Understanding ‘Gender’

Understanding ‘Gender’

What is this he, she they them? I am so confused. I am scared of talking to you young adults, I don’t even know what’s offensive and what’s not. Things were simpler in our times, why do you have to make life so complicated? I have lost count of the number of times I have tried to address this genuine confusion and fear among the older adults of my own family and those outside.

This blog is a mini-guide to gender, it’s my way to help you sort through all the confusion and to say that it isn’t that complicated- it’s as simple as a gingerbread person, oh sorry, ‘gender-bread person’. The Genderbread Person elaborates upon four concepts elaborated below.

Okay. I understand that the image can be overwhelming. Here’s a simple breakdown.

  1. Gender identity (Who one thinks one is): Gender identity has to do with the mind. It refers to how one understands & defines their gender. Gender identity may or may not align with one’s gender assigned at birth. In general, people who identify with the gender assigned at birth are referred to as cis-gender and those who don’t are called transgender. Men transitioning as women are called trans-women whereas women transitioning as men are referred to as transmen. Some people refer to themselves as agender, that is they do not identify as male or female and essentially identify with either both or none, thereby truly questioning the binary. Some people partially identify with either and refer to themselves as demi-boy or demi-girl.
  2. Gender expression: (How one shows their Gender Identity): Gender expression has to do with how one chooses to express their gender identity. People who identify with more with masculine expressions are referred to as butch while those who identify with more feminine expressions are referred to as femme. Those who shift between both depending on time, place, location, and choice are known as androgynous. Lastly, those who don’t particularly identify with either are referred to as gender-neutral.
  3. Biological sex: (What’s down there): Biological sex is essentially about your anatomy. It’s about whether you have a penis or a vagina or some combination of both. People with sexual characteristics & anatomy beyond the binary are referred to as intersex individuals.
  4. Sexual Attraction (Whom one is attracted to): Sexual attraction is about whom you form an emotional bond with and are physically & sexually attracted to. Being heterosexual is the only kind of sexual attraction that has legal & social sanctions in India. Anything outside of this binary is considered wrong- morally and socially. Gay (men attracted to men) Lesbian (women attracted to women) Bisexual (A person attracted to both genders) Asexual (A person who is not sexually attracted to either gender) are some other identities. None of these have legal, social, or cultural sanctions in India.


Some important ideas to remember

  1. These identities and concepts are independent of each other. This means that someone can be a cisgender gay man with masculine gender expression. A gay man won’t necessarily be transgender or have a feminine gender expression
  2. Gender is a fluid continuum, not a binary: Gender is a social construct. This means that gender is a concept created by society to support the unequal distribution of power and privilege. It is further supported by social constructs like caste, class, and race to direct maximum power & privilege to the traditional, able-bodied, upper caste, cisgender heterosexual male. And unfortunately, this flow of power hurts everyone; the traditional, able-bodied, upper caste, cisgender heterosexual male included.

In reality, gender is a fluid continuum. People have the right and freedom to determine and alter their identities.

  1. Gender is forever evolving: The above-mentioned concepts and identities are not exhaustive and ever-changing

A very common question is how do I guess someone’s identity given that these concepts are not exhaustive. The answer is fairly simple, don’t. Ask people about their identities and pronouns and share yours. Treat & identify people the way they want to be treated & identifies, not the way you want to be treated & identifed. Keep guesswork and estimation out of the gender equation.

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