What is gender?
As a sexologist, I would respond that gender is determined by psychic, social, legal, biological, and emotional experiences. Biological gender, or in other words the gender assigned at birth, is an anatomical definition that may or may not reflect the personal internal perception of one’s own gender.
Everyone has their own relationship to gender and sexuality. This intimate perception is what we call gender identity. Because personal experiences and feelings about oneself are impossible to compare precisely with others, in principle, everyone’s perception of their own gender is personal and unique. Experiences can be compared but never generalized.
Because gender identity is an ensamble of so many factors, to perceive our own identity and the variety of non-binary identities could be a tricky process.
I will focus here on the self-acknowledgement of gender identity and on the difficulties in verbalizing it.
It is common that during puberty the acknowledgement of one’s own gender identity gets intertwined with the development of one’s own sexual identity. The finnish word ‘muunsukupuolinen’ (literally other gendered) best describes those gender identities, which differ from the dichotomy masculine-feminine. More and more people refuse (and with good reasons) definitions that include, one way or another, a binary classification. Yet our brains are accustomed to thinking about society in terms of binary narratives, as the dichotomous concept of society has been offered to us from an early age as the only option.
In most cases young children do not perceive biological gender as a predominant element or a cut-off point in their relations to others (society). Yet our society forces children to form their own identities through dichotomous comparisons, even when the children themselves do not clearly identify (or do not yet identify) in the masculine-feminine narrative. As one grows, the development of their gender identity becomes related to the development of their sexual identity, the definition of which requires a binary gender identity. But again not each one of us recognizes in the binary classification. As a result, a teenager does not have the linguistic tools to verbalize a gender that does not fit in the only two offered choices. This young person, not being able to describe their identity outside the binary will feel the issue even more strongly having to define their sexual identity. How can I be hetero, lesbo, gay, bi- or whatever if I am not a man neither a woman?
If there are no terms in which to define our gender identity, this kind of identity does not exist at all, and as a” side effect” it is impossible to verbalize our sexual identity, because that too is defined leaning on a seclusive binary narrative.
As I wrote in a previous post, during adolescence, we constantly look for patterns and role models to identify with. The predominance of a binary narrative confines younger people in a strict framework requiring them to define their gender identity only by a dichotomous opposition and diverging from this norm means being isolated in a space of uncertainty and insecurity.
Different identities must be accepted and named, because if we do not name things, these things do not exist in practice. It is well understood that a person may experience shame and not dare to ask another openly how they would like to be addressed, yet it would be worth encouraging people to openly ask. Not to mention, ignoring the existence of this issue and just pushing it in the corner is the biggest obstacle to the emergence and recognition of non-binary identities in the common consciousness.
Becoming aware of the words to use and redeeming words to a new positive meaning can free the non-binary identities from the shadows and help building alternative narratives to the binary one.