Gender Identity


In considering how different people approach the complex issues associated with gender dysphoria and transgender persons, I was looking at a web site that discusses various approaches to the topic. They discuss four “categories in the study of transgender”: (1) essentialism or naturalism, (2) social constructivism, (3) performance, and (4) memory and language generation. The first two of these also represent two philosophical perspectives on the subject: essentialism versus social constructivism. According to the definition given on the web site, essentialists focus on the two genders as distinct and treat biological sex and gender as if there was no real difference between the two. Proponents also hold that they cannot be changed. In contrast, social constructivists claim that sex and gender are linguistic constructs fashioned by society. According to the article, they are in some ways products of how society assigns meaning to them and can to some extent be addressed or changed.


For reflection: Which philosophical position reflects your understanding of sex and gender? How does one’s philosophical position inform at a practical level how a person approaches the topic of gender identity? Also, moving in a different direction, it has been suggested by Richard Carroll that there are separate dimensions to sexuality, including one’s body, one’s social role, one’s sexuality, and one’s gender identity. Are there any other dimensions or considerations? Also, what are the relative weights you would give to these dimensions of sexuality? How does this inform how you approach the topic of gender identity concerns?

7 thoughts on “Gender Identity

  1. My perspective is rather conflicting. I do believe that there is a difference between sex and gender. Sex is the biological make of a person and gender is actually the role society allots to individuals. Society has with the collection of research data attributed certain traits and personality to gender. Masculine traits are different from feminine traits and so therefore, as a social constructivist I would say that social interaction is responsible for the world view on whom is considered male or female. As a result of this viewpoint, difficulties arise in gender identity when personal traits of an individual, does not align with society’s expectation of the gender type. In schools, behavior that is considered out of norm for males is laughed out, ridiculed and labeled as female because there are clear expected roles for each gender to fulfill in line with the biological sex concerned. As social interaction has enabled the reconstruction of male parts and female parts, sex can be constructed to some extent by surgical procedures.

    As an essentialist, my view is traced back to the beginning of the world according to the bible. When God made male and female and they were to multiply. After the fall, God said the woman will suffer in childbirth and the man will suffer tilling the soil. To some extent the roles of man and women were defined by God however, these roles did not include personality traits,or attitude. To be female meant to have the natural ability to conceive a child, to be male meant the ability to till the ground. Currently, both women and men are tilling the ground because physically it is possible. There is no way that biologically a man can conceive and give birth to a child normally even with hormonal help. This in my opinion sets the stage for the distinct difference between being male and being female, by sex and by gender. In so saying, there lies my essentialist argument that there is no difference between sex and gender, and there are two genders only.

  2. This post is attempting answer or at least consider many questions that have been posed. I feel overwhelmed as I consider where I stand on these issues. I know so little about the transexual culture and individuals that it is hard to see beyond my own sexual standing. I do consider the social constructivist’s position to be more logical. I think many aspects of sexuality are “fashioned by society” and now that society is changing there are many individuals left confused and angry. This would greatly affect how I approach the topic of gender identity, if sex and gender are socially built than my internal experiences mean little and cannot be compared with dealing or interacting with others. Only the external experiences can be known, and internal experiences can’t be assumed but must be learned. Meaning practically, that I can never assume how in touch another individual is with his or her gender and sex and must learn where they fall on a few different spectrums (i.e. gender, attraction, sex role beliefs…). This lines up with Richard Carroll’s stance on the separate dimensions of sexuality. I do not know how he would add it but I would also consider the amount of flexibility between each of the dimensions he mentioned, how flexible or rigid is the person in his or her social role, sexuality, etc.? This informs me about how I approach the topic of gender identity concerns in that there can be a lot of variability and there are many unknowns; which may bring up fear in me and it may bring up fear in people I counsel.

