Gender shows up in a lot of places in our lives. Public bathrooms ask us to sort ourselves -- are you a “ladies” or “gentlemen” restroom person? Your driver’s license most likely has a spot to mark you as “female” or “male.” Looking for a pair of jeans? They’re separated into at least two places in a store, so go wander to the “men’s” or “women’s” clothing sections. The world treats gender as if it’s something easy, obvious, and straightforward. There are two teams, and we should all stay in our assigned lanes. But what if those lanes don’t fit?
The truth is, gender is way richer and more interesting than two straight lanes. Here are some common myths about gender, debunked.
Lots of people try to argue that gender is reducible to something like biological sex. They say it’s simple, people with XX chromosomes are women and people with XY chromosomes are men, end of story.
Turns out, this isn’t true! Biological markers of “sex” -- like all things human -- don’t fit neatly into rigid boxes. If you’re someone who likes to nerd out about biology, you might already know that there are lots of twists and turns in human development. Whether our bodies develop ovaries or testicles (or both or neither!!) is influenced by our chromosomes, signals that turn our genes on/off, and stuff that influences our development both before and after we’re born. There are LOTS of pieces at play! And that means that our bodies and brains often don’t develop in the XX=female and XY=male ways.
Some people have XY chromosomes and ovaries, some people have XXY chromosomes, and that’s just the beginning. Sometimes people who have these kinds of developmental paths are called “intersex.” The truth is, biological sex is wild and cool and complicated, and there’s a lot about the process we still don’t understand. So if anyone tries to tell you that gender is just sex and this stuff is just obvious, send them back to the science!
Some people like to claim that there really are just two ways people relate to their gender. They can either be cisgender (where the gender they were assigned at birth feels like it fits accurately) or transgender. Some people like to use “transgender” or “trans*” as an umbrella term for anyone who feels that the gender they were assigned at birth does NOT feel like it fits accurately. A lot of people prefer not to use that umbrella term though! People who are non-binary (whose gender are neither “male” nor “female”), who are gender fluid (whose gender might change and fluctuate), who are gender non-conforming (who don’t adhere to the typical norms of “their gender”), or who are agender (who don’t consider themselves to have any gender at all) may or may not identify as trans*.
For therapists who work with trans and gender diverse folks, it’s really common for us to hear from people who feel shame and confusion that they didn’t somehow “always know” their gender. Maybe you’re a teen who is thinking about your own gender, and wondering why your experience is different from a friend who knew they were trans in preschool! Sometimes people don’t know what to make of the fact that they’re unsure what their gender is, or are still questioning. Does it mean they’re not “really” trans or gender diverse?
The answer is no! There are lots of reasons why some people are aware of their genders earlier in their lives and some people need more time. Having really good models of gender diversity in our lives can help -- it’s hard to imagine all the gender possibilities all by ourselves! And there is still a lot of unjust stigma around being gender diverse. It can be hard to think about this stuff when you’re not sure how the people around you will react.
So no, taking time -- even years or decades -- being unsure of your gender doesn’t mean your gender isn’t real, or that there’s something wrong with you. We all move at our own pace, and all paces are good.
If you see someone wearing an amazing frock, do you immediately think their pronouns are she/her? Or if someone identifies as non-binary, do you expect them to always dress in “androgynous” clothes? No? Good, because this is a myth!
Many people’s aesthetics have nothing to do with their gender, and more and more often, people are explicitly challenging what it means to dress like a “man” or a “woman.” This is great, because how weird is it that we think of pieces of fabric as somehow being gendered?! So if you’re a non-binary theybe and love to rock a dapper look, cool! If you’re a trans man who loves his femme fashion, awesome!
This extends to bodies too! Just like clothing has nothing to do with gender, neither does what we choose to do or not do with our bodies. For some people, medical transition can help reduce gender dysphoria and make us feel more at home in our bodies. For others, the idea that we’re “supposed” to alter our bodies to make ourselves align with someone else’s idea of gender can feel (and be!) oppressive. And some people who want to don’t have the safe opportunity or economic resources to transition, but their identity is every bit as real. Your body, like your style, is yours. You get to decide what feels right.
Talking about gender helps take power away from myths. Here’s the bottom line: there are a lot of ways to have a gender, and none of them are wrong.