Five Different Things Called Gender

By Beth Orens

Gender is a very important concept. Transfolk need to understand it, because it stands at the crux of their particular dilemma. And yet, the word is used without very much understanding of what it means. I have seen vicious flamewars break out on trans lists and newsgroups over whether sex reassignment surgery (SRS) or gender reassignment surgery (GRS) is a more correct term.

The problem stems from the fact that the word "gender" is very much like the word "size". It means very little without a context. Suppose someone were to walk up to you on the street and ask you, "What size are you?" Would you have any idea what he meant, or what kind of an answer you were expected to give? But suppose you were in a shoe store, and a clerk asked you the same question. It would be fairly clear that she was referring to your shoe size.

In 1978, Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna published their book Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. I first came across this book in 1987, when I was desperately trying to figure out what to do with/about my own gender issues. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. While I am not ordinarily a great fan of ethnomethodology, Kessler and McKenna's book was the first place I'd ever seen it suggested that who I am is who I am inside, and that my body didn't necessarily constitute the entirety of my true identity. Until that point, I thought that I was a male with psychological problems. The converse simply had never occurred to me.

In any case, Kessler and McKenna broke the concept of "gender" into five actual concepts:

Gender Assignment
This is what happens when the doctor pulls you out and swats you on your behind. The doctor says, "It's a boy" or "it's a girl", and that's it. You've been assigned to one gender or the other.
Gender Identity
This is who you are underneath all the social conditioning. It's controversial to even suggest such a thing these days. I've seen it claimed that feminism requires all gender differences to be seen as purely social constructs. And while gendered behavior certainly has a large socially constructed component, I have to disagree with the idea that there is nothing else. I'm not at all interested in most of the trappings of stereotypical femininity. I'm a classic reject from the Barbie Factory that so many of us have gone through. But I'm a woman. So go figure...
Gender Attribution
This is what people peg you as when you're walking down the street. If someone who has never seen you before pegs you as male, that's a gender attribution of male. Note that you have as many gender attributions are there are people to attribute a gender to you. I remember during transition a day when I was called sir in one store and then ma'am in another within a span of no more than five minutes.
Gender Role
This is the role you play. If you say you're female and act correspondingly, then it doesn't matter what your gender assignment is and it doesn't matter what your gender identity is and it doesn't matter what your gender attribution is. You're taking the role of "female".
Gender Role Identity
This is the role you think you're supposed to be playing. Regardless of any of the other subcategories of gender, if you think you're supposed to be playing the male role, you will feel awkward and artificial playing the female role. And vice versa.
In her book, My Gender Workbook, Kate Bornstein lists the first four of these subcategories, but omits Gender Role Identity. I'm at a loss to either understand or explain why this is. It may be that she didn't understand it, or that she didn't consider it significant. It may be that she felt her readership wouldn't get the distinction, or it may be that it was an inadvertent omission. Or she may never have seen Kessler and McKenna's work, and have gotten the idea of splitting gender into multiple contexts from elsewhere.

Gender Role Identity is crucial, though. It is when our Gender Role Identity finally flips over that we become unable to function any more as a member of our assigned gender. During the years before I transitioned, I was clear that my identity was female. But I functioned as a male, because I was convinced that this what I was supposed to be doing. Even though I knew it was fundamentally wrong. All of the variables that came together within my mind to say what the right thing for me to be doing was said that I was supposed to act the role of male. And as difficult and painful as that was, it was possible.

The day the weight of my thoughts and experiences forced me to see that I not only should have been born with a female body, but that the correct thing for me to do was to live as a woman, and I was really convinced of that, my Gender Role Identity flipped over from male to female. I had entered a stage known to many of us as TS Crash.

This is not an irreversible state of affairs. I first crashed when I was 24. But the situation in which I lived defeated me, and I gave up. I came to the conclusion that I really did have to live as a male. The second time I crashed was when I was 32, and that was the end of that.

There are many elements that can convince a person that their gender role ought to be different than it currently is. Guilt. Desperation. Fear. Religious convictions. There are people who have transitioned fully, and then become convinced that it was a wrong thing to do. When their Gender Role Identity switches back, they are in a terrible situation. It is to protect people from this that the Benjamin Standards of Care exist. Note that I am not advocating for the Benjamin SOC. I happen to support the right of anyone to go to hell in their own handbasket, without the interference of people who claim to know better. But this is the main reason given for those Standards.

So lastly, I want to address the controversy about what to call sex-change surgery. The biggest argument I have heard against the term "Gender Reassignment Surgery" is that we aren't changing our genders. That gender is immutable. But of course, only Gender Identity is immutable. We change our gender roles when we transition, and our gender attributions change as people perceive us differently. It would be wrong to call sex-change surgery "gender-change surgery". But Gender Reassignment is exactly what is happening. When the doctor finishes, he (or she) can now say, "It's a boy" or "It's a girl", just as the doctor did who slapped you on the behind when you were born. It is by the doctor's claim that authorities will change vital records, just as it was by the doctor's claim that those records were recorded the way they were to begin with.

As an anecdote, I was in the hospital in fall of 2003 with a kidney infection. It was necessary for me to tell the doctors involved that I had had GRS, because the urinary tract was involved, and I wasn't about to let stealth kill me. One doctor came in to my room and asked me, "You're gender reassigned, right?" I have not been comfortable using the term "transsexual" for myself for a long time, because to the best of my understanding, a transsexual has insides and outsides that don't match. Mine match. This was the first time I'd heard a term that I felt really described that facet of who I am. I am a gender reassigned person. It's not a major aspect of my life, but I'd prefer to be called GR rather than TS.