

Gender: in contemporary Western and non-Indigenist cultures, it is enforced as a binary, oppositional, hierarchical system of power relations, in which men oppress, dominate, and subordinate females, girls, women, and boys and men presumed to be gay or perceived to be "too feminine".

*          *          * 

For more information, see these webpages:

From that site is this information:

Asexuals, while typically lacking in sexual desire for either sex, may engage in purely emotional romantic relationships. Terms concerning this:
  • aromantic: lack of romantic attraction towards anyone of any gender
  • biromantic: romantic attraction towards person(s) of either gender
  • heteroromantic: romantic attraction towards person(s) of the opposite gender
  • homoromantic: romantic attraction towards person(s) of the same gender
  • panromantic: romantic attraction towards person(s) of any gender or lack of gender
  • transromantic: romantic attraction towards person(s) of variant or ambiguous gender
  • polyromantic: romantic attraction towards person(s) of more than one gender or sex but without implying, as biromantic does, that there are only two genders or sexes
Also, we ought to note that some people who are what has traditionally in the West been termed "bisexual" may identify instead as one of several other terms: pansexual, omnisexual, or ambisexual (think "ambidextrous":  someone who can write or do other activities with either hand).

Also completely left out of the Gender 101 discussion are Two-Spirit people. Two-Spirit, is a term used to describe various people in many different Indigenous ethnic groups. It is not exactly synonymous with being either "intersex", "bisexual", or "third gender", but may refer to each of those in some cases. As is the case with many non-anglo-origin terms, Two-Spirit doesn't translate neatly into Western-Anglo conceptions of gender and sex. Two-Spirit may refer to someone with a Third Gender, or it may refer to someone who is understood to possess what are traditionally seen as masculine and feminine traits of behaviors. How it is understood, and other terms for similar states of being, are varied among the many hundreds of Indigenous cultures, and we ought not assume one term, such as Two-Spirit, is adequate to mean all of those ways of being across cultures. In the non-Indigenous West, the term is sometimes, if rarely, included in the list of other queer terms, such as by stating that queer people includes those who are "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Two-Spirit."

Also left out in the Gender 101 list is this term:

Cissexual: [from Wikipedia] Cissexual is an adjective used in the context of gender issues to describe "people who are not transsexual and who have only ever experienced their mental and physical sexes as being aligned". Julia Serano uses the term in her book "Whipping Girl" but does not claim to have coined it. Helen Boyd, author of "My Husband Betty" and "She's Not the Man I Married", has argued on her blog that "cissexual" is a less loaded term than "cisgender" and make fewer assumptions about the person's relationship to gender roles and the transgender community. Should not be confused with sissy.


  1. Great post! Sometimes my brain gets confused between several terms, so i felt this was very helpful. Also, like always, thank you SO much for including asexuality. So many queer theorists avoid this term, and it does hurt...So thank you :)

    Also, I was wondering, and i apologize for my ignorance, but I was having a discussion in WMST class and one woman said "Intersex is the same as hermaphrodite" and i said "WAAA?" So now i'm quite confused. I read your definition and it's definitely not the same as a hermaphrodite (is this term even acceptable?!) I was quite taken aback by her comment. Do you think you know why she had that idea?

  2. Hi Owl Eyes!

    I'm glad this was helpful and I'll answer your q as completely as I can.

    My understanding is this about the term "hermaphrodite".

    First, I have a few intersex friends and they would not appreciate having someone say that being intersex is synonymous with being "a hermaphrodite".

    It is one of those Anglo "used to be used but ain't no more" terms. The other term that has been used is calling someone an "androgyne". But "hermaphrodite", specifically, was used in the U.S. circus's "freak" exploitation "shows". "The Bearded Lady", "The Fat Person" and "The Hermaphrodite" were regulars in the parade of people dehumanised into a moniker that basically was equated with "freak" in the minds and imaginations of the general public.

    Androgyne is sometimes distinguished from "intersex" (and "hermaphrodite") this way: being intergender could be said to be akin to being androgynous, referring to observable (and generally hetero/sexistly stereotyped) behavior traits. But being intergender doesn't mean what "androgynous" means, exactly. Androgynous means "showing both masculine and feminine traits and behaviors. Being intersex might mean that, or might mean showing NEITHER masculine nor feminine traits and behavior.

