Gender identity

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A gender identity is the way in which an individual self-identifies with a gender category, for example, as being either a man or a woman, or in some cases being neither, which can be distinct from biological sex. Basic gender identity is usually formed by age three and is extremely difficult to change after that.[1] All societies have a set of gender categories that can serve as the basis of the formation of a social identity in relation to other members of society. In most societies, there is a basic division between gender attributes assigned to males and females. In all societies, however, some individuals do not identify with the gender that is assigned to their biological sex. Some societies have so-called third gender categories that can be used as a basis for a gender identity by persons who are uncomfortable with the gender that is usually associated with their sex. Other cultures employ processes of surgical or hormonal sex reassignment to bring people's biological characteristics in line with their gender identity. In other societies, membership of either of the gender categories is open to people regardless of biological sex. It is an open question why the gender identities of some people conform or do not conform to the majority pattern while others may not identify with any of the given gender categories. Whether these differences are a product of nature or nurture has been a contentious topic in the social and biological sciences. It is still an open question to what extent genetic versus social factors play a role in determining the gender identities of individuals.

The term "gender identity" was originally a medical term used to explain sex reassignment surgery to the public,[2] but is also found in psychology, often as core gender identity.[3] Although the formation of gender identity is not completely understood, many factors have been suggested as influencing its development. Biological factors that may influence gender identity include pre- and post-natal hormone levels and gene regulation.[4] Social factors which may influence gender identity include gender messages conveyed by family, mass media, and other institutions.[5] One's gender identity is also influenced by the social learning theory, which assumes that children develop their gender identity through observing and imitating gender-linked behaviors, and then being rewarded or punished for behaving that way.[6] In some cases, a person's gender identity may be inconsistent with their biological sex characteristics, resulting in individuals dressing and/or behaving in a way which is perceived by others as being outside cultural gender norms; these gender expressions may be described as gender variant or transgender.[7]

Self-concept or self-identity has come to mean how a person understands the way others perceive them. Gender identity does not only refer to the placing of a person into the categories male or female, but also includes the concept of interaction with society at large. People who identify as transsexual may strongly desire that other people consider them to belong to a gender opposite of their karyotype; but often are simply trying to modify their bodies and behaviors to match how they feel inside, which may not have anything to do with being either male or female.

With the development of gender identity being influenced by so many factors, there can also be many problems associated with gender identity as well. One of the major disorders is Gender Identity Disorder. Gender Identity Disorder is defined by strong, persistent feelings of identification with the opposite gender and discomfort with one's own assigned sex.[8] The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (302.85) has five criteria that must be met before a diagnosis of gender identity disorder (GID) can be made. "In gender identity disorder, there is discordance between the natal sex of one's external genitalia and the brain coding of one's gender as masculine or feminine."[2]

The term "Gender Identity Disorder" is in and of itself an incredibly divisive issue. Many people including medical professionals, caregivers, scholars, researchers, students, human rights advocates, and members of the queer community advocate reform of the psychiatric classification of gender diversity as mental disorder. They believe that this classification reinforces false, negative stereotypes of gender variant people and at the same time fails to legitimize the medical necessity of sex reassignment surgeries (SRS) and procedures for transsexual women and men who urgently need them. As a result, a widening segment of gender non-conforming youth and adults who are subject to the diagnosis of psychosexual disorder, are at risk of experiencing social stigma and loss of civil liberty.


Gender identity—below the surface

Many people consider themselves to be cisgender, that is, belonging to either the man or woman gender corresponding to their biological sex of male or female. Before the 20th century a person's sex would be determined entirely by the appearance of the genitalia, but as chromosomes and genes came to be understood, these were then used to help determine sex. Those defined as women, by sex, have genitalia that is considered female as well as two X chromosomes; those viewed as men, by sex, are seen as having male genitalia, one X and one Y chromosome. However some individuals have combinations of chromosomes, hormones, and genitalia that do not follow the traditional definitions of "men" and "women". In addition, genitalia vary greatly or individuals may have more than one type of genitalia, and other bodily attributes related to a person's sex (body shape, facial hair, high or deep voice, etc.) may or may not coincide with the social category, as woman or man. A survey of the research literature from 1955–2000 suggests that as many as one in every hundred individuals may have some intersex characteristic.[9] Intersex phenomena are not unique to humans. In a number of species, even more striking examples exist, for instance the bilateral gynandromorphic zebra finch (half-male, half-female body along its symmetry plane).[10][11]

