Society is evolving, and with it, our ideas about gender identity. But for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, perhaps this evolution and acceptance is coming too slowly. Dated ideas about gender identity still make it difficult for many people—young and not-so-young—to explore questions about their gender and/or express gender identities that do not conform to mainstream society’s expectations.
UNM Truman Health Services is always a safe place to explore gender identity and gender relations, and we offer some information that may make the journey a little easier.
The Difference between Sex and Gender
In order to discuss or explore gender issues, you need to be aware of the difference between sex and gender.
Sex is a biological determination. A human is either male or female (with rare exceptions of hermaphrodism), depending on chromosomal composition and primary sex traits, which includes genitalia.
Gender is a social determination. Historically, gender refers to masculine or feminine expression, which has been linked to one’s biological sex. Today, however, we know that gender is much more fluid. Gender identity may be developed independent of (perhaps even in spite of) biological sex, and individuals may express their gender differently in varying social contexts.
Gender expression is largely defined by the prevailing beliefs, ideas and expectations about sex and gender in which an individual is raised—i.e., religious, cultural and family contexts.
Myths about Gender
The historical sex-gender correlation perpetuates some myths about gender even today, including:
- There are two genders—i.e., you are/should be either masculine or feminine
- Gender is determined by sex—i.e., men should be masculine, women should be feminine
- Gender is synonymous with sexual orientation
These myths further complicate gender exploration and expression. The “should’s” implied by many gender myths also create a right/wrong dynamic that results in individuals who identify outside “normal” gender boundaries to feel shame or guilt…and that shame and guilt feeds into stigmatization that prevents individuals from getting tested or treated for HIV/AIDS.
Dealing with Gender Identity
At UNM Truman Health Services, we’re not kidding ourselves into thinking that defining terms or myth-busting is all it takes to make dealing with gender identity easy, but we have to start somewhere. Education about what gender is and is not is a solid foundation for individuals to begin their own gender exploration or help their friends and families understand and accept members of “other” gendered communities.
In addition to education, building a support system is essential to dealing with gender identity issues. Support networks may include:
- Individuals who similarly identify themselves on the gender spectrum
- Communities who openly accept non-sex-determined gender identities (for instance, the gay and lesbian communities—communities defined by sexual orientation but often adhere to mainstream sex-defined gender identities—are typically welcoming of individuals who do not identify with a sex-defined gender)
- People who work in/with “other” gendered communities
Health and wellness organizations like UNM Truman Health Services are safe and supportive spaces for individuals who do not identify with mainstream gender identities. We may have links to community agencies and resources that can help you build your support network. Please contact us for more information.