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FAQ – Gender and Sexuality

Issues and concepts around gender and sexuality are diverse, sometimes complex, but often fascinating. They relate to some of the most intimate aspects of human life, which are closely linked to health, rights and overall well-being. Everyone, including LGBTIQA people, can gain from a better understanding of gender and sexuality and discarding myths related to variations in gender and sexuality :

Gender and sexuality issues are interlinked like in a chain, and often the starting point is the biological sex of a person.

Gender and sexuality issues are interlinked like in a chain, and often the starting point is the biological sex of a person.

In the simplest sense, the biological sex of an individual is said to be determined by their genitalia. These are the externally visible sex or reproductive organs like the vulva and clitoris in females, and the penis and scrotum in males. Breasts are present in both females and males – in females they have a role in child nurture and health.

The internal sex or reproductive organs also have a role in determining the biological sex of a person – for example, the vagina, uterus and ovaries in females, and the testes and prostate gland in males.

Next, there are the hormones – testosterone, the primary male sex hormone and estrogen, the primary female sex hormone. One can also go up to the chromosomal level to determine the sex (combinations of X and Y sex chromosomes, the most commonly known ones being XX in the case of females and XY in the case of males).

However, the matter of biological sex has more to it. Besides male and female, there are many intermediate possibilities, collectively termed ‘intersex’. According to the Intersex Society of North America, intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a sexual or reproductive anatomy that does not fit the so called ‘typical’ definitions of male or female. The usual causes are variations at the hormonal and chromosomal levels. For example: An XXY chromosomal combination, which is called the Klinefelter syndrome.

The key issue here is that intersex stands for a range of anatomical possibilities between male and female and not for a fixed ‘third’ category of biological sex. As per a review of several studies, the proportion of people whose bodies differ from male or female body norms has been estimated to be about one in 100 individuals.

If this difference from the so called norms or typical definitions of male and female is discovered at birth, intersex persons are assigned one or the other sex by doctors based on surgical interventions and social considerations (judgement calls). For example: If the penis is determined to be cosmetically too short, the child is raised as a girl, sometimes with further surgery to mould labia out of scrotal skin and reduce the micro-penis to a clitoris.

Sometimes the difference may be discovered during adolescence or later (or may never be discovered). Whatever be the point of time the discovery is made, some intersex persons may grow up to identify with a gender different from the sex assigned to them at birth.

It is often argued that the ‘medical normalization’ carried out at birth should be avoided and the person should be allowed to choose whichever gender they are comfortable with once they are legally old enough to decide.

Another issue here is the spectrum of maleness and femaleness. Even when two males or females are both within the ‘typical’ definitions of male or female (that is, they are not intersex), they may still not be male or female in the same way!

One should also keep in mind that though testosterone is the primary male sex hormone and estrogen the primary female sex hormone, females too have some testosterone in their bodies and males some estrogen. Another pointer at the fluidity of the concept of ‘biological sex’ and that it is us humans who tend to make categories of ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘intersex’ and so on for our own purposes, not nature.

So what is gender? Isn’t it the same as one’s biological sex?

So what is gender? Isn’t it the same as one’s biological sex?

Gender refers to socio-cultural attributes, social roles and behaviours typically associated with one’s sex assigned at birth. In effect, larger society equates gender to one’s biological sex (for instance, if you have a penis, you must be a boy or man; if you have a vagina, you must be a girl or woman).

Gender related attributes, roles and behaviours extend to all aspects of life, including dress, appearance, household rights and responsibilities, occupations, relationships, and even sexual acts or behaviours.

Gender-associated expectations are often imposed on individuals without their consent. Both children and adults are encouraged or coerced to perform in ways consistent with the gender expected of them.

An issue closely related to gender is that of gender identity. This is a person’s internal sense of being a man, a woman, neither of these, both, and so on. The crucial factor is that a person’s gender identity may or may not be aligned with the sex assigned to them at birth, and therefore it may also not be aligned with the socially imposed gender-associated expectations from them.

Two terms to note here: ‘Cisgender’ refers to those whose gender identity is aligned to their biological sex. The term ‘transgender’ refers to people whose biological sex and gender identity are non-aligned.
Transgender people may identify within the so called gender binary, that is, a woman identifying as a man or a man identifying as a woman; or they may embrace a gender-queer or other non-binary identity (example, third gender, gender fluid, bi-gender, pangender and so on). For yet others, gender identity may be absent (an agender person). So ‘transgender’ can be conceived of as an ‘umbrella’ term that includes within it a wide variety of non-normative gender identities.

What is the difference between ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’?

