Issues Magazine

Breaking through the Binary: Gender As a Continuum

By Sam Killermann

The Genderbread Person is a tool for individuals to better understand themselves or explain their gender to someone else.

Gender is a tough subject to tackle. There are many facets to consider and many pressures at play, and we have all been conditioned in such a way that our first instinct is almost always wrong. But we’re going to tackle it.

Coming to our aid, I would like to present to you: The Genderbread Person! Now let’s talk about it.

The Genderbread Person

Before going further, look at the illustration below. You’ll see that we have four elements. Before I break them down, I want to talk in generalities.

First, if you noticed that three of the categories all pertain to gender while the fourth pertains to sexuality, skip ahead to the next paragraph. For everyone else: if that doesn’t make sense to you, or you’re unsure of how all four interrelate, worry not. By the end of this article it’ll all make sense.

The illustrations used on the following pages to map out gender (the “-ness” model) allow individuals to plot where they identify along both continua to represent varying degrees of alignment with the traditional binary elements of each aspect of gender, resulting in infinite possibilities of “gender” for a person.

Using two continuums for each element (the “-ness” approach), instead of having a scale from F to M, allows a person to demonstrate that they embody more of one aspect of gender without it meaning they are less of the complement. For instance, expressing gender masculinely, like wearing a beard, doesn’t make a feminine expression, like wearing tight-fitting clothing, less feminine.

Also, I strongly condone and recommend people to plot ranges along the continua, instead of just points, to depict how their gender might vary as a result of different social situations, stimulations or other -ations.

Whenever I talk to groups about gender using this model, people tend to assume that someone will consistently be similarly positioned in either the top or bottom of each of the continuum pairs (all top, or all bottom), and when I explain that many people zigzag through the list, they give me blank stares.

Yet gender identity, gender expression, biological sex and sexual orientation exist independently of one another. With that said, let’s move on.

Gender Identity: Who You Think You Are

On the left of both continua shown above we have an empty set symbol, which is meant to represent a lack of what’s on the right, and on the right we have “woman-ness” (the quality to which you identify as a “woman”) and “man-ness” (ditto, but with “man”). To the right we have some examples of possible plots and possible labels for those plots. Examples of common identities that aren’t listed include agender, bigender, third-gender and transgender.

Gender identity is all about how you think about yourself. It’s about how you internally interpret the chemistry that composes you (e.g. hormone levels). As you know it, do you think you fit better into the societal role of “woman” or “man,” or does neither ring particularly true for you? That is, do you have aspects of your identity that align with elements from both? Or do you consider your gender to fall outside of the gender norms completely? The answer is your gender identity.

It has been accepted that we form our gender identities around the age of three. After that age it is incredibly difficult to change them. Formation of identity is affected by hormones and environment just as much as it is by biological sex. Often, problems arise when someone is assigned a gender based on their sex at birth that doesn’t align with how they come to identify.

Gender Expression: How You Demonstrate Who You Are

On the left of both continua shown below we have an empty set symbol, which represents a lack of what’s on the right. On the right sides we have “feminine” and “masculine”. Examples of different gender expressions and possible labels are to the right. “Androgynous” simply means a gender expression that has elements of both masculinity and femininity.

Gender expression is all about how you demonstrate gender through the ways you act, dress, behave and interact – whether that is intentional or unintended. Gender expression is interpreted by others based on traditional gender norms (e.g. men wear pants; women wear dresses). Gender expression is something that often changes from day to day, outfit to outfit, and event or setting to event or setting. It’s about how the way you express yourself aligns (or doesn’t) with traditional ways of gendered expression, and can be motivated by your gender identity, sexuality, or something else completely (e.g., just for fun, or performance). Like gender identity, there is a lot of room for flexibility here. It is likely that your gender expression changes frequently without you even thinking about it.

How about an example?

You wake up wearing baggy grey trackpants and a T-shirt. As you walk into your kitchen to prepare breakfast, you’re expressing an androgynous-to-slightly-masculine gender. However, you see your partner in the kitchen and decide to prowl in like Halle Berry from Catwoman; then you are expressing much more femininely. You pour a bowl of cereal, wrap your fist around a spoon like a Viking, and start shoveling Fruit Loops into your face, and all of a sudden you’re bumping up your levels of masculinity. After breakfast, you skip back into your bedroom and playfully place varying outfits in front of you, pleading with your partner to help you decide what to wear. You’re feminine again.

