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Beyond the Binary—The Gender Spectrum


The Gender Spectrum refers to the idea that there are many gender identities other than identifying as a man or a woman. Non-Binary is an umbrella term for individuals who identify outside of the conventional gender binary.  The LGBTQ+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and the “+” sign is used to signify all of the gender identities and sexual orientations that are not covered by the other five initials. 

Around the world, people have been under constant duress to conform to traditional gender identities since the beginning of time. Despite the revolutionary changes in the last few decades in other spheres of social life, there has been a minor change in peoples’ thought processes regarding gender and sex. In a world where one’s aspect of self is rigidly enforced and narrowly defined, individuals who exist beyond the orthodox realms of binary gender identities face innumerable challenges such as discrimination, disapproval, and violence.

Gender Is A Social Construction

Gender refers to one’s own perception of self and how they identify with their being, which can differ from their physiology or designated sex at birth. This can be misconceived as sex, which is not synonymous with gender. Historically, the terms gender and sex have been used interchangeably, but the evidence for the contrary is becoming increasingly distinct.

Sex refers to the set of biological attributes in humans. For example, the levels and types of hormones are different for a male or a female body. It is primarily associated with physical and physiological features, including chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels and function, and reproductive/sexual anatomy. The male and female analogy is often seen as binary, but that is not entirely true (for example, intersex individuals).  A growing body of study suggests that sex should be defined as a continuum rather than confining its definition to two categories.

Society has traditionally taught us that there are two genders—man and woman. A person who has been assigned male at birth is a man, while a person who is assigned female at birth is a woman. In reality, this isn’t an either/or scenario. With the increased visibility of non-gender-conforming individuals and non-binary folk, it can be extrapolated that gender is essentially a spectrum.

According to the World Health Organisation,  “Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed.” A person’s gender is the complex interrelationship between three dimensions: body, identity, and social gender.

What does the word ‘spectrum’ entail? A person who identifies with the gender that they were assigned at birth is known as a cisgender. Transgender is an umbrella term used to define individuals whose gender identity does not match with the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, a transgender individual may identify as a woman despite being assigned a man at birth. Others can identify as bigender, which means one identifies as a male or female simultaneously or fluctuating between them, or agender, meaning they don’t identify as any gender. There are no concrete definitions or labels, just an array of gender identities that make it easier for individuals to identify themselves.

Transgender is an umbrella term [Image Source: Counsel Magazine]

The fine line between Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

It is a common misconception that gender identity and sexual orientation are connected. Sexuality is a complex phenomenon, and attraction can manifest very differently for different people. According to the Human Rights campaign, sexual orientation is defined as the “inherent or immutable enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people.” In simpler words, sexual orientation has nothing to do with the person’s gender expression or identity. A person might identify as straight, bisexual, pansexual, queer, asexual or a myriad of other words that align with their sexual orientation but does not correlate with their gender identity (male, female, transgender, gender-neutral, non-binary, etc.).

Why pronouns are so important

Social exclusion from societies and cultures all around the world has had a harsh impact on the transgender community as a whole. Isolating them from daily activities such as making conversations does little to help their cause. Pronouns are of paramount importance because people form an inclusive environment and show their respect by using the correct pronouns. Affirming someone’s pronouns can help them feel comfortable in the external appearance and gender identity.

5 Myths About Teaching Personal Pronouns Debunked - We Are Teachers

Importance of Pronouns [Image Source: WeAreTeachers]

Using the wrong pronouns can be extremely offensive and harmful as it invalidates the existence of people who are transgender, non-binary or gender non-conforming. Using someone’s correct pronouns can reduce the damaging effects of societal oppression that transgender individuals face daily.

Ignorance is NOT bliss.

Gender diversity provides a challenge to the pre-existing gender norms in our society. Despite the increased visibility of transgender youth, there are still societies that propagate widespread discrimination in a veiled and overt manner. They have been marginalised and denied basic amenities such as healthcare and education. In their day-to-day lives, transgender individuals experience extreme levels of harassment, stigmatization and discrimination. Many of them also experience additional anxiety and trauma from experiences of homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools and physical and verbal attacks. This negatively impacts their mental health, leading to significant psychological distress, self-harm, and suicidality.

One of the most salient factors contributing to the decline in mental health is hostility from or rejection by loved ones or religious groups. Despite a pre-colonial heritage that recognized and celebrated gender diversity in temple sculptures, mythology (Deities such as Bahuchara Mata and Aravan are celebrated by transgender communities in India) and religious treatises, transgender people in India still face extreme levels of intolerance and violence. As per census 2011, around 4.9 lakh third genders in the country face social discrimination and harassment. In recent years, there have been many documented instances of police brutality directed towards transgender people in India. Many police departments continue to be accused of insensitivity, including not appropriately responding to violence directed at transgender people.

Transgender no longer recognised as 'disorder' by WHO - BBC News

Transgender no longer recognised as a ‘disorder’ by the World Health Organisation [Image Source: BBC News]

As more and more people bravely ‘come out’ as their preferred gender, the hate towards them has skyrocketed tremendously. The unexpected, insensitive reactions they get from their friends and family can be mentally and emotionally scarring. While some individuals are accepted by their loved ones, many have been rejected and abused. The fear of rejection has had a significant impact on their physical and emotional wellbeing as all they seek is acceptance from their loved ones. The shortcomings of the government in providing them with essential commodities coupled with the ruthless abuse that the transgender people face every day has crumbled their self-esteem and contributed to their dysphoria. Gender Dysphoria refers to the psychological distress, uneasiness and anxiety that individuals feel when the gender they identify with conflicts with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Despite the regressive aspects of society that have inflicted trauma upon these individuals, there has been immense progress around the world.  What began due to the Stonewall Riots in June 1969 has evolved into an entire month dedicated to celebrating LGBTQ+ culture, uplifting their voices, and supporting LGBTQ+ rights. The riots served as a catalyst for a new generation of political activism. This movement became a symbol of resistance to social discrimination that inspires unity and solidarity among the communities to date.

Harvard scholars reflect on the history and legacy of the Stonewall riots – Harvard Gazette

The Stonewall Riots – 1969 [Image Source: The Harvard Gazette]

In 1978, Artist Gibert Baker, an openly gay man and a drag queen, designed the first rainbow flag. The rainbow flag aims to celebrate inclusivity, diversity and unity.  The colours not only reflect the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community but also represents the spectrum of human sexuality and gender. Famous personalities such as Alan Turing, James Baldwin, Marsha P. Johnson and many more have played a monumental role in spreading awareness about the communities.

On 6th September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the 150-year-old Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code is unconstitutional, taking a huge step forward in recognizing and appreciating the queer communities.  Ignorance is no justification to normalise discrimination,” advocated the Madras High Court Judge after overcoming his personal prejudices against the LGBTQ+ community making Tamil Nadu the first state in India to ban conversion therapy. There is still a long way to go, but the culmination of such small victories will ultimately lead to a significant shift in people’s mindsets around the world. Doing our bit by educating and spreading awareness about the gender spectrum and embracing the LGBTQ+ folk, we can collectively work towards eliminating the limitations imposed by gender stereotypes across the globe.  

Featured Image Credits- Lifespan

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