If you trace the etymology of the word to its Latin roots, gender simply means “type”. Historically the word was used in literature to refer to masculine, feminine and neutral nouns. In 1955 psychologist John Money proposed using the term to differentiate mental sex from physical sex, but he was not the first to do so.
Human Sex (the adjective, not the verb) is broken down into three categories:
- Genotype: The genetically defined chromosomal kareotype of an organism (XX, XY, and all variants there of)
- Phenotype: The observable primary and secondary sexual characteristics (genitals, fat and muscle distribution, bone structure, etc)
- Gender: The internal mental model of a person’s own sex.
Any of these three aspects can fall into a position on a range of values. Your elementary school health class probably taught you that Genotype is binary, either Female (XX) or Male (XY), when the reality is that there are a dozen other permutations that can occur within human beings.
Likewise, many people believe that Phenotype is also binary, but biology has recognized for hundreds of years that when you plot out all sexual characteristics across a population, you actually end up with a bimodal distribution where the majority of the population falls within a percentile of two groups. This means that some people will, simply by nature of how life works, fall outside of the typical two piles. Many people fall in the middle, with characteristics of both sexes.
Gender, however, is a lot more… wibbly wobbly timey wimey type stuff. There are a lot of different ways that people have attempted to illustrate the gender spectrum, but none have quite thoroughly captured it, because the spectrum is itself a very abstract concept.
The short of it is, some people are very male, some people are very female, some people feel no gender at all, some people feel both, some are smack in the middle, some land along the edges. Some people oscillate all over the spectrum in unpredictable ways, changing like the wind. Only an individual can identify their own gender, no one else can dictate it for them.
Gender is part social construct, part learned behaviors, and part biological processes which form very early in a person’s life.
Present evidence seems to suggest that a person’s gender is established during gestation while the cerebral cortex of the brain is forming (more about that in the Causes of Gender Dysphoria section). This mental model then informs, at a subconscious level, what aspects of the gender spectrum a person will lean towards. It affects behavior, perceptions of the world, the way we experience attraction (separate from sexual orientation and hormonal influences) and how we bond with other people.
Gender also affects the expectations that the brain has for the environment it resides in (your body), and when that environment does not meet those expectations, the brain sends up warning alarms in the form of depression, depersonalization, derealization, and dissociation. These are the brain’s subconscious ways of informing us that something is very wrong.
On the social side, gender involves presentation, how we communicate, what our expectations are from life, and the roles that we fulfill as we walk through life. These are all cultural factors, things which have developed within the population over time, but regardless of being essentially “made up”, they are still connected to a gender identity. A person tends to connect to the social aspects of their internal gender, without even realizing they are doing it, and when they are denied access to those social aspects, this results in discomfort with their social position in life.
John Money’s experiments attempted to confirm his belief that gender is entirely a social construct, and that any child can be raised to believe themselves to be whatever they were taught to be. His experiment was a massive failure (see the Biochemical Dysphoria section). Gender does not change, every human is the same gender at 40 that they were at 4. What changes is our own personal understanding of our gender as we mature as individuals.
These negative symptoms (depression, derealization, social discomfort) are the symptoms of Gender Dysphoria.
What Gender is not is sexual orientation. We describe orientation using terms relative to one’s gender (homosexual/heterosexual/bisexual), but gender itself does not affect sexuality and sexuality has no role in gender.
In generalist terms this essay will be describing gender in a sense of binary identities (male/female) vs non-binary identities (agender, bigender, genderqueer, etc), but this is purely for the sake of writing simplicity. Please know that the depth of gender experience and expression is far, far more complicated than this simple breakdown.