Sex, gender, identity and expression… what are they, how do they relate and what the hell does any of it have to do with Roller Derby? Before Trans* Awareness in Sports Week gets into full swing over the coming days I wanted to take a few moments to go over the basics of these concepts because whether you realize it or not, you are literally surrounded by them every single day, often quite glaringly in Roller Derby in particular.
Sex vs Gender
Gender Spectrum, an excellent resource site, defines sex as “biological and includes physical attributes such as sex chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, internal reproductive structures, and external genitalia. At birth, it is used to identify individuals as male or female.” Gender though is far more complicated and can certainly be overwhelming to understand. According to the site, gender “is the complex interrelationship between those [physical] traits and one’s internal sense of self as male, female, both or neither as well as one’s outward presentations and behaviors related to that perception.”
Gender is a tricky thing in that many people believe it is one in the same as their sex. While this CAN be true, like in the case of somebody being born a male and identifying as male, that is not always the case. If an individual is born and the doctor sees that there is a penis they may cheerfully exclaim, “it’s a boy!” After further examination of the baby’s chromosomes, hormones, reproductive system and genitalia they may conclude that: XY + testosterone + penis = male, right? Well… yes AND no. While that individual’s biological sex in this case is male, their gender may not be and that is EXACTLY where the very core of transgendered issues originates.
Why is that? Because by defining that child as male at birth, before they have really had a chance to explore and understand themselves, directly places them into the gender binary: “a social system that requires everybody to be raised as a boy or a girl (dependent on what sex you are assigned at birth), which in turn forms the basis for how you are educated, what jobs you can do (or are expected to do), how you are expected to behave, what you are expected to wear, what your gender and gender presentation should be and who you should be attracted to/love/marry, etc.” [Beyond the Binary Campaign Guide, GSA Network]
The social and cultural expectations of this can be extremely damaging and taxing on a kid because if they are outside of that binary in the way they think, feel, identify and/or express themselves then they can experience a wide range of loneliness, confusion, depression, or even suicidal thoughts. Nearly everything about Western society operates according to the gender binary and it begins to REALLY get drilled into the mind of a child as soon as they step foot into school. Bathrooms, locker rooms, dress codes, gym classes, school sports teams, etc. all work to segregate genders, separating the boys from the girls through policies and procedures. So when a child arrives in the environment and opposes the gender binary by dressing or behaving differently, they can potentially find themselves in a situation where they are receiving a great deal of resistance from both their classmates and teachers alike. This resistance can include being bullied, physically/emotionally abused, receiving threats, or worse.
According to a report from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Eduction Network written by Emily A. Greytak (M.S.Ed.), Joseph G. Kosciw (Ph.D.) and Elizabeth M. Diaz entitled Harsh Realities:The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools: “Several qualitative studies have found that transgender students often face pervasive harassment and assault because of their gender identity, gender expression, and their actual or perceived sexual orientation, and are often subjected to intense scrutiny and judgment by their teachers and peers. That is to say that in some cases an individuals self-perception, personal identity and self-expression may not necessarily align with their biological sex, so their gender may be different from their sex.”
Identity vs Expression
Gender Identity. One’s innermost concept of self as male or female or both or neither—how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different than the sex assigned at birth. Individuals are conscious of this between the ages 18 months and 3 years. Most people develop a gender identity that matches their biological sex. For some, however, their gender identity is different from their biological or assigned sex. Some of these individuals choose to socially, hormonally and/or surgically change their sex to more fully match their gender identity. – Understanding Gender [www.genderspectrum.org]
“I’m a woman,” would be a statement of one’s gender identity. With it comes a great deal of social and cultural baggage in terms of gender role, gender expression and gender pronouns. Once you state you are a woman, some may immediately begin to refer to you as her/she, expect you to behave in traditionally feminine ways and dress in a feminine manner. All of these expectations are ingrained based on the old archaic of gender roles discussed before. But, gender identity is a lot broader than that.