  3. In thinking about gender identity, I find myself falling more on the essentialist/naturalist side of things. The creation story in Genesis speaks of a physical creation of male and female with their respective physical and other differences. There was a black and white distinction between male and female. That is not to say that personality characteristics can’t be more of a blend – there are plenty of men with stereotypically feminine traits and vice versa. But I think we need to be careful in distinguishing between stereotypical personality traits and gender identity. A male can be completely male, and be very gentle and nurturing and emotional. A female can be completely female and yet show great strength and ruggedness. Indeed, Scriptures pertaining to the genders speak to a wide variety of traits, including descriptions of the Proverbs 31 woman and exhortations to men to care for their wives in a tender way. I’m also reminded of the Scriptural metaphor of a potter and his clay – will the clay say to the potter “why did you make me this way? I should be this way, or that way.” No, the potter receives his ultimate glory when the clay trusts in his design and finds rest in his sovereignty. The bowl who feels he should be a vase ought to seek the potter’s hand in his life and trust that God makes no mistakes. We all experience struggles and sins, and many of these touch on aspects of our identity. The believer should seek to die to him/herself and lay these struggles at the feet of Jesus, finding healing and wholeness in his identity in Christ. Struggling with gender identity, while it is a matter that can be incredibly painful and close to the heart, is not, for the believer, significantly different than many other areas of struggle.

  4. I am leery of sounding politically correct by not taking a stand and choosing a camp to align myself with, and yet, I feel ill-equipped to meaningfully assert strong beliefs when the dialogue is so complex and I feel overwhelmed when I try to plant my feet in one camp or another. I have wrestled with what to believe regarding sexuality since I was first introduced to the topic during my sociology courses in undergrad. I wrote my senior thesis under a sociology professor who challenged me in this area and introduced me to the diverse dialogue regarding gay theology. By the end of my four years in undergrad study, I still had not cemented a firm belief regarding sexuality. Instead of taking a stance, I chose to write my senior thesis on offering hospitality to the community of “sexual others’ that are not generally openly accepted by the greater Christian community.

    I do not feel comfortable taking camp with the essentialist or naturalist group or the social constructivist group because both take an absolutist stance that ignores the complexity of the interplay between both nature and nurture on the individual. I also do not feel comfortable setting up camp with either the performance group or the memory and language generation group, because both purport too much emphasis on a humanistic stance in which the basis for gender are “if it looks like it, then it must be…” Personally, I cannot get behind either of these stances because I know as a person living in a flesh body, that I am full of flesh tendencies that “look” one way, but do not mean they are truth. I don’t want to sound negative or critical of these well thought out and meaningful categories, but neither can I disavow legitimate beliefs that are not captured in these groupings.

  5. With the question of a philosophical position about sex and gender, I find myself considering both perspectives. I can see the aspects that contribute from both the essentialism and the social constructivism views. At this time I would have to say that both essentialism and social constructivism seem to play a part. Overall, I think that it is important to be aware of one’s position because it impacts how a therapist works with individuals in therapy who experience gender dysphoria.
    Carroll suggests there are multiple dimensions to sexuality: one’s body, one’s social role, one’s sexuality, and one’s gender identity. I think that comfort level with each of the separate areas also helps inform one’s role in sexuality. However I realize this additional dimension may be un-warranted due to the characteristics of GID and the discomfort with one’s gender.

  6. Richard Carroll idea of dimensions is interesting. It seems that there are several fluid dimensions of human sexuality that tend to be clumped together. I sometimes wonder if this clumping may contribute to pathology.
    I think another dimension that might be added is the meaning we make out of sexuality. I think that the meaning we place in our sexual bodies, our sexual actions and relationships add emphasis to the other dimensions Carroll mentions.
    I think that impermeable boundaries between the essentialist and social constructive philosophies can cause some problems problems and becomes especially complicated if one does views human sexuality in terms of dimensions. We are dynamic beings that require adjustments as we grow and learn about our environments and ourselves. Socializing a child to behave according to a script that is may be appropriate for biological purposes but not for identity purposes may cause confusion and then dsyphoria for the individual as s/he grows and changes.

  7. I certainly think that our society is too rigid in its definition of gender roles, and see no moral or philosophical justification for it. I suppose I’m a pragmatist at some level… if a certain gender role is working for an individual, then that’s great. It’s when they encounter distress that there’s a problem; although then I suppose we are left to decide if that problem is intrapsychic, interpersonal, or sociocultural. I know there is talk about removing transgender issues from the DSM, in part because many people see the emotional distress caused by this “condition” to be a product of societal pressures, so it makes no sense to put the onus on the individual experiencing the gender issues. I certainly see validity in that, because I’m sure if society was overwhelmingly supportive and encouraging of gender exploration significantly fewer transgendered individuals would be distressed by it.

    Ultimately when it comes to gender identity issues I’m decidedly uncertain. I think harmful gender roles should be disregarded, but other than that I have no solid opinion. It’s complicated enough that I’m willing to say God’s intention in this area isn’t clear to me at this time, so I’d have no problem working with clients with a wide variety of moral/philosophical positions.

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