Transsexual self-identified people sometimes wish to undergo physical surgery to refashion their primary sexual characteristics, secondary characteristics, or both. This may involve removal of penis, testicles or breasts, or the fashioning of a penis, vagina or breasts. Historically, such surgery has been performed on infants who are born with ambiguous genitalia. However, current medical opinion is broadly against genital assignment, shaped to a significant extent by the mature feedback of adults who regret these decisions being made on their behalf at their birth. Gender reassignment surgery elected by adults is also subject to several kinds of debate. One discussion involves the legal sex-gender status of transgender people, for marriage, retirement and insurance purposes, for example. Another involves whether such surgery is ethically sound.[citation needed]

The most easily understood case in which it becomes necessary to distinguish between sex and gender is that in which the external genitalia are removed—when such a thing happens through accident or through deliberate intent, the libido and the ability to express oneself in sexual activity are changed, but the individual's gender identity may or may not change. One such case is that of David Reimer, reported in As Nature Made Him by John Colapinto. It details the persistence of a male gender identity and the stubborn adherence to a male gender role of a person whose penis had been totally destroyed shortly after birth as the result of a botched male circumcision, and who had subsequently been surgically reassigned by constructing female genitalia.[12] In other cases, a person's gender identity may contrast sharply with that assigned to them according to their genitalia, and/or a person's gendered appearance as a woman or man (or an androgynous person, etc.) in public may not coincide with their physical sex. So the term "gender identity" is broader than the sex of the individual as determined by examination of the external genitalia, but also includes the sex or gender one identifies with mentally.


Conceptual origins

In 1905, Sigmund Freud presented his theory of psychosexual development in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Freud believed gender identity developed during the phallic stage of development. According to Freud, during this stage, young boys develop an Oedipus complex where they have an unconscious sexual desire for their mother and jealousy or hatred for their father. That jealousy turns into emulation as the child seeks to be like their father, eventually identifying with him.[6] In 1913, Carl Jung proposed the Electra complex as an analogous phenomenon in girls. This proposal, however, was rejected by Freud.[13]

During the 1950s and '60s, psychologists began studying gender development in young children, partially in an effort to understand the origins of homosexuality (which was viewed as a mental disorder at the time). In 1958, the Gender Identity Research Project was established at the UCLA Medical Center for the study of intersexuals and transsexuals. Psychoanalyst Robert Stoller generalized many of the findings of the project in his book Sex and Gender: On the Development of Masculinity and Femininity (1968). He is also credited with introducing the term gender identity to the International Psychoanalytic Congress in Stockholm, Sweden in 1963. Behavioral psychologist John Money was also instrumental in the development of early theories of gender identity. His work at Johns Hopkins Medical School's Gender Identity Clinic (established in 1965) popularized an interactionist theory of gender identity, suggesting that, up to a certain age, gender identity is relatively fluid and subject to constant negotiation. His book Man and Woman, Boy and Girl (1972) became widely used as a college textbook, although many of Money's ideas have since been challenged.[14]

In the DSM

The notion of gender identity appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in its third edition, DSM-III (1980), in the form of two psychiatric diagnoses of gender dysphoria: gender identity disorder of childhood (GIDC), and transsexualism (for adolescents and adults). The 1987 revision of the manual, the DSM-III-R added a third diagnosis: gender identity disorder of adolescence and adulthood, nontranssexual type. This latter diagnosis was removed in the subsequent revision, DSM-IV (1994), which also collapsed the GIDC and transsexualism in a new diagnosis of gender identity disorder.[15]

The conceptualization of sex-gender mismatch as a mental disorder is controversial.[15]

International Human Rights Law

The Yogyakarta Principles, which is a document on application of international human rights law, provides definition on gender identity. In the preamble, "gender identity" is understood to refer to each person's deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the person's sense of the body (which may involve, if freely chosen, modification of bodily appearance or function by medical, surgical or other means) and other experience of gender , including dress, speech and mannerism. Further, in Principle 3, that each person's self-defined gender identity is integral to their personality and is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity and Freedom. These Principles influenced the UN declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Gender identity and sex

When the gender identity of a person makes them one gender, but their genitals suggest a different sex, they will likely experience what is called gender dysphoria.[16] Some people do not believe that their gender identity corresponds to their biological sex, including transsexual people, transgender people, and many intersexed individuals. Consequently, complications arise when society insists that an individual adopt a manner of social expression (gender role) which is based on sex, that the individual feels is inconsistent with that person's gender identity. Complications can also arise with the stereotyping, or gender typing of behavior for individuals for behavior related to a specific sex, when they identify as a different gender. This dissonance can lead to gender identity disorder.

