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Think love, marriage or gender – the first image that generally comes to mind is that of a man and a woman. A conventional couple if you may, fitting like a lock and key.
However, in the vast, overlapping and yet mutually exclusive spectrum that gender and sex encompass, such a narrative, while being the most common one, is not just simplistic, but also simply wrong.
To start with, gender and sex are different things even though they are used interchangeably quite often.
The sex of a person is assigned based on biology - which means that if you are born with a vagina, you are assigned female and if you are born with a scrotum and a penis, you are assigned male.
However, there also exist many intermediate sexes.
These intermediate sexes could have different reasons, like:
- Difference in sex chromosome configuration (beyond the XX and XY possibilities),
- Difference in responsiveness of the foetus or adolescent to hormones, or
- Differences in the mode of sexual development
These are collectively referred to as intersex variations and may or may not be accompanied by ambiguous genitalia (which is genitalia which are not strictly male of female)
Then there is gender, which is a social construct.
For instance, the perception that girls like to gossip and boys don’t like to talk about their feelings is a societal norm, not something that is biologically ingrained. A person is actually conditioned into their gender through years of interaction and cultural references associated with that particular sex.
Now that brings us to the relationship between gender and sex, and here’s the funny thing – there may be none.
Conventional gender roles pertain to the sex the person is assigned based on birth anatomy. However, an individual may choose to identify themselves outside its social and conventional definitions.
For instance, I may be a girl but I may choose to assert my gender expression by undertaking a traditionally masculine act of riding a motorcycle. I may also chose to identify as a man regardless of my birth-assigned sex AND gender-expression. Meanwhile, a man may enjoy wearing women’s clothing for any reasons suitable to him.
Further, there is a wide spectrum of gender expressions and gender identities which people may associate with - it does not have to be just male and female.
The most salient example here is of transgender persons. For instance, a person who identified as a woman (gender) born into the body marked a male (sex) and may be attracted to activities, features and traits that are considered feminine (socially constructed). Such a person may choose to dress in a saree, grow their hair and wear jewellery as these things become a conduit for them to express the gender that they identify with. It can also happen the other way round where a female (sex) may identify more as a man (gender).
There is a wide spectrum of gender identities in between the two extremes of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ which the term ‘transgender’ alone cannot cover. Therefore, an umbrella term used here is ‘genderqueer’, which would also include persons who identify as neither man nor woman (agender) or see themselves at any level intermediate between the two too.
Complicated enough yet? Nope. Enter sexual orientation.
Let’s take the example of a transgender person again, a person who feels like a man but born in a body assigned as female. Let’s say she decides to undergo a sex change, this does not mean that once s/he has a vagina s/he will automatically start liking men. It also does not necessary imply that when this person possessed a penis, women were sexually attractive to them.
Sexual orientation therefore, refers to enduring romantic and sexual attraction to one or more sexes and/or genders, if at all.
While there is growing acceptance of divergent sexualities like homosexuality (attraction to the same sex), and bisexuality (attraction to both men and women) and pansexuality (attraction to men, women and non-binary people), the dominant discourse continues to be heteronormative (attraction to the opposite sex).
There is also a small minority which identifies as asexual, that is, persons who are not attracted to any sex and/or sexual activity. Sexual identity of a person is typically drawn from this orientation and how they choose to express their sexual desires and attraction (or lack thereof) and towards whom.
Finally, while it is easier to ascertain that gender and sex are interconnected, it is crucial to understand that they are not interdependent.
However, this need results in unrealistic expectations and forced compartmentalization of people into binaries. Gender and sex is about much more than ‘either-or’. It is about vibrant, criss-crossing and complicated identities which cannot be defined within limited language and may in fact need entirely new spectrums.