Monday, April 20, 2009

Feminism 101: Definitions Edition

Gender: The constellation of socially constructed behaviors, roles, characteristics, appropriate activities, propensities, etc. that correspond to "masculine" and "feminine."

Sex: The (somewhat artificial) binary of physical and biological characteristics thought to distinguish male from female.

Gender Identity: The psychological aspect of gender - the way one identifies oneself, which may or may not match the gender and/or sex assignment at birth.

Cisgender: A person is cisgendered if their gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth based on their physical sex.

Transgender: A person is transgendered if their gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth based on their physical sex.

Cissexual: A person is cissexual if their gender identity matches their sex assignment at birth.

Transsexual: A person is transsexual if their gender identity does not match their sex assignment at birth.

Genderqueer: A person is genderqueer if they reject the gender binary by blending aspects of both genders or forming a third gender identity or simply trying to live without being defined in terms of gender.

Intersex: A person is intersex if they don't fit neatly into either the "male" or "female" categories. This may be due to ambiguous genitalia or a mix of typically male and female reproductive and/or sexual anatomy. Traditionally, intersex individuals have been surgically altered to fit into the gender categorization that's assigned to them. However, intersex is slowly being recognized as a normal condition that has been problematized by the rigid sex binary required by our cultural attitudes and gender binary.
*Note: "hermaphrodite" is generally a pejorative term used to describe intersex

Social Construction: Any contingent phenomenon that is created by a society. Social constructs exist only because the members of a society implicitly agree to behave as if they do. Generally speaking, there are conventions around social constructs that guide our behavior regarding them. The most common example used to illustrate this is money. Paper and gold money would be worthless if it weren’t for our practices and conventions, but because we all agree to invest money with value, it is valuable. Saying that money is a social construct doesn't imply that it doesn't exist or that it's not real. It's very real and exists as a social construction; it's just not a "natural fact" about the world independent of human activity.


  1. Rhoanna4/20/2009

    Came here by way of feministing, and just have a couple comments.

    It's normally transgender, not transgendered (I feel like there's a reason for this, but I can't think of it right now)
    Also, transgender isn't strictly limited to people who identify as the opposite gender. It includes other people, such as cross dressers and genderqueer people too. Something like "people who feel that their assigned gender doesn't accurately reflect their gender or gender identity" is closer, but it's a bit tricky to define since it's an umbrella term. (Wikipedia has a decent, although wordy, definition too.)

  2. Rhoanna,

    Thanks for your comments. I'm kind of on the fence about genderqueer being included under the umbrella of transgender. One of the reasons for this is because one semester when I was teaching feminist theory I actually had two students who identified as genderqueer (in the same class, which is unusual), and they objected to the definition in the book we were using that included them in transgender. So I'm unsure of where to put genderqueer, and have been thinking of it as a third option to the usual binary of cis or trans. But I can see how that's kind of limiting to transgender people and may sort of box them in in a way that I think is part of the whole problem here. It would be great if there was some way to get away from having these strictly delineated categories. One of my students said "we should all just be genderqueer, and then we can choose the traits we feel most comfortable with regardless of which gender they're traditionally associated with." I'm starting to agree.

    It seems like part of the problem here is that there's no consensus within the community itself, but I feel like you have to respect the wishes of those who identify as a part of the group on what language should be used. I don't think there has to be a consensus, since no group is monolithic, but it does put us in an awkward position when we try to discuss these issues.

  3. Anonymous4/21/2009

    My sister is genderqueer, and she feels that she falls outside of the binary of cis or trans as well.

    Maybe the problem is that the word transgender implies a transition from one gender to the other, while genderqueer people are often rejecting the binary altogether, as you note in your definition. So maybe the literal meaning of transgender isn't really that accurate, if there are many trans folk who don't feel that they're moving from one to the other.

    And I agree that there's not a consensus. But these issues have only become OK to openly talk about fairly recently, so I guess it just takes awhile. And for some people, even the process of figuring out what you want to be once you've gotten up the nerve to reject your assigned gender takes some time.

  4. Michael4/21/2009

    I would have thought transgendered would be more correct that transgender from a strictly grammatical view. This is because we refer to how a person is gendered in general. But there may be some other reasoning involved here.

    This conversation shows that you have to start putting definitions out there and that gives rise to discussions that at least get you a little closer to consensus.

  5. You should include links to resources that cover these issues in more detail for people who'd like to learn. Also, do you still have that link to the article by Anne Fausto-Sterling dealing with intersex that you posted awhile ago?

  6. Bailey4/27/2009

    @ Michael

    I think transgendered is more correct too because it's an adjective, but maybe the usage has evolved in a way we're not aware of.