Let’s take a look at some common umbrella terms, which can also serve as gender identities in and of themselves as well:
Gender Non-Conforming: presenting oneself and/or behaving in a way that is not socially or culturally considered typical for one’s biological sex.
Transgender/Trans*: “at its most basic level, is a word that applies to someone who doesn’t fit within society’s standards of how a woman or a man is supposed to look or act.” – The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center
Transsexual: an individual that feels that their gender identity does not match their biological sex. Some may decide undergo sex reassignment surgery and/or Hormone Replacement Therapy to “transition” to what they feel is their true sex.
Genderqueer: is used as either an umbrella term to cover all non-binary gender identities or can be used as a gender identity itself. As an umbrella term, genderqueer can refer to an individual who identifies as both man/male and woman/female, neither man/male or woman/female, moving between multiple genders and/or having an overlap or blur between their gender identity and sex.
Gender Expression. Refers to the ways in which people externally communicate their gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, haircut, voice, and other forms of presentation. Gender expression also works the other way as people assign gender to others based on their appearance, mannerisms, and other gendered characteristics. Sometimes, transgender people seek to match their physical expression with their gender identity, rather than their birth-assigned sex. Gender expression should not be viewed as an indication of sexual orientation. – Understanding Gender [www.genderspectrum.org]
Masculinity/Masculine: is the socially constructed biologically defined attributes, behaviors, and roles that are generally associated with boys/men. Masculinity is distinct from an individual’s biological sex as both men AND women can exhibit masculine traits.
Femininity/Feminine: is the socially constructed biologically defined attributes, behaviors, and roles that are generally associated with girls/women. Femininity is distinct from an individual’s biological sex as both men AND women can exhibit feminine traits.
Here are some…
Crossdressing: “dressing as someone from a different gender category; may be done by people from all genders and sexual orientations.” – GSA Network definition
Drag King: a male impersonator, somebody who performs as a male character for entertainment purposes [recommended reading: 28 Drag Kings You Should Know and Long Live the King: Why Don’t We Love Drag Kings Like We Do Queens?]
Drag Queen: a female impersonator, somebody who performs as a female character for entertainment purposes
Here’s where it gets REALLY complicated…
None of these gender identity definitions are definitive. Gender is seriously a big ball of wibbly wobbly gendey bendey stuff. What it comes down to is all of the above are labels and the definition of them, the specific attributes, can differ tremendously from one individual to another. The interesting thing about labels is that they are both beneficial and destructive by their very nature. Labels can help you understand who you are, and explain who you are to others, but they can also lock you into a specific way of thinking about how you and/or another appears and behaves. Labels can help you feel like you are not alone, like you belong to a group of like-minded people, yet at the same time can make you feel pressured to “be” and behave a certain way.
The important thing to understand is that while an individual’s self-perception and happiness in how they relate to, and discuss, themselves may be hard to wrap your head around, we should all strive to respect each others sense of self. A healthy way of looking at your gender could be “I am ____________, because I say I am and I don’t have to live to anyone else’s standards of being a ____________, except my own!” There is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to how you identify yourself and nobody can determine your identity for you.
So, whether you identify as a “non-traditional, non-binary, gender fluid female who is pansexual but currently engaged to a genderqueer, non-conforming, pansexual, biologically male partner” or you’re just a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvannia” they’re all just words. It’s the most complicatedly simple concept there is.
Sex, Gender, Identity and Expression in Roller Derby
It’s literally everywhere, all the time, both on and off the flat track. Gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, self-determination, self-perception, clothing, hairstyles, tattoos, piercings, etc.
So the next time you are out at a Roller Derby event and you’re looking at all the skaters, coaches and officials, some of whom may be rocking their awesome fishnets/leggings, booty shorts, skirts/tutus, etc… tada! Gender!
Wibbly wobbly gendey bendey stuff, I says!