Sex and gender make up one of the most basic functions in our society. Gender helps delineate tasks and how we refer to people, and is reinforced for us throughout our lives (Lorber 2006). Gender interacts with sex in varying ways (Disch 2006). Those who are not strictly heterosexual male or female are not readily accepted and face adversity as they bend gender and defy sex.
It has long been debated whether there is a difference between sex and gender, and if so, what that difference is. In recent years it has been suggested that sex is a purely biological term, and gender is socially constructed, or defined and enforced by society. Sex is assigned at birth based on the genitalia, and usually, gender is determined by the sex. If parents are told their baby is a girl, they will reinforce traditional female stereotypes for her whole life. Society and peers will also help to reinforce her gender as she begins to spend more time outside of her immediate family. In this way, gender is a process, whereas sex is simply a static characteristic based on one’s physical appearance. The more dynamic process of gendering, however, defines “man” and “woman,” teaches one to see and internalize what is expected from one’s gender, and to act according to those expectations (Lorber 2006).
When one’s biological sex and one’s internal gender are the same (a female with a vagina or a male with a penis), one is cissexual, or non-transgender. However, when one is born with the inappropriate sexual equipment, one is transgender, or one who feels one gender but has the sex organs of the other. The misalignment of sexual and gender identities raises a puzzling question. If gender is solely based on one’s genitalia, as biological determinists state, why are some children born feeling female but with a penis, or feeling male but having a vagina?
The answer is that gender cannot be completely determined by physical sex. This is especially true given that human bodies in general do not conform to only two sexes. People actually “fall along a continuum between female and male,” which means that sex cannot be the only dictator of gender identity (Disch 2006: 15). According to Judith Lorber, sex does not divide us; it is how society genders us, or interprets the role and function of one’s sex, that creates gender stratification, where one gender is placed above the other in the power structure (2006). The male drive to seek masculinity over femininity creates a patriarchal culture thriving on this “power over” attitude, as opposed to a “power to” ideal. This patriarchy defines roles in and ideas about sexuality and physical standards that the “weaker,” feminine gender has to follow (Johnson 2006). Michael Messner similarly finds that lower-class men see sports as the way to construct their masculine identities (2006), which also begs the question of why these men need to construct their masculinity if it has already been biologically determined.