Gender is a social and legal status that classifies people as girls and boys, women and men. However, gender is often misunderstood as being absolutely related to the individual's sexual reproductive organs (i.e., penis and vagina). The terms "male" and "female" are sex categories, while "masculine" and "feminine" are gender categories.¹
Sex describes one’s biological aspects, while gender describes a socially constructed role that is either masculine or feminine. These constructions often intersect with sexuality, as certain character traits are attributed to certain sexualities (i.e., a man displaying typically female behaviours may be stereotyped as homosexual).
Gender as a social construction
Common socially constructed understandings of gender include:
- Masculinity: a set of qualities, characteristics, or roles considered typical of a man. Some traits usually considered masculine include courage, aggressiveness, and self-confident.
- Femininity: a set of qualities, characteristics, or roles considered typical of a woman. Some traits usually considered feminine include gentleness, empathy, and sensitivity.
Both men and women can have both masculine and feminine traits. An example may be a male child who likes to play outdoors (i.e., a masculine trait) but also likes to wear dresses (i.e., a feminine trait). Although the boy likes to wear dresses, he is still considered a boy. Gender, therefore, is not absolute. This can often be a cause of controversy for those who identify as transgender, as these individuals display behaviours typically attributed to the sex they were not born with.
Different cultures view gender in different ways. As an example, an undefined Muslim culture may view gender as strict, always following the same rigid pattern of masculine traits held by men and feminine traits held by women. Conversely, a Scandinavian culture may view gender as crossing the paths of men and women, with feminine and masculine traits being held by both men and women.
Things considered masculine and feminine change over time. A man who took great care of their outside appearance, known as a dandy, was once considered masculine in Victorian times. If we look at this trait today, sometimes known as a metrosexual, it has adopted a feminine definition. Since the definition of these traits change over time, they are socially constructed.
Two-spirit people is a relatively new umbrella term referring to gender-variant individuals by indigenous North Americans. Intersex, androgynous people (i.e., feminine males and masculine females) have been historically held in high respect by Native Americans. In the past, feminine males were sometimes referred to as "berdache" (adapted from the Persian word "bardaj" meaning intimate male friend). Androgynous males were commonly married to a masculine man, or had sex with men, and the masculine females had feminine women as wives, the term berdache had a homosexual connotation.²
Whereas a transgender person in Western society is typically misunderstood as abnormal, Native American culture understands this as a blessing. Native American culture tends to see a person's basic character as a reflection of their spirit, meaning two-spirited individuals are doubly blessed with having both the spirit of a man and woman.²
Image Credit (1): Libcom.org
Image Credit (2): Flickr
2. Walter L Williams. The 'Two-Spirit' Peple of Indigenous North Americans. Retrieved on May 1, 2014, from http://www.firstpeople.us/articles/the-two-spirit-people-of-indigenous-north-americans.html