Gender and Sex as Social Constructions

So if Judith Lorber argues in “Night to his Day: The Social Construction of Gender” that gender is not nature (i.e., biology), then Cheryl Chase makes a compelling case for also understanding sex as a socially constructed identity/category in her article “Affronting Reason,” about her intersexed experience. In addition, both Lorber and Fausto-Sterling let us know that the gender binary (male and female) isn’t universal –  that other cultures, including some Native American tribes, have recognized people who don’t fit neatly into a male or female category – people who might identify as transgender, or perhaps queer, today.

After the readings this weekend, you may now feel awash in a new and confusing gender vocabulary. Most of us are used to gay and lesbian. These labels describe sexual orientation but not necessarily one’s gender identity. That’s an important distinction. Here’s a useful graphic to help us think about sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality in a more complex, non-linear way:

The Genderbread Person illustrates the complexity of human sexed and gendered identities and self-expression.

The Genderbread Person illustrates the complexity of human sexed and gendered identities and self-expression.


As Chase points out, sexual identity and gender identity don’t follow neat binaries. For example, someone who is born biologically female but identifies as transgender may be attracted to men, women, or both. Someone who identifies as a male-to-female transsexual (or MTF) won’t automatically become attracted to women just because they assume a masculine identity.


  1. Can you think of a time you felt uncomfortable because you were asked to perform a task or a behavior that felt “opposite” to your gender identity? How did you handle it?
  2. How does the cultural context of genital surgery (i.e., geographically speaking, where it’s done and by whom) change the way we frame our discussions of it; that is, how do we talk about its occurrence in African countries as opposed to its occurrence in America)?
  3. What are genitals for?
  4. What does the language of doctors and other professionals reveal about the value and/or purpose we assign to male v.s female genitalia (“holes” vs. “poles”)?
  5. How does framing conversations about sex as solely for the sake of reproduction (childbearing) limit our ability to think about the sexual identity of people who identify as transgender, transsexual, or intersex?
  6. Do you think transgender/transsexual individuals would feel born into “the wrong body” if our culture recognized more than two genders, for example of we had five, as in some Native tribes?


Julie Joyce, the transgender youth who appears in her short documentary film below, won the Empowerment Award at the Media That Matters Film Festival.


Review some of the vocabulary surrounding gender identity and expression. You can also check out UC-Davis’s LGBTQIA Glossary for more specific terms:

  • Intersex: Formerly, we called such individuals hermaphrodites. This category refers to someone who was born with all or parts of both male and female genitalia. For example, someone might be born with what looks like a vulva and a vagina (the exterior parts of female sex organs) but with an enlarged clitoris that looks more like a penis.
  • Transgender: Most commonly used to describe someone whose gender identity or expression does not fit within dominant-group social constructs of assigned sex and gender. Also refers to a gender outside of the man/woman binary, or someone whose gender identity may be more “fluid.” (Note: not all transgender people pursue sex reassignment surgery.)
  • Queer: while some people within the LGBTQ community have embraced this term, it’s still a bit controversial – just like in the 1970s, some lesbian women proudly claimed the term “dyke” to describe their out lesbian presentation, while other lesbians found the term offensive. Most often, this term is found in academia; while it’s still associated with sexuality, the expression of “queering” something (poverty, for example) also means to look outside binaries and/or to view something from an outsider/marginalized perspective.
  • Transsexual: A person who lives full-time in a gender different than their assigned birth sex and gender (e.g., a woman who lives full-time as a man, assuming a masculine identity and appearance).  Many pursue hormones and/or surgery, but not all. For an example, check out the movie Albert Nobbs (2011), starring Glenn Close.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s