One reason for such discordances in intersexed people is that some individuals have a chromosomal sex that has not been expressed in the external genitalia because of hormonal or other abnormal conditions during critical periods in gestation. Such a person may appear to others to be of one sex, but may recognize himself or herself as belonging to the other sex[citation needed]. The causes of transgenderism are less clear; it has been subject of much speculation, but no psychological theory has ever been proven to apply to even a significant minority of transgender individuals, and theories that assume a sex difference in the brain are relatively new and difficult to prove, because at the moment they require a destructive analysis of inner brain structures, which are quite small.

In recent decades it has become possible to surgically reassign sex. A person who experiences gender dysphoria may then seek these forms of medical intervention to have their physiological sex match their gender identity. Alternatively, some people who experience gender dysphoria retain the genitalia that they were born with (see transsexual for some of the possible reasons), but adopt a gender role that is consonant with what they perceive as their gender identity.

There is an emerging vocabulary for those who defy traditional gender identity—see transgender and genderqueer.


Biological correlations with transsexuality

Studies of gonads, genitalia, and hormone levels in gender dysphoric persons have not been able to propose any biological explanations for why some persons experience gender dysphoria. One study of the brains of six transsexual male to female individuals have shown a correlation between the size of the Bed Nucleus of the Stria terminalis (BSTc) and gender dysphoria. The BSTc is normally 2.5 times larger in men than in women, but the average among the male-to-female transsexuals was only 52% of the reference non-transsexual males, which lies within the normal female range.[18] Another study of the same group found that the number of somatostatin neurons in male-to-female transsexuals was also closer to the normal female range than to that of males, and one female to male transsexual was shown to have a neuron number within the normal male range.[19]

Nature versus nurture

An ongoing debate in psychology is the extent to which gender identity and gender-specific behavior is due to socialization versus in-born factors. The mainstream view is that both factors play a role, but the relative importance of each is contentious. 

Because of the pervasiveness of gender roles, it is difficult to design a study which controls for the influence of such socialization. Individuals who are sex reassigned at birth offer an opportunity to see what happens when a child who is genetically one sex is raised as the other. The largest study of such individuals was conducted by Reiner & Gearhart on 14 children born with cloacal exstrophy and reassigned female at birth. Upon follow-up between the ages of 5 to 12, 8 of them identified as boys, and all of the subjects had at least moderately male-typical attitudes and interests.[20]

Non-Western gender identities


In some Polynesian societies, fa'afafine are considered to be a "third gender" alongside male and female. They are biologically male, but dress and behave in a manner considered typically female. According to Tamasailau Sua'ali'i (see references), fa'afafine in Samoa at least are often physiologically unable to reproduce. Fa'afafine are accepted as a natural gender, and neither looked down upon nor discriminated against.[21] The Samoan Prime Minister is patron of the Samoa Fa'afafine Association.[22]


In the culture of the Indian subcontinent, a hijra is usually considered to be neither a man nor a woman. Most are biologically male or intersex, but some are biologically female. The hijra form a third gender, although they do not enjoy the same acceptance and respect as males and females in their cultures. They can run their own households, and their occupations are singing and dancing, working as cooks or servants, sometimes prostitutes (for men), or long-term sexual partners for men. Hijras can be compared to transvestites or drag queens of contemporary western culture.[23]


The xanith form an accepted third gender in Oman, a gender-segregated society. The xanith are male homosexual prostitutes whose dressing is male, featuring pastel colors (rather than white, worn by men), but their mannerisms female. Xanith can mingle with women, and they often do at weddings or other formal events. Xaniths have their own households, performing all tasks (both male and female). However, similarly to men in their society, xaniths can marry women, proving their masculinity by consummating the marriage. Should a divorce or death take place, these men can revert to their status as xaniths at the next wedding.[24]

