Gender,  Mental Health Awareness,  Research

Let’s Talk : Gender Identity


How to view gender with a new inclusive perspective.

Everyone who knew me when I was growing up, will tell you that I was a complete tomboy. They use the term endearingly now, as they recount memories of me referring to myself with male pronouns, and being dressed like a “gunda” (vagabond thug). It was sweet and acceptable back when I was a toddler who was “too young” to correctly employ grammar. But when my walk remained boyish as I grew older, or when I showed interest in rugby, I was met with resistance and discomfort. Me wanting to cut my hair short was considered rebellious, and I was only rewarded whenever I conformed to my gender role. There was no vocabulary to help me express that I didn’t always feel like a girl, and to be forced to act like a girl all the time was distressing. I failed to understand why it was impossible to navigate between these non-negotiable boundaries of Man and Woman. And I found that it’s not just me who felt distressed because of these stereotypes, but almost every child suffers in some way or another because of it. The 2017 study conducted by Robert Blum, Kristin Mmari and Caroline Moreau found that “the onset of adolescence triggers a common set of rigidly enforced gender expectations associated with increased lifelong risks of mental and physical health problems.”


Sex and Gender are not the same

Biological Sex is a label — male or female — that you’re assigned by a doctor at birth based on the genitals you’re born with and the chromosomes you have. It goes on your birth certificate. It is also called Assigned Gender.

Gender is much more complex: It’s a social and legal status, and set of expectations from society, about behaviors, characteristics, and thoughts. Each culture has standards about the way that people are expected to act, because of their sex.

Gender identity is how you feel inside and how you express your gender through clothing, behavior, and personal appearance. It’s a feeling that begins very early in life.

The Human Rights Campaign defines gender identity as “One’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.”

After all, if we are awakening to the idea that the gender identity binary is simply a function of the social construction of reality, then shouldn’t our newfound freedom allow us to be unshackled from these primitive notions and allow people to toss off the shell of rules imposed upon them by society? Many are already doing so. People have realised that gender is a spectrum and not a mutually exclusive binary. This seems very complex at the beginning, but once you understand the different possibilities that exist in the gender identity spectrum, it will become easier to grasp. Let’s go through some of them below:

Cis-gender: It is a term used for a person who experiences the gender that is in line with their biological sex, i.e: A person assigned female at birth who also identifies as a woman is a cis-gendered woman.

Trans-gender:A term used for individuals whose experienced gender is not in line with the sex assigned at birth. A person whose inner experience is that of a woman but their biological sex is of a male, would be referred to as a transwoman. Similarly, a transman is someone whose experienced gender is male but assigned gender is female. Always remember, the innermost experience of who one is, is more valid than the gender that is arbitrarily assigned to them at birth just looking at the genitals.

Non-binary: A term used for individuals who do not identify exclusively with a male or female gender. They may feel like neither of the genders correctly describes their experienced gender. They may also call themselves Genderqueer.

Gender Non-conforming: A term for individuals who do not wish to express themselves in line with the typical societal ideals and stereotypes of what their assigned gender should look like or behave.

Agender: A term for individuals who do not align with any gender.

Genderfluid: A term for a person whose experience of gender is varied and dynamic. They might feel more masculine at one point and more feminine at another.


Subtle ways in which we may be perpetuating rigid ideas of gender

The stereotypes around gender are often so subtle and ingrained that we don’t even realise we are following them. Undoing years of conditioning is a very slow process which almost feels never-ending, but at every step, we evolve and improve our life’s experience when we choose to be more inclusive, and more open than before. Some very subtle ways we may still be enforcing these stereotypes especially at home are by only teaching our daughters the important survival skills of cooking, cleaning, and washing. By giving into the debate of working woman vs homemaker, rather than thinking why men are never asked to choose. We have gone to the extent of ascribing gender to colours too! Boys are not allowed to like pink, and girls are teased for liking pink (even though they’re “supposed to”). But the one mistake we all make without thinking or realising how it can affect people, is to assume someone’s gender or refuse to accept when someone says they don’t identify as the gender they seem like. One way to avoid misgendering someone (using the incorrect pronouns) is to use gender neutral terms when unsure. Another good measure is to always politely ask what someone’s preferred pronouns are. It’s a good practice to inculcate with generally anyone.


Building awareness of gender neutral terminology

Merriam-Webster announced in 2019 that the word “they” was their word of the year. It is now widely accepted that they can be used as a singular pronoun for people who are genderqueer. The American Psychological Association’s blog officially recommended that singular they be preferred in professional writing over “he or she” when the reference is to a person whose gender is unknown or to a person who prefers they

Apart from this, there are many everyday terms that can be replaced with gender neutral terms like : police officer instead of policeman/policewoman, humankind instead of mankind, partner or significant other instead of husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend, and so on. Here is a list for your reference with more gender neutral words.


Breaking the barriers for yourself

Is there something you were stopped from trying or doing simply because of your gender? What are the ways in which you can start breaking these barriers for yourself and your loved ones?


Unnati Bhardwaj
Unnati has an interesting knowledge of memes and Bollywood trivia. They like to express themselves through their poetry, art, and dancing. Being a queer feminist, they change their hairstyle every few months as a way of breaking out of the dichotomy of gender, and reclaiming their own body. They are equally passionate about literature and biology as they are about mental health, and tries to keep acquiring new skills and information wherever they go.

Unnati Bhardwaj, Counselling Psychologist

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