What is the difference between ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’?

People who identify as transgender are usually people who are born with so called ‘typical’ male or female sexual or reproductive anatomies but feel as though they have been born into the ‘wrong body’, and don’t identify with the sex assigned to them at birth. Transsexuals are those transgender individuals who are desirous of, are undergoing, or have undergone sexual reassignment surgery (also called gender transition surgery or more commonly sex change operation) to match their body to their desired gender identity.

Implicit in this explanation is the fact that not all transgender persons are transsexuals, that is, not all transgender persons may want a medical gender transition. Many of them prefer to express their transgender identity through other forms of feminization or masculinization involving non-surgical interventions (like hormone replacement therapy) to change body shape, facial hair or voice quality. Some adopt specific social and sexual roles, while others focus mainly on their personal appearance in terms of clothes, accessories, jewellery and use of cosmetics.

Legal name and gender identity change is another important form of gender expression for transgender people (transsexual or otherwise) that has gained greater validation since the Supreme Court NALSA verdict on transgender rights in April 2014. The verdict made it clear that legal gender identity change does not pre-require a transgender person to undergo medical or physical gender transition of any kind.

So, are transgender and intersex the same thing?

So, are transgender and intersex the same thing?

Not exactly! Being intersex and being transgender are two different issues, though they may overlap. As mentioned earlier, people who identify as transgender are usually people who are born with so called ‘typical’ male or female anatomies but feel as though they’ve been born into the ‘wrong body’, and they don’t identify with the sex or gender assigned to them at birth.

People who have intersex conditions have anatomy that is not considered typically male or female, but they may or may not identify with the sex or gender assigned to them at birth after surgical interventions to make them ‘fit into’ either the male or female category. So some intersex persons may be transgender and vice versa, but not all.

Who are the hijras?

Who are the hijras?

Hijras are biological males, or rarely intersex individuals, who identify either as women, not-men, in-between man and woman or neither man nor woman (the last three may imply what is known as ‘third gender’). They are considered part of the Indian ‘transgender umbrella’, but not all transgender persons are hijras.

Contrary to popular belief, all hijras are not castrated and ‘eunuch’ is not an appropriate translation. Hijras have a long tradition and culture of a matrilineal community, membership to which is formalised through the ritual of reet (christening ceremony).

There are several hijra clans or gharanas across India (and South Asia); the term hijra itself has many regional variations. Hijra clans consist of gurus and chelas (disciples) who often live in close-knit, rigidly governed, self-created families.

It is argued that ‘hijra’ is a cultural and professional identity. They are part of Hindu legends and were once a part of the royal courts (of Indian kingdoms) in key positions. But the community fell from grace when the British criminalized them through the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871.

Though this Act was scrapped at the time of Independence, the hijras still face deep-seated and unjustified transphobia in all social spheres as well as continued criminalization because of laws related to vagrancy and begging. Ironically, along with the fear they evoke, they are also simultaneously revered by some people. But most crucially, they remain one of the most disadvantaged communities in our society.

Apart from traditional occupations of chhalla (clapping and seeking alms) and badhai (blessing newborns and dancing at weddings), many hijras have to depend on exploitative sex work for a living. Education and new livelihood opportunities continue to remain far and few in between for this section of our society.

What is gender expression?

What is gender expression?

Gender expression stands for the ways in which a person manifests masculinity, femininity, both (androgyny), or neither (agender or gender neutrality). This may be through appearance, behaviour, dress, speech patterns, and more. The cultural expectation is that one’s biological sex, gender identity and gender expression will align in stereotypical ways.

For example, someone who is male will identify as a boy or man and have a masculine gender expression. But this alignment may not hold, especially in the case of many LGBTIQA people. And yet, it is not as if queering one’s gender expression is limited to LGBTIQA people. In fact, that would be another stereotype.

So, for instance, some men who are cisgender and straight (or heterosexual) occasionally like to dress in clothes typically associated with women (also called cross-dressing). Some of them may even identify as transvestite (which need not be the same thing as transgender).

In the previous question, heterosexuality was mentioned. So let’s next look at sexual orientation.

In the previous question, heterosexuality was mentioned. So let’s next look at sexual orientation.

Sexual orientation describes the pattern of a person’s sexual attractions based on their own gender (or biological sex) and in reference to the gender (or biological sex) of the people they are attracted to.

Terms such as ‘heterosexuality’ (exclusive attraction between males / men and females / women) and ‘homosexuality’ (exclusive attraction between males / men or between females / women) are concepts denoting extremes of a continuum of attractions.

