Let us introduce the idea of gender as defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary: “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.” As usual, we plan to explain this concept in more depth in the following article. Gender is a social structure not easily explained in a singular dictionary definition. As our readers may be aware, gender and sex are defined as two distinct categories (though this distinction is relatively new in the grand scheme of things). Sex is used to describe the physical and genetic differences between different people. Gender, on the other hand, has nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with socialization, psychology, behavior, and presentation.
According to the constructs of the society that we live in, we view gender as binary and as a direct result of your sex chromosomes, meaning that if you have XX chromosomes, you’re a woman, and if you have XY chromosomes, you’re a man. This thought process has been central to our cultural understanding of gender for generations; however, as gender and sexuality discussions have become more mainstream, the general scientific view of gender has changed. The argument that gender and sex are interchangeable ignores the existence of variances in sex chromosomes, which result in intersex people whose physical and genetic traits cannot be tied down to female or male. Beyond that, there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that certain genetic differences have an absolute impact across the board on specific behaviors that could be thought of as either masculine or feminine. Instead, those behaviors come as a result of societal conditioning and cultural expectations.
It can be a novel idea for many people that gender is a social construct, which is entirely understandable because the idea of gender has been central to our entire social system for centuries. Every person is assigned a gender at birth and is socialized to fulfill the expectations that accompany that label before they can even understand what’s happening. Everything is gendered, and because the idea of gender as a binary is so widely accepted, there is little to no discussion or teaching of critical gender theory unless an individual chooses to seek out more understanding because they feel a different relationship to gender than those around them.
Though the two may not seem similar in the slightest, gender can be compared to race in both how they inform our social systems and in that it is defined more culturally than scientifically. With the example of race, there are no characteristics that can serve as an absolute to separate people on the basis of race. Though there are genetic differences between people of varying “races,” those differences are about as significant as eye color. The distinction emerges from the social hierarchy that first defined “race” as a concept: white supremacy. It may be harder to understand gender as a social construct because the genetic differences between male-bodied and female-bodied people are seemingly more obvious and distinct. However, those biological differences only hold significance because they allow us to create another hierarchy wherein male-bodied people hold the power: the patriarchy.
Just because gender is a socially constructed idea doesn’t mean that it has no impact on people’s lives. In fact, the complete opposite is true. We are taught to engage with the world under a certain set of rules based on our perceived gender assigned on a binary basis. Gendered socialization informs so much about how we interact with ourselves, the world, and others, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an essential category needed for society to function. For example, the statistic states that men were the perpetrators of 73% of violent crimes in 2012. This isn’t because those born with XY chromosomes are inherently more violent; it’s because centuries of societal conditioning and social systems have associated masculinity with violence and a need to be in control. On the flipside, femininity has been associated with being submissive, nurturing, and empathetic. But those behaviors are taught, not inherent. Understanding gender as a socially constructed system requires that one recognize the binary we live under due to arbitrarily assigned gender roles rather than innate biological traits.
We wanted to discuss the convoluted idea of gender because we both (Amaya and Aurora) use she/they pronouns and identify as non-binary. As female-bodied people, our experience of realizing our relationship to gender has left us both with similar feelings about how we are perceived by society versus the way we perceive ourselves. Both of us choose to use she/they pronouns instead of they/them pronouns alone because society still perceives us as women (regardless of how we feel), and we are still treated by society in accordance with our perceived gender. Leaving the “she” pronoun behind feels as though we’re failing to recognize that we are both still perceived as cis-gendered women and therefore treated as such. Having so many experiences informed by our societal perception as women have made both of us feel like imposters when defining ourselves as non-binary. And we’re not alone. There is a common experience with female-bodied non-binary people where they only feel attached to the idea of womanhood because of how society treats us according to an arbitrary label. Womanhood is unique in the category of gender because where manhood is defined by society in terms of what they accomplish for themselves, society defines womanhood in terms of service towards the patriarchy and others.
Gender doesn’t exist beyond our conception of it. We have created a society in which gender is important, not because it explains our actions but because it gives a basis for the patriarchy. Expression and personal identity are unique to the individual, regardless of how they have been conditioned from birth. As more and more people reject the gender binary and decide to distance themselves from the box they have been placed in, it can become an exercise of personal reflection to examine where your own identity comes from and what it means to you.