We have recently witnessed millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people protesting in streets across the globe to call out homo-, bi-, trans and interphobia, to fight against discrimination and violence towards our communities and for a life lived in dignity and respect. And while LGBTI issues have entered the common media, and much has been written on the root causes of the violence and discrimination against LBGTI people, there continues to be a plethora of misperceptions and ill-founded assumptions around sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics. The lack of knowledge on LGBTI issues is striking and hard to eradicate - and sometimes, it is members of our own communities who perpetuate these ideas.
One very common pattern of thought is that if people read or hear about sexual orientation or gender identity, they will assume the subject is an LGBTI person. While this is understandable, because that terminology was coined to fight against discrimination on these grounds, it falls short of recognizing that every human being has a sexual orientation and a gender identity. Sexual orientation gives an answer to the question about to whom we feel sexually attracted – if at all - and with whom we want to have sexual and/or romantic relationships. This is the case irrespective of what that sexual orientation is. Our gender identity, on the other hand, is a reference to how we experience our own sense of being a gendered individual. It does not matter whether we are trans, non-binary, gender diverse, a-gender, male or female, or have an indigenous gender identity – everybody has a gender identity.
Another very commonly held view is that our gender is fixed throughout our life - or in other words, if we are born female or male, we will die female or male. While this is true for many people, it is not true for everyone. Identities change over the course of our lives and the same can be true for our gender identity. Often these changes are small – almost unnoticeable – and only become apparent over long periods of time. Sometimes changes can be perceived as quite drastic – for example when a trans persons ‘comes out’ as trans and declares that he/she/they want to use a different gendered pronoun, a different name or that their gender identity is now different. From the outside this looks like a drastic change – on the inside it often is not. The majority of trans people will have thought about their coming out for a long time before going public.
A very commonly held notion about trans people is that we are a person of one gender born into a differently gendered body. For example, trans women are often referred to as ‘women born with a male body’. This can go as far as saying trans women had ‘female brains’ in male bodies.
Some trans people perceive their situation in this way, but many do not. The ‘born into a body of the wrong sex’ notion is just a reflection of the social construct that our bodies define our gender, which then again defines our (gendered) roles in society. This is problematic. Firstly, there is a clear hierarchy in gender roles in most societies – women have less autonomy and less access to power, they are less independent and are paid less. Furthermore, the ‘sex defines gender’ notion gives rise to the reverse train of thought, that a person with a female (or male) identity has to be someone who has a female (or male) body. This forces trans people into gender-confirming surgeries in order for their bodies to resemble those of cis (someone whose gender matches the sex they were assignd at birth) women or men.
This is a step towards normalizing surgeries on intersex infants, children and adults – often performed without their consent (intersex persons are persons born with or who develop sex characteristics that cannot be assigned as completely male or completely female). Intersex persons have often been used by the LGBT community, feminist and women’s movements and others to make the case that sex is not binary. Although it is true that neither sex nor gender are intrinsically binary, using intersex people to claim a third sex disregards the fact that many – if not the majority of - intersex people identify as male or female and only some identify as intersex, non-binary or other than male or female.
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What is common to all these examples is the simplified notion that the sex we are assigned at birth defines our gender, and that both this sex and associated gendering inform our gender role as social beings as well as our sexual orientation. Anyone who deviates from this pattern can experience severe consequences which manifest themselves in violence, discrimination and ill-treatment of women and LGBTI people globally.
The feminist movement has been dismantling the belief that our sex and gender should define our roles in society and has been fighting the inherent gender-based discrimination and violence resulting from that belief for more than a century. This is where feminist and LGBTI movements meet: the ill-treatment of women in our societies and the ill-treatment of LGBTI persons have the same root cause. It is all about sex and gender – and they should be tackled jointly.