In sociology, gender identity describes the gender with which a person identifies (i.e, whether one perceives oneself to be a man, a woman, or describes oneself in some less conventional way), but can also be used to refer to the gender that other people attribute to the individual on the basis of what they know from gender role indications (clothing, hair style, etc.). This will normally be the same as their biological sex.
Gender identity may be affected by a variety of social structures, including the person's ethnic position, employment status, religion or irreligion, and family.
Gender identity - below the surface
In the overwhelming majority of cases there is no difficulty determining sex and gender. The overwhelming majority of human beings are considered to be either men or women. Before the 20th century a person's sex would be determined entirely by the appearance of the genitalia, but as chromosomes and genes came to be understood, these were then used to help determine sex. Most often, men have male genitalia, one X and one Y chromosome; and women female genitalia and have two X chromosomes. However some people consider that they do not fit these categories, and some have combinations of chomosomes, hormones, and genitalia that do not follow the typical definitions of "men" and "women". Recent research suggests that one in every hundred individuals may have an atypical sex.
The most easily understood case in which it becomes necessary to distinguish between sex and gender is that in which the external genitalia are removed - when such a thing happens through accident or through deliberate intent, the libido and the ability of express oneself in sexual activity are changed, but the individual does not for that reason cease to regard himself as a boy or a man. One such case is reported in As Nature Made Him by John Colapinto. It details the persistence of a male gender identity and the stubborn adherence to a male gender role of a person whose penis had been totally destroyed shortly after birth as the result of a botched circumcision, and who had subsequently been surgically reassigned by constructing female genitalia. So the term "gender identity" is broader than the sex of the individual as determined by examination of the external genitalia.
Formation of gender identity
The formation of a gender identity is a complex process that starts with conception, but which involves critical growth processes during gestation and even learning experiences after birth. There are points of differentiation all along the way, but language and tradition in most societies insist that every individual be categorized as either a man or a woman. When multiplicity is arbitrarily reduced to absolute dichotomy, conflicts are sure to result.
When, for instance, the gender identity of a person makes him a man, but his genitals are female, he may experience what is called gender dysphoria, i.e., a deep unhappiness caused by his experience of himself as a man and his lack of male genitals.
Some research has been done that indicates that gender identity is fixed in early childhood and is thereafter static. This research has generally proceeded by asking transsexuals when they first realized that the gender role that society attempted to place upon them did not match the gender identity that they found in themselves and the gender role that they chose to live out. These studies estimate the age at which gender identity is formed at around 2-3. Such research may be problematical if it made no comparable attempt to discover when non-transsexual people became aware of their own gender identities and choice of gender roles.
Some critics question this research, claiming that the studies suffer from a sampling bias. The acquisition of hormone replacement therapy and sexual reassignment surgery is generally controlled by doctors. One of the questions some doctors ask to distinguish between "real" transsexuals and others is to ask them when they first felt identification with the opposite sex. The researchers may then be unintentionally eliminating some subjects from consideration when they try to determine a typical time of gender identity formation. There is also a possibility of reporting bias, since transsexuals may feel that must give the "correct" answers to such questions in order to increase the chances of obtaining hormones. Pat Califia, author of Sex Changes and Public Sex, has indicated that this group has a clear awareness of what answers to give to survey questions in order to be considered eligible for hormone replacement therapy and/or sexual reassignment surgery:
- "None of the gender scientists seem to realize that they, themselves, are responsible for creating a situation where transsexual people must describe a fixed set of symptoms and recite a history that has been edited in clearly prescribed ways in order to get a doctor's approval for what should be their inalienable right".
Problems - gender identity and sex
Some people do not believe that their gender identity corresponds to their biological sex, namely transgender people, including transsexual people and many intersexed individuals as well. Consequently, complications arise when society insists that an individual adopt a manner of social expression (gender role) which is based on sex, that the individual feels is inconsistent with that person's gender identity.
One reason for such discordances in intersexed people is that some individuals have a chromosomal sex that has not been expressed in the external genitalia because of hormonal or other abnormal conditions during critical periods in gestation. Such a person may appear to others to be of one sex, but may recognize himself or herself as belonging to the other sex. The causes of transgenderism are less clear; it has been subject of much speculation, but no psychological theory has ever been proven to apply to even a significant minority of transgender individuals, and theories that assume a sex difference in the brain are relatively new and difficult to prove, because at the moment they require a destructive analysis of inner brain structures, which are quite small.
In recent decades it has become possible to surgically reassign sex. A person who experiences gender dysphoria may, then, seek these forms of medical intervention to have their physiological sex match their gender identity. Alternatively, some people who experience gender dysphoria retain the genitalia that they were born with (see transsexual for some of the possible reasons), but adopt a gender role that is consonant with what they perceive as their gender identity.
Relationship to gender role
The related term, "gender role," has two meanings that in individual cases may be divergent: First, people's gender roles are the totality of the ways by which they express their gender identities. Second, people's gender roles may be defined as the kinds of activities that society determines to be appropriate for individuals possessing their kind of external genitalia.
There are probably as many shades and complexities of sexual identity and gender identity as there are human beings, and there are an equal number of ways of working those gender identities out in the intricacies of daily life. Societies, however, tend to assign some classes of social roles to "male" individuals, and some classes of social roles to "female" individuals (as society perceives their sexes). In some societies, there are other classes of social roles for, e.g., surgically neutered physiological male. Sometimes the connection between gender identity and gender role is unclear. The original oversimplification was that there are unambiguously male human beings and unambiguously female human beings, that they are clearly men and clearly women, and that they should behave in all important ways as men and women "naturally" behave. Investigations in biology and sociology have strongly supported the view that "the sex between the ears is more important than the sex between the legs", and the implication has been that people with masculine gender identities will truthfully give external representation of their gender identities by adopting gender roles that are appropriate to men, and, similarly, that people with feminine gender identities will adopt gender roles that are appropriate to women. It may be very difficult to determine, however, whether a specific drag queen is someone who has a female gender identity and is learning a female gender role, or whether that person is someone with a male gender identity who enjoys mimicking a female gender role to entertain others, to taunt the more rigid members of his society, or for some other reason, such as to repudiate the value or validity of rigid gender roles. Some, such as RuPaul, refuse to be categorized.
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