The Genderbread Person

According to the World Health Organisation, “Gender refers to the roles, behaviours, activities, attributes and opportunities that any society considers appropriate for girls and boys, and women and men. Gender interacts with, but is different from, the (categories) of biological sex.” Gender is not limited to either male or female, it is a whole lot more. It exists on a spectrum and can be fluid. Gender is largely culturally determined and is assumed from the sex assigned at birth. For many people, the gender they identify with doesn’t match the gender they were assumed to be at birth based on their physical and sexual characteristics.

In this series, let’s explore the difference between gender identity, expression, anatomical sex, sexual and romantic orientation.

The Genderbread Person is a cute, approachable model for understanding the social construct of gender, used by social scientists and activists alike. Our understanding of the construct of gender has grown and changed over the decades and this model was created from the inputs of thousands of voices.

The aim is to break a complicated concept into bite-sized, digestible pieces so that everyone can understand themselves and others a little better. This post is inspired and derived from Sam Killermann’s uncopyrighted Genderbread Person available at genderbread.org

Sex (sometimes called biological sex, anatomical sex, or physical sex) is comprised of things like genitals, gonads, chromosomes, hormones, body hair, and more. Sex is what the doctor usually assigns for you at birth and is what goes on your birth certificate. Sex has been widely limited to just male or female, we shall later see how the idea of two sexes is outdated.

Gender, which is colloquially used interchangeably with sex, is actually fundamentally different from sex. Gender is a social construct and is more complex than sex. It encapsulates societal beliefs and norms on how girls, boys, men and women should act and behave.

Gender Identity is your psychological sense of self. It is how you feel inside and understand yourself in relation to the constructs of gender created by society. It is a feeling that begins early on in life.

Gender Expression is how you externally present your gender through things like your appearance, clothing, actions, behaviour and how that’s interpreted by others based on prevalent gender norms.

Attraction isn’t really a component of gender. However, we often confuse sexual orientation with gender or categorize the attraction we experience in gendered ways. Attraction itself has two major, distinct components: sexual attraction and romantic attraction.

The idea of two sexes is overly simplistic. Biologists have concluded that there is a larger spectrum than just binary female and male.

We are quick to believe that if you have a penis you're a man and if you have a vagina you’re a woman. But the biological understanding of sex is far deeper and takes into account hormone concentrations, chromosome type etc. apart from sex organs.

In science, we understand that women have two X chromosomes, ovaries, anatomical features favouring pregnancy and fetal development, breasts, predominant estrogen and so on. And men have one X and one Y chromosome, a penis and testicles, internal ducts for the transportation of urine and sperm, predominant testosterone and so on.

Genetics makes the categorisation of sex blurrier because XX and XY are not the only possible sex chromosome configurations as many believe. There are many people who have ambiguous genitalia, varying sex hormone concentrations and body cells that don't just have either XX or XY chromosomes.

Such people who have sexual and reproductive anatomy that differs from typical definitions of male and female are intersex. They may have combinations or variations in traits associated with the two sex types. Intersexism is fairly common and completely natural. 1 in 100 births are cases where the body differs from the standard “male” or “female” types. They may identify as one of the binary types as self idenitified male or female, or may identify as non-binary.

Many individuals undergo medical transitioning to affirm their gender identities which differ from their assigned gender. This includes MtF Females (born “male” but undergo hormone therapy and surgery to present “female”) and FtM Males (born “female” but undergo hormone therapy and surgery to present “male”).

Gender identity is a personal sense of oneself as being male, female or some other non-binary identity. Gender identity is how one labels themselves in relation to societal beliefs of gender based on how they feel and know themselves to be. Gender identity is always self identified and usually begins at a very young age, but can be recognised at any point of one's life. It may be at odds with the gender expected based on the sex one is assigned at birth.

Here are some of the infinite possibilities:

Gender expression is how a person outwardly shows their gender identity. It includes physical expressions such as a person's clothing, hairstyle, makeup, and social expressions such as name and pronoun choice. Expression is often perceived as a social construct, which is made up of both socially-defined and biologically created factors such as style, appearance, physical traits, mannerisms, or body language.

Here are some of the infinite possibilities:

Sexual orientation is about who you’re sexually attracted to, who you feel drawn to sexually and want to have a sexual relationship with. There are many terms you can use to describe your sexual orientation.

Here are some of the infinite possibilities:

Romantic orientation is about who you’re romantically attracted to, who you feel drawn to emotionally and want to have a romantic relationship with. Romantic attraction does not imply sexual attraction. There are many terms you can use to describe your romantic orientation.

Here are some of the infinite possibilities:

Gender and Sex are concepts that can be broken down into three distinct categories: gender identity, gender expression, and anatomical sex. These categories are different from each other and independent of each other.

While social needs make it necessary to categorise ourselves according to sex and gender, it is improtant that these categories must not be oversimplified and exclusionary. Gender and sex are not binary. They exist on a spectrum and reflect real and natural biological variations amongst all of us. People may exist anywhere on this spectrum and may use different labels to specify their particular positions on the same.

Gender is not fixed and can change over time. Sex is usually fixed unless changed through medical treatment.

It’s a common misconception that gender identity and sexual orientation are connected. Gender is not the same as sexual or romantic orientation. Brendan Jordan, a YouTuber who identifies as genderfluid put it in a simple way, “(Orientation) is who you go to bed with, and gender identity is who you go to bed as.”

While many of us might not relate to being uncomfortable with your assigned gender or feeling attraction towards someone who does not belong to the “opposite sex”, it is important to recognise that not everyone is the same. We need to acknowledge and accept diversity and to be respectful of people’s unique experiences and identities.

By Rishika Mohanta, 2020