See also


  1. ^ "gender identity." Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 11 Mar. 2011.
  2. ^ a b "The term 'gender identity' was used in a press release, November 21, 1966, to announce the new clinic for transsexuals at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. It was disseminated in the media worldwide, and soon entered the vernacular. ... gender identity is your own sense or conviction of maleness or femaleness." Money, John (1994). "'The concept of gender identity disorder in childhood and adolescence after 39 years'". Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 20 (3): 163–77. doi:10.1080/00926239408403428. PMID 7996589. 
  3. ^ , Richard G. Kopf, Edward Nersessian, Textbook of Psychoanalysis, (American Psychiatric Association, 1996), p. 645.
  4. ^ Money, John (1994). "The concept of gender identity disorder in childhood and adolescence after 39 years". Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 20 (3): 163–77. doi:10.1080/00926239408403428. PMID 7996589. 
  5. ^ Henslin, James M. (2001). Essentials of Sociology. Taylor & Francis. pp. 65–67, 240. ISBN 0536941858. 
  6. ^ a b Myers, David G. (2008). Psychology. New York: Worth.
  7. ^ Blackless, Melanie; Besser, M., Carr, S., Cohen-Kettenis, P.T., Connolly, P., De Sutter, P., Diamond, M., Di Ceglie, D. (Ch & Adol.), Higashi, Y., Jones, L., Kruijver. F.P.M., Martin, J., Playdon, Z-J., Ralph, D., Reed, T., Reid, R., Reiner, W.G., Swaab, D., Terry, T., Wilson, P., Wylie. K. (2003). "Atypical Gender Development – A Review". International Journal of Transgenderism 9: 29–44. doi:10.1300/J485v09n01_04. Retrieved 2008-09-28. 
  8. ^ "Gender Identity Disorder | Psychology Today." Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness Find a Therapist. Psychology Today, 24 Oct. 2005. Web. 17 Dec. 2010. <>.
  9. ^ Blackless, Melanie; Anthony Charuvastra, Amanda Derryck, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Karl Lauzanne, and Ellen Lee (February 2000). "How sexually dimorphic are we? Review and synthesis". American Journal of Human Biology 12 (2): 151–166. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1520-6300(200003/04)12:2<151::AID-AJHB1>3.0.CO;2-F. PMID 11534012. Retrieved 2007-02-15. 
  10. ^ Arnold, A. P. Sex chromosomes and brain gender. Nature Rev. Neurosci. 5, 701–708 (2004)
  11. ^ Agate, R. J. et al. Neural not gonadal origin of brain sex differences in a gynandromorphic finch. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 4873–4878 (2003).
  12. ^ MacDonald, Kevin. "Psychology 361 – Gender Roles and Gender Differences." California State University, Long Beach. Department of Psychology, CSU – Long Beach. Web. 17 Dec. 2010. <>.
  13. ^ Freud, Sigmund (1931), "Female Sexuality", The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, volume 21, p. 229.
  14. ^ Haraway, Donna (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books. pp. 133. ISBN 0-415-90386-6. 
  15. ^ a b Zucker KJ, Spitzer RL, 2005, "Was the gender identity disorder of childhood diagnosis introduced into DSM-III as a backdoor maneuver to replace homosexuality? A historical note."Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 2005 Jan–Feb;31(1):31–42
  16. ^
  17. ^ BBC News Toronto couple defend move to keep baby's sex secret
  18. ^ Zhou, J.N. et al.; Hofman, MA; Gooren, LJ; Swaab, DF (1995). "A sex difference in the human brain and its relation to transsexuality". Nature 378 (6552): 68–70. doi:10.1038/378068a0. PMID 7477289. 
  19. ^ Kruijver, F.P. et al.; Zhou, JN; Pool, CW; Hofman, MA; Gooren, LJ; Swaab, DF (2000). "Male-to-female transsexuals have female neuron numbers in a limbic nucleus". J Clin Endocrinol Metab 85 (5): 2034–41. doi:10.1210/jc.85.5.2034. PMID 10843193. 
  20. ^ "Reiner & Gearhart's NEJM Study on Cloacal Exstrophy – Review by Vernon Rosario, M.D., Ph.D.". 
  21. ^ SUA'ALI'I, Tamasailau, "Samoans and Gender: Some Reflections on Male, Female and Fa'afafine Gender Identities", in: Tangata O Te Moana Nui: The Evolving Identities of Pacific Peoples in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Palmerston North (NZ): Dunmore Press, 2001, ISBN 0-86469-369-9
  22. ^ Field, Michael (5 July 2011). "Transsexuals hailed by Samoan PM". Retrieved 1 October 2011. 
  23. ^ LORBER, Judith. Paradoxes of Gender. Yale University Press:Yale, 1994. pp. 92–93.
  24. ^ LORBER, Judith. Paradoxes of Gender. Yale University Press:Yale, 1994. pp. 94–95.

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