Just like there are several possibilities other than male and female, or men and women, there are several sexual orientations between and beyond heterosexual and homosexual.

‘Bisexuality’ stands for sexual attraction to both men and women. ‘Pansexual’ implies attraction to people regardless of their gender (or biological sex). ‘Asexual’ means not sexually attracted to anyone and / or no desire to act on one’s sexual attraction to anyone. Asexual people sometimes experience romantic attraction though not sexual attraction.

‘Questioning’ is a term used by someone who is unsure of or exploring their sexual orientation.

What is sexual identity and how is it related to sexual orientation?

What is sexual identity and how is it related to sexual orientation?

Sexual identity is how one identifies one’s sexual orientation. Sexual identity may or may not be aligned with sexual orientation. Terms such as gay and lesbian (identity terms corresponding to homosexual orientation) or straight (identity term corresponding to heterosexual orientation) have become somewhat well known. However, many people do not identify with these terms.

Further, in a society that despises non-normative sexualities, it’s quite common for people to identify as something other than what their sexual orientation indicates. Thus, people who are homosexual or bisexual in terms of orientation may identify and / or present themselves as straight to hide their actual orientation.

What is sexual behaviour?

What is sexual behaviour?

Sexual behaviour refers to the sexual acts performed by an individual. Again, these may or may not be aligned with the person’s sexual orientation or identity. They may vary over time, may be situational, subject to social pressures and so on.

Thus, for example: A heterosexually oriented person may be abstinent for religious or other reasons. A homosexually oriented person may engage sexually with a spouse of the other gender (or biological sex), having been forced into marriage. A heterosexually oriented person may agree to have sex with a close homosexually or bisexually oriented friend, for the sake of their friendship.
There may be other situations to think about as well. Example: Consider a heterosexually oriented cisgender man and a transgender woman, who has not undergone gender transition surgery and is attracted to men. If they are attracted to each other and have sex, will their sexual interaction indicate homosexual behaviour because two male bodies are involved?

Nominally perhaps, but the individuals concerned may think of the behaviour as heterosexual because both are heterosexually oriented. The key issue here is self-perception and how a person defines or describes themselves. In fact, this holds for all aspects of gender and sexuality – you as an onlooker may think of or assume a person to have a certain biological sex, gender identity or sexual orientation, but you can never know the reality till you ask or get to know the person!

Does bisexuality indicate any kind of confusion about one’s sexual orientation?

Does bisexuality indicate any kind of confusion about one’s sexual orientation?

Confusion about one’s sexual orientation has no correlation with any one particular sexual orientation. If you are bisexual, it implies that it’s possible for you to be sexually and / or romantically attracted to men and women. But that doesn’t mean you don’t know what you want or that you are necessarily going to have multiple sexual and / or romantic partners. You may well engage sexually and / or romantically with just the one individual you deeply care for.

On the other hand, as a bisexual person you may well have multiple partners, but so do many people who are homosexually or heterosexually oriented. Whether one has one or multiple partners, shouldn’t the key issue be about equality and transparency in one’s sexual and / or romantic relationships? Shouldn’t there be frank and mutually respectful negotiation about one’s desires and preferences and decisions taken by all concerned on that basis?

Unfortunately, deep-seated biases, not just in larger society but also within queer communities, lead to presumptions about ‘confusion’ being associated only with bisexuality. There is a strong need for LGBTIQA people to question their own biases and stereotypes even as they resist the prejudices in larger society.

What is polyamory?

What is polyamory?

In the previous question we discussed the possibility of one individual having multiple sexual and / or romantic partners (irrespective of their sexual orientation, and, in fact, irrespective of their gender identity as well). This is related to the issue of polyamory, which means the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, but with the knowledge and consent of all partners involved.

People who identify as poloyamorous reject the view that sexual and relational exclusivity are necessary for deep, committed and long lasting relationships. At the same time, informed and free consent from all concerned can be complex in a polyamorous situation. As in a one-to-one relationship, the ability to give consent depends on how equitable the relationship is between the multiple individuals involved in a polyamorous relationship (in terms of gender, socio-economic status and other such parameters).

Moreover, when one talks about the ‘consent of all partners’, it does not mean that all partners have to be intimate with each and everyone else involved in the relationship. Consent in such cases may mean one person agreeing to their partner having another partner, but personally not having more than one partner. Similarly, there may be more such variations in polyamorous relationships.

Polyamory has many forms and one of them is polygamy or polyandry (marital polyamory so to say), which means having more than one spouse or marital partner (more than one wife or husband, respectively). Polygamy and polyandry are not considered legal in most countries in the world today.

Last Modified: 18 June 2018

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