    I've known people who were not masculine and not feminine. And some people are both, and some are more often one than the other, etc.

    Intersex people aren't defined or categorised terms of behavior, but rather through invasive observation of one's anatomy and physiology, particularly one's external and internal genitals and gonads, as well as assessments of chromosome patterns and hormone levels.

    An intersex condition that may not show up in any observable way is CAIS. Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome occurs with some XY babies, when, during gestation, androgen isn't able to be absorbed at all or very minimally by the fetus, which develops as female-appearing.

    An intersex person with CAIS will generally be "assigned female" at birth, be raised as a girl, and be considered a woman in adulthood. Someone could be CAIS and neither they nor family, nor loved ones would know they have an XY chromosome pattern, or some other pattern other than XX.

  3. Some people with AIS may struggle with personal-political issues regarding being medically and socially categorised and labeled. One may have to contend with having genitals that don't quite appear to be "entirely female" or "entirely male" as such things are understood to exist in a rigid sex-binaried and gender-binaried world as the Western dominant one.

    Some intersex people struggle with their own sexual and gender identities.

    As most of us queer folk don't really appreciate being called "freaks", that term, hermaphrodite, is usually no longer used, and it strikes me as both offensive and oppressive of someone in a classroom declaring anyone to be a hermaphrodite, or tossing out that term as if it is useful and respectful.

    Similarly, if one is seeking to be socially and ethnically respectful and politically responsible, one ought not use the term "Siamese Twins" any more to mean "conjoined twins". The latter term is the preferred one, as it is both more accurately descriptive and it doesn't have the racist/ethnically specific reference to Eng and Chang Bunker.

    The Bunker twins (who lived from May 11, 1811 – January 17, 1874) were from Siam (now Thailand). Being conjoined should no more imply one is "Siamese" than all sextuplets should be called "Indianans" because the Dilley sextuplets--one set of multiple birth babies (six infants were born from one pregnancy and all have survived), were born in Indiana.

    And, "Siam" is no longer the term for the country of Thailand, which is the only Southeast Asian country to have effectively resisted being colonised by Europeans.

  4. The difference between "hermaphroditism" and being "intersex" is also noteworthy. Even if we pretend both terms are equally acceptable in usage, they are not synonymous in meaning.

    The "h word" refers to humans and non-human animals or other life forms, such as plants, that have what anglo-westerners call "male" and "female" sex organs. Earthworms are a classic example and may be said to be "hermaphroditic". We don't usually call Earthworms "intersex", however.

    While earthworms can't self-reproduce, they each have testes and ovaries and can "take turns" fertilising each other when mating.

    A hermaphoditic person (the term coming from the Greek gods Hermes and Aphrodite), is, technically/biologically, someone who is BOTH female and male, physically/physiologically, appearing to have, and having, all sets of primary and secondary sexual characteristics, including both sets of genitals and gonads, as well as female breasts.

    What is important to note is that what are termed "male" and "female" genitals, are basically the same structures, influenced differently by hormones to form in ways often distinguishable from one another.

    The clitoris and penis are basically the same sexual structure. So too are the ovaries and testes. So too is the outer labia and the scrotum. The male scrotum often has a fusion line running up its center, which is where the labia fused to make it into a scrotum. The clitoris has both a head and a shaft.

    Intersex people's anatomy and physiology can be quite diverse, and doesn't necessarily mean any one intersex person has "both" or "all" reproductive and sexual organs. This fact alone is what makes that person's comment especially inaccurate. Someone might have a slightly open scrotum, a vagina that doesn't attach to a uterus, testes that don't descend, a penile-clitoral genital that is determined to be one or the other either by measurement (which is arbitrary), or by the placement of the urethra relative to it.

    In industry pornography, there is a category or genre called "She-male". This is a derogatory term. It refers to people who are surgically made into people who appear from the outside to be hermaphrodites, usually presenting male external genitals one was born with, and what is assumed incorrectly to be "female breasts".

