Taking a Look Through Different Lenses: Understanding Gender Identity

By Sonja Bethune, Psy.D.

Progressively throughout the last few decades, there has been an increasing amount of attention focused on theories regarding the development of one’s gender identity and sexual orientation when it deviates from the group norm (Harper & Wilson, 2017). Individuals have been more open regarding their personal feelings when it comes to who they are as a person and who they are sexually attracted to. People have been “coming out of the closet” for years, but still with much hesitancy. However, this article will focus primarily on understanding the development of one’s gender identity, how it can at times differ from the societal norms and how being more educated can lead to more acceptance instead of hate towards the trans population.

Just in case you missed Human Sexuality 101, allow me to define the terms “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” since they should not be used interchangeably.

Gender identity defined: “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).

Sexual orientation defined: “a person’s sexual preference or identity as bisexual, heterosexual, or homosexual” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).

By looking at these two definitions, it’s important to understand the key difference here. Basically, gender identity is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the gender (male or female) that one internally feels that they are. If a person feels like a male trapped in a female’s body, this doesn’t mean that this person is homosexual. It just means that they feel they are characteristically a female even though outwardly, their body shows otherwise. He would feel more comfortable playing the female gender roles rather than male gender roles.

Looking at the definition of sexual orientation, this characteristic simply refers to sexual attraction a person has toward another person based on gender. An individual’s sexual identity can be defined by the gender they are typically sexually attracted to. It could be the same gender, different gender, or both.

There are also other terms that individuals associated with the LGBTQ population relate to, such as queer or questioning, pansexual, and omnisexual. Read a comprehensive list of LGBTQ terms and definitions.

Where does gender identity begin?

Back in 1981, Sandra Bem developed the gender schema theory (a cognitive theory), which explains how a person identifies as a specific gender in society and how traditional gender roles or traits are stable over time (Carroll, 2013). It also explains how gender-specific traits are transferred onto others. For instance, parents tend to give their children toys based on their anatomical gender (what they were assigned at birth). Gender identity can then be considered an observable behavior that one develops.

Gender identity was established years ago by those who felt men were breadwinners and women were housewives, but these roles don’t seem to be the standard anymore. There are men who are nurses, hair stylists, and makeup artists. There are women who fly planes, work on cars, and even work in construction. However, just because a woman likes to work on cars doesn’t mean she identifies as being male. And just because a man likes to style hair for a living doesn’t mean he identifies with being female. As we all know, gender identity goes far beyond the career that one chooses. It comes from within.

Identifying the gender which a person ultimately associates with begins with the biological sex of the individual. However, the roles and definitions of gender have evolved and are much more fluid in our society today than they were fifty years ago. Though the road to gender identity may be paved with confusion and difficulty, it can be argued that conscious decisions are not undertaken to establish one’s gender identity. It is said to be relatively hardwired from birth, and the confusion of it all comes later when individuals realize they may not fit into the box that society has traditionally supplied for their gender at birth.

It is safe to say that some of the decisions adolescents take on include the decision to conform to society’s idea of what gender means and how they should identify their role versus what they feel.

Adolescents are faced with many decisions as they establish their gender identity. These decisions include:

  1. What gender will they identify with?
  2. How will they express their identified gender?
  3. What gender roles will they take on?
  4. Determining the cultural and social expectations associated with gender roles.
  5. To what degree will they conform to their gender identity roles?

This discussion then brings forth one of the oldest debates: nature versus nurture. Even if gender identity is something that is ultimately programmed before birth, there are tremendous cultural, social, and environmental influences on each person that can potentially shape them into who they think they want to be and who they think they should be.

What is normal?

In our society, it is the norm for a man to be attracted to a woman and vice versa. It is the norm for a man and woman to follow the typical gender roles or stereotypes, although we are seeing more and more women going against the female gender roles that were expected several decades ago. For instance, there are more women who choose a career over having children.

However, when a person deviates outside the norm, judgement is made by those of the group norm. People fear what they do not understand; therefore, they see that the best way to balance out their perceptions of what’s morally right and wrong is to verbally make known their position on the matter. This declaration is simply the result of being uninformed or the unwillingness to seek knowledge and understanding of those who don’t fit perfectly within their societal puzzle. And this case is one in which ignorance (uneducated about gender identity development) can evoke violence in others, such as in the case of Brandon Teena.

Transsexual, transgender, and transvestism defined

These terms are often mistaken for one another or used interchangeably; however, each of these terms have distinctly different meanings.

Transvestism refers to cross-dressing or the behavior of wearing clothes that the opposite sex stereotypically wears (i.e. a man wearing dresses). This behavior may also include other ways to appears as the opposite sex, such as a man wearing makeup. This behavior doesn’t mean that they are homosexual or that they want to be a different gender than what their anatomy dictates.

