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Gender & Sexuality

Issues and concepts around gender and sexuality 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 discussion on gender and sexuality.

We usually begin with biological sex, which depends on: (a) Genitalia – externally visible sex or reproductive organs like the vulva and clitoris in females, and the penis and scrotum in males; (b) Secondary sexual characteristics like facial hair and breast development; (c) Internal sex or reproductive organs – for example, the vagina, uterus and ovaries in females, and testes and prostate gland in males; (d) Hormones – testosterone, primary male sex hormone and estrogen, primary female sex hormone; (e) Chromosomes – combinations of X and Y sex chromosomes influence the sex. Most commonly known combinations are XX in females and XY in males. But biological sex is more than male and female!

There are many intermediate possibilities collectively termed ‘intersex’, but this is not a fixed ‘third’ category of biological sex. This is a general term for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a sexual or reproductive anatomy that does not fit the so called definitions of male or female. For example: An XXY chromosomal combination. Several studies show that nearly one in every 100 individuals can be intersex. In India, intersex persons are almost always assigned one or the other sex at birth by doctors based on judgement calls and surgical interventions, but the benefits of this are debatable. Read more here about intersex issues.

‘Gender’is not the same as ‘sex’ though in popular usage they are seen as interchangeable. Gender refers to socio-cultural attributes, social roles and behaviours typically associated with one’s biological sex assigned at birth. Society equates gender to one’s sex. If you have a penis, you must be a boy or man and dress, talk and act in a certain way; if you have a vagina, you must be a girl or woman and again dress, talk and act in a certain way. Such social expectations extend to all aspects of life and may seem normal, but in fact are social impositions. In effect, both sex and gender are assigned to all of us at birth.

This brings us to the crucial concept of gender identity. This is a person’s internal sense of being a man, a woman, neither of these, both, and so on. A person’s gender identity may not be aligned with the sex / gender assigned to them at birth and the associated gender-related expectations. People whose socially assigned biological sex and gender identity are non-aligned are often referred to as ‘transgender’ . Transgender people may identify within the gender binary as men and women; or they may embrace a gender-queer or other non-binary identity (third gender, gender fluid, agender, etc). Thus transgender is an ‘umbrella’ for many gender identity expressions.

Is ‘transsexual’ different from ‘transgender’? People who identify as transgender are usually people born with typical male or female sexual or reproductive anatomies but may feel that they have been born into the ‘wrong body’, and do not identify with the sex / gender assigned to them at birth. Transsexuals are transgender people who are desirous of, are undergoing, or have undergone sexual reassignment or gender transition surgery to match their body and gender identity.

Implicit in this explanation is that not all transgender persons are transsexuals. Many express their transgender identity through other forms of feminization or masculinization. This can range from hormone replacement therapy to simply the choice of clothes, jewellery and cosmetics. In addition, legal name and gender identity change is another important aspect 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.

Who are the hijras? Hijras are mostly persons who are assigned sex / gender male at birth. But they 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 may rarely be intersex individuals contrary to the myth that all hijras are ‘hermaphrodites’ (an outdated expression for intersex people). They are considered part of the Indian ‘transgender umbrella’, but not all transgender persons are hijras. They have a long tradition of a matrilineal community, membership to which is formalised through the ritual of reet. Hijra clans consist of gurus and chelas (disciples) who often live in close-knit, rigidly governed, self-created families.

Most crucially, the hijras are 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 be largely denied to them.

An issue closely related to gender identity is gender expression. This 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 or speech patterns. The cultural expectation is that one’s assigned biological sex, gender identity and gender expression will align in stereotypical ways, but this alignment can be questioned and ‘queered’ in numerous ways!

Next, let us look at sexual orientation, which describes 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 men and women) and ‘homosexuality’ (exclusive attraction between men or between women) denote extremes in a continuum of attractions. There are several sexual orientations between and beyond. ‘Bisexuality’ stands for sexual attraction to both men and women. ‘Asexual’ means not sexually attracted to anyone and / or no desire to act on one’s sexual attraction to anyone.

Sexual identity is how one identifies one’s sexual orientation, but it may or may not be aligned with sexual orientation. Sexual identity terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight may have become common, but many people do not identify with these terms. Further, thanks to social stigma, it is common for people to identify as something that helps hide their sexual orientation.
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 (social stigma) and so on.

One myth around bisexuality merits special attention. Bisexuality does not indicate confusion about one’s sexual orientation. If you are bisexual, it is possible for you to be sexually and / or romantically attracted to men and women. That does not mean that you do not know what you want or that you must have multiple partners. You may well engage sexually and romantically with just the one person you deeply care for, and there is no confusion inherent in this.

Last Modified: 23 November 2018

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