    Having sacs of fluid inserted into one's chest doesn't make someone "have female breasts". When two sacs of silicone or saline solution are placed with one sac inside the flesh where each of two nipples is, these lumps are them perceived to be "a woman's breasts" by pimps and men who consume such pornography for sexual pleasure. (Note: it isn't terribly uncommon to have more than two nipples, but thus far I haven't encountered pornography that attempts to create three or more breasts on one person.)

    Even many het men who don't consume pornography may view the implanted chest lumps as actual "female breasts". And they may respond sexually to them they way they respond to women's natural breasts--which, quite frankly, are difficult to find in industry pornography.

  5. It is politically important to note that pornographised "she-males" are not necessarily or even usually transsexual or transgender people, any more than women who have breast implants for pimps and pornographers are "more womanly" than those who do not. Surgery doesn't make gender; structural political location from birth, and oppressive (mis)treatment--being treated as a girl and then a woman--does.

    Believing that surgically produced facsimiles of women's natural breasts, of whatever shape and size, are, in fact, "female breasts", is heteropatriarchal nonsense. This doesn't mean some women might wish to have reconstructive surgery following a mastectomy, to regain a sense of personal symmetry and not be so often physically reminded of the loss of one breast. But no woman I know who has had such work done considers the new medically produced form to be the natural breast she lost.

    The heteropatriarchal Western medical establishment has decided which bodily and physiological "configurations" warrant being called "a condition" and have a bunch of "intersex conditions" listed. Each are seen to be somehow anomalous, unusual, and "abnormal" and therefore tends to cast stigma onto those who are intersex. I object to this way of viewing and treating intersex people.

    I see being intersex more as like being left-handed, or having a somewhat unusual eye color.

    We are all born different from one another. Even identical twins aren't completely identical. That some of us are born with or develop less frequently occurring shaped genitals and/or reproductive systems doesn't make us abnormal; it makes our physical and/or physiological humanness less common, not less human.

    Being left-handed or having green eyes isn't abnormal; each reality simply occurs less often in the overall human population than right-handedness and having brown eyes.

    For more information on intersex conditions, see this website:

    I hope that helps you feel empowered to address that student who spoke in an offensive way.

    As with most terms that are no longer preferred, some people who are intersex do choose to "appropriate" the older terminology. I once knew an intersex person who used to give a presentation to non-intersex people. She referred to herself as a "hermaphrodyke", partly making fun of the whole history of that term--you laugh or you cry, or you get pissed as hell--and also outing herself as a lesbian at the same time.

    While she did this, I don't encourage others to do so. I think the liberal movement to appropriate insulting, degrading, and oppressive language from the dominant culture, used against us usually, is not very progressive and is not at all a radical thing to do.

  6. I thought the term hermaphrodite had a dirty past, like you said in "freak shows" I was quite taken aback when she used the term so liberally, but she's not the sharpest tool in the shed, she often uses inappropriate language that does not include and mis-identifies many groups.

    I agree with you in that it is incredibly offensive not to mention ignorant.

    Thank you for clarifying the difference, I'm am not familiar with intersex and what it really means, so i'm glad I asked :)

    Also, you mentioned the whole "reclamation" of awful language...I also agree with you. I was hanging out with some lesbian women who are liberal (the dan savage loving kind) and would say shit like "cunt" to try and sound revolutionary when speaking of other women's vaginas but i was just profoundly offended as i wouldn't want anyone, a man or a woman, referring to my vagina area as a "cunt". I hate this "third" wave, post modernist b.s...seriously...I hear about it all the time.

    It drives me up the wall!!!

  7. I used to view lesbianism as having two key political affiliations: one with white gay men and all that white gay men value, and the other with radical feminists of any color.

    I remember, a couple or so decades ago, observing gay lesbians behave in heteropatriarchal ways--"priding" themselves on being just like all white boys. Meanwhile, the radical lesbian feminists were challenging every aspect of the status quo and organising against it.

    That's when I gave up my alliance with white gay manhood and with white gay male politics.

    I've never regretted the decision.

    I'm hoping we can support and inspire a few readers across the globe to not feel ashamed of being radical feminist, lesbian or not.