Gender identity debates and campaigns get a lot of attention from news outlets these days. LBGTQ activists passionately voice their demands for recognition and rights across social media platforms, and critics respond with equal passion.
While movement leaders push for changes in pronouns, the Trump Administration has sought to limit gender to the sex infants are assigned at birth. For those on the outskirts – or even in the heart – of the debate, the whirlwind of rhetoric can seem overwhelming.
It’s easy to think that all the anger and hate being thrown around mean that the movement to rethink binary gender has “gone too far”. In reality, if anything, it is long overdue.
Sadly, just like with every other debate these days, misconceptions and myths get attached to every like, post and tweet. When the stories and threads start mixing facts with fiction, people just get pushed further apart.
So here is our attempt to puncture some of the most rapidly spreading myths about gender and identity before they inflate any more.
1) The gender of all human newborns is easy to identify
When most people envision the moment of gender identification for infants, whether in the womb or at the moment of birth, they picture a doctor or midwife instantly declaring, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” From a single glance, the child’s gender is clear and indisputable.
It’s a classic image, but it isn’t reality. In the US, around 1 in 1500 to 1 in 4500 births are intersex. The United Nations reports that anywhere from 0.05% to 1.7% of people are born with intersex traits. Scientists have identified at least 150 potential factors that can cause the gender of a newborn to be ambiguous.
Historically, doctors have believed that assigning a binary gender to newborns with intersex characteristics gave the children their best chance at a happy life. The gender assignment process was normally kept secret from children as they grew up, even though doctors long believed that the decision wasn’t based on exact science.
Unfortunately, secretly imposing a gender onto an intersex child at birth just feeds the myth that gender identity is clearcut, which in turn makes life harder for all people with intersex traits. Approximately 90% of people who are intersex experience some form of discrimination in a given year. One in four suffer from an anxiety-related disorder in their lifetimes.
2) Gender fluidity and non-binary gender are new ideas
Millennials are often referred to as the “Gender-Fluid Generation”, giving the impression that gender ambiguity and the idea of non-binary sex are novel to the current age. A quick survey of history easily proves otherwise.
From as early as the 1800s, indigenous cultures of the US and Canada have used the term “two-spirited” when describing members of their communities who were not strictly male or female in spirit. Rather than alienating these people, the communities celebrated their mingling of male and female traits, sometimes even placing them in positions of special power.
Prior to European colonization, it was a fundamental notion in many African cultures that the gender of a person is purely based on energy, not on anatomy. Many tribes only allowed for gender identification once children passed a certain age. With wide acceptance of androgyny, gender-related biases and preconceptions were almost nonexistent in these societies.
3) Gender is a simple matter of XX or XY chromosomes
We all learn in biology class that humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Just one of these pairs determines a person’s sex: XX for girls, XY for boys.
Once again, it’s not that simple. Take Klinefelter syndrome, for example, which affects about 1 in 500 people classified as men. Instead of an XY pair, they have a Y chromosome plus two or more X chromosomes. Symptoms of this syndrome can include breast growth, less body hair, smaller genitalia, infertility, and even difficulties with learning and expressing thoughts.
More rarely, people identified as male can have multiple Y chromosomes, known as XYY syndrome. Evidently, even our own genes are telling us that gender isn’t as easy to understand as many people want to believe.
4) Gender identity is connected to sexual preference
In our primarily heterosexual society, it’s common to think that being attracted to women is somehow a “masculine” trait, and being attracted to men is “feminine”. In fact, how a person identifies their own gender is not linked to what gender they are attracted to.
So even if many of us feel a connection between our gender and our sexual preference, the science says that these matters are independent. Separating these two concepts is critical in order to understand people who are gender or sexually neutral or unspecific.
As Caitlyn Jenner said in an interview with Larry King, “Sexuality is who you go to bed with, and gender identity is who you go to bed as.”
5) Only tomboys and effeminate males resist traditional gender identities
The common myth is that once you identify and present yourself as one gender, that identity remains fixed throughout your life. Out of this notion comes the idea that only boys who play with dolls and girls who like to get their hands dirty and wear “boys’ clothes” might be inclined to question their gender. This is definitely far from the truth.
In fact, there are many people who choose to show up in the world female one day, male one day, and on other days neither, or both. Many more love their “girly” appearances and habits or their classic male looks, and still feel deeply uncomfortable with binary gender classification.
Fluid or non-binary gender is an identity in itself, and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with whether a person fits traditional gender stereotypes.
As the famous artist Sam Smith puts it, “You are just you. You are a mixture of all different things. You’re your own special creation. That’s how I take it. I’m not male or female, I think I float somewhere in between. It’s all on a spectrum. I think the same with sexuality.”