I assume this entire time you were imagining it was you, with your gender identity, acting out that example. Now go back through the whole thing, but this time imagine someone with a different gender identity from you going through the motions. Now you are starting to understand how these concepts interrelate but don’t interconnect.

Biological Sex: The Equipment Under the Hood

On the left of both continua below we have an empty set symbol, representing a lack of what’s on the right, and on the right we have “female-ness” and “male-ness” (both representing the degree to which you possess those characteristics). In the examples to the right, you see a new term, “intersex,” which is a label for someone who has both male and female characteristics. You also see two “self ID” (self-identification) labels, which represent people who possess both male and female characteristics but identify with one of the binary sexes.

Biological sex refers to the objectively measurable organs, hormones and chromosomes you possess. Let’s consider biological sex in the ultra-reductive way society does: being female means having a vagina, ovaries, two X chromosomes, predominant oestrogen and the ability to grow a baby in your abdominal area; being male means having testes, a penis, an XY chromosome pair, predominant testosterone, and the ability to put a baby in a female’s abdominal area; and being intersex can be any combination of what I just described.

In reality for most folks, biological sex – like gender identity and expression – is more nuanced than that, but for now I want to talk a bit more about intersex people. For example, someone can be born with the appearance of being male (penis, scrotum etc.) but have a functional female reproductive system inside. There are many examples of how intersex can present itself, and – prepare to be shocked – statistics from the Intersex Society of North America illustrating the frequency of intersex births indicate that for one in 100 births the newborn has a body that differs from the standard male or female.

Attraction: Who You Are Romantically and Sexually Into

We have two related ideas on the next page. On the left of each we have “nobody,” meaning no feelings of attraction. On the right we have “men/males/ masculinity” and “women/females/femininity”. Sexual attraction can be thought of as the want, need or desire for physical sexual contact and relationships. Romantic attraction is an affinity and love for others and the desire for emotional relationships. Some folks have both; some folks have neither; and many experience more of one than the other.

Sexual orientation is all about who you are physically, spiritually and emotionally attracted to (here we’ve broken it out specifically into sexual and romantic attraction), and the labels tend to describe the relationships between your gender and the gender types you’re attracted to.

If you are a man and you’re attracted to women, you’re straight. If you’re a man who is attracted to men and another gender, you’re bisexual. And if you’re a man who is attracted to men, you’re gay. These are the labels most of us know the most about. We hear the most about it, it’s salient in our lives, and we can best understand where we stand with it. It’s pretty cut and dry, right? Maybe.

There’s much more to attraction and sexuality. Some folks define and experience attraction without gender as a factor; they might identify as “pansexual”. If you experience romantic attraction but not sexual, you might identify as asexual or “ace”, or, depending on the gender(s) you’re attracted to, hetero-, homo- or panromantic. If you’re attracted to folks who are trans- or androgynous, you might identify as skoliosexual.

Interestingly enough, pioneering research conducted by Dr.Alfred Kinsey in the mid-20th century uncovered that most people aren’t absolutely straight or gay/lesbian. Instead of just asking “Do you like dudes or chicks?” he asked people to report their fantasies, dreams, thoughts, emotional investments in others, and frequency of sexual contact. Based on his findings, he broke sexuality down into a seven-point scale (see below), and reported that most people who identify as straight are actually somewhere between 1 and 3 on the scale, and most people who identify as lesbian/gay are between 3 and 5, meaning most of us are a bit bisexual.

0: Exclusively heterosexual

1: Predominantly heterosexual, incidentally homosexual

2: Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual

3: Equally heterosexual and homosexual

4: Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual

5: Predominantly homosexual, incidentally heterosexual

6: Exclusively homosexual

Putting It All Together: Interrelation v. Interconnection

Gender identity, gender expression, biological sex and sexual orientation are independent of one another (i.e. they are not connected). People’s sexual orientation doesn’t determine their gender expression. And their gender expression isn’t determined by their gender identity. And their gender identity isn’t determined by their biological sex. And also, every other mismatch of A isn’t determined by B combinations you can dream up from those inputs. Those things certainly affect one another (i.e. they are related to one another), but they do not determine one another.

If someone is born with male reproductive organs and genitalia, he is very likely to be raised as a boy, identify as a man, and express himself masculinely. We call this identity “cisgender” (when your biological sex aligns with how you identify), and it grants a lot of privilege (you already read about that, remember?). It’s something most of us who have it don’t appreciate nearly as much as we should.

Adapted from Sam Killermann’s book The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender. Presented at the 2013 National Sex Ed Conference in the US (