Transgender refers to a person who identifies with being the opposite sex (i.e. man feeling like they are a woman and vice versa).

A transsexual is a person who also identifies with being the opposite sex; however, they require gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy.

Gender dysphoria

The American Psychiatric Association (2013) has made strides in increasing cultural awareness and sensitivity when it comes to the LGBTQ population by not including Gender Identity Disorder in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). In its place is Gender Dysphoria, which has its own section with diagnostic criteria that goes beyond a person simply identifying with being the opposite sex.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) provides for one overarching diagnosis of gender dysphoria with separate specific criteria for children and for adolescents and adults.

In adolescents and adults gender dysphoria diagnosis involves a difference between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, and significant distress or problems functioning. It lasts at least six months and is shown by at least two of the following:

  1. A marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and primary and/or secondary sex characteristics
  2. A strong desire to be rid of one’s primary and/or secondary sex characteristics
  3. A strong desire for the primary and/or secondary sex characteristics of the other gender
  4. A strong desire to be of the other gender
  5. A strong desire to be treated as the other gender
  6. A strong conviction that one has the typical feelings and reactions of the other gender. (American Psychiatric Association, 2017, para. 7)

The struggle is real

Take a moment to reflect on what it must feel like to have opposite sex body parts than what you feel you are aligned with mentally. Let’s say you identify as being a male, but when you look down at your genitals, you see a vagina. How do you feel initially with that thought? Are you afraid of what people might think if you choose to follow male gender roles even though you are anatomically a female? How long can you hide this? Do you even want to hide this?

Not only do these individuals struggle internally, but they also face challenges in their social and occupational life. Their parents may disown them. They may be discriminated against when it comes to employment. They even face the barriers to accessing necessary health care. They may have difficulty finding stable relationships. Feeling rejected for most of their life can obviously have a traumatic impact on their self-worth, which can lead to self-destructive behaviors.

Knowledge is power: Learning to embrace differences

As previously stated, when a person is not educated or uninformed about this controversial and highly sensitive topic, negative labels can be placed on those who deviate from the social norm. People fear what they don’t know or understand. What happens when someone is afraid? They either fight or they flee (ignore).

What’s unfortunate is that this lack of understanding and awareness isn’t only seen in the uneducated, but also in the helping profession. According to Singh, Meng, and Hansen (2012), “knowledge about gender identity and trans health is very low among health providers” (p. 208). This group includes medical doctors and counselors. Because of this acknowledgment by the Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming People, master’s level counselors, who are competent in treating the trans population, can refer clients to receive hormonal therapy and surgeries leading to gender reassignment (World Professional Association of Transgender Health, 2011; as cited in Singh et al., 2012).

Furthermore, key mental health organizations, such as the American Counseling Association (ACA), authorized the Competencies for Counseling with Transgender Clients (2010), which has created more awareness of the struggles of the trans population among counselors in training. The focus of these competencies, as outlined by the ACA, touches on “feminist, multicultural, and social justice theories” (Singh et al., 2012, p. 208). Increasing one’s knowledge and awareness of the struggles that the trans population endures on a daily basis can, thereby, increase one’s level of empathy and willingness to educate others. It’s time to stop judging and start empowering.

American Counseling Association. (2010). American Counseling Association: Competencies for counseling with transgender clients. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 4, 135–159. doi:10.1080/15538605.2010.524839

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

American Psychiatric Association. (2017). What is gender dysphoria? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gender-dysphoria/what-is-gender-dysphoria

Caroll, J. L. (2013). Sexuality now: Embracing diversity (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Difference between pansexual and omnisexual. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.differencebetween.info/difference-between-pansexual-and-omnisexual

Gender identity. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gender_identity

Harper, G. W., & Wilson, B. M. (2017). Situating sexual orientation and gender identity diversity in context and communities. In M. A. Bond, I. Serrano-García, C. B. Keys, M. Shinn, M. A. Bond, I. Serrano-García, … M. Shinn (Eds.) , APA handbook of community psychology: Theoretical foundations, core concepts, and emerging challenges (pp. 387-402). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/14953-019

Killerman, S. (n.d.). Comprehensive list of LGBTQ+ vocabulary definitions. Retrieved from http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2013/01/a-comprehensive-list-of-lgbtq-term-definitions/#sthash.hpMPgLLi.520rXEcB.dpbs

Sexual orientation. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sexual_orientation

Singh, A. A., Meng, S. E., & Hansen, A. W. (2013). “I am my own gender”: Resilience strategies of trans youth. Journal of Counseling & Development, 92, 208-218.

World Professional Association of Transgender Health. (2011). Standards of care for the health of transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people (7th ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Author.