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  • Writer's picturePeter Golder

What is gender identity?

In this two part article exploring gender, I first focus on gender identity followed by gender dysphoria in the next article.

My counselling work is focused on supporting people with their gender identity, including gender dysphoria, so I want to raise some awareness and pose some questions about a key aspect of our identity.

In this first article I hope to make you think about your gender identity and how it developed. I will discuss what gender identity is and how it's formed. Mentioning the effects biology, psychology and social factors have on the creation of a person's gender identity.

Identity and gender identity are huge subjects in psychology, sociology and psychotherapy. My article certainly cannot cover every aspect of these topics. My intention is purely to throw some light on what I think is an important aspect of our lives.


How did you decide which gender you are?

White board with colourful lettters on, which says 'Hello, my pronouns are ......."
What are your pronouns?

The word identity relates to who we are, how we think about ourselves, the way others define us and the characteristics that define who we are. It is a mental construct we create for ourselves and which others create for us. We often don't think much about what identity means, but imagine if you had no identity. How would you know yourself; how would anyone know who you are or what you stand for or represent?

Gender identity relates to how you feel about your gender including how you would define it. A lot of people don't ever think too much about this important identity. You might know very clearly which gender you are, but how would you describe yourself in terms of your gender identity? It can sometimes be very hard to explain and define your own personal gender and how it was formed. Much of your understanding and knowledge about your gender will come from what others have told you, as well as what you have decided for yourself.

Only you know exactly what your gender feels like to you, so though people may identity you as a particular gender, no one can really define your gender, except you. So, did you decide which gender you are or did you go along with how others defined it for you?

Some people work out their gender identity when they are young, while others take longer. Either way is fine. We are all on our own journey through life and we all move at different speeds to one another.

Are you cisgender or transgender?

Many people would not even question or think about how their gender identity could be anything different. It has always felt right to them. If you live your life with the awareness that your sex and gender identity match, then it's said that you are ‘cisgender’.

If your gender identity is different to the sex that you were assigned with at birth, then you may define yourself as ‘transgender’. For clarification, a person would be transgender if they were assigned a particular sex at birth, but their gender identity is different to that which they were assigned with. The charity Stonewall estimates that around 1% of the UK population is trans or non-binary. So that would mean there are around 600, 000 transgender and non-binary people living in the UK. That's a lot of people.

When is a gender identity created?

Children’s gender identity starts to become established around the age of 2 or 3 years old and up until this age, children will often experiment with their gender identity. They role-play, wearing clothes related to different genders and watch others who they perceive as similar or different to them. They listen to what others say about how and who they should be. During this time, they will be making their own decisions about their gender.

Do we freely choose our own gender identity?

As can be appreciated, children don’t have much choice on where they live, who raises them and on what they learn. So, do children choose their gender identity, or do the people who raise them, choose and influence how they see their gender? We can easily assume that we chose the identity we have, but if we look more closely at the world we grow up in, we start to see the power of our environment in how it defines us and the way we think.

Classrrom setting, with lots of desks and chairs facing forward in an organised setting.
Structured learning

The impact of society on our identity

Gender itself is a social construct, a way of categorising people. Our brains love categories as they save time and energy by sorting different objects together as opposed to working out what everything is individually. Over the years, societies and cultures have categorised people by the way they look, sound and behave. The information and beliefs associated with each category will be different across the world and across time. They are not fixed, they constantly change. We don't often see the changes, because they occur slowly. It's possible then that people see gender as a fixed identity.

Gender is one of the most fundamental categories we have. We come into the world and are immediately placed into one of two categories based on our sexual anatomy. A binary. Everything about our lives will then be shaped by which category we are placed in. This has been done in society for thousands of years and we have absolutely no say on this process as infants.

The power of this categorisation is not to be underestimated. Much has been written on the imbalance in society of gender and sex. A recent report Unlimited Potential - Report of the Commission on the Gender Stereotypes in childhood, highlights the detrimental way gender and gender stereotyping in society limits how children develop and the opportunities they have. For instance, gender can limit the jobs that females get or impinge on how a boy expresses his feelings.

Little baby lying on a blue blanket

One very clear way to see how culture and society has an effect on gender and our minds is how the language and symbolism of colour is used. Colour by itself has nothing to do with gender, yet over the years pink and blue have become synonymous with gender. Pink isn't inherently feminine as blue isn't male. They are just colours. Dress a small boy in pink though and questions will be raised, because the symbolism of the colour is so weighted in society. That little boy doesn't care what colour he is wearing. He is taught to care and mind which colours he wears in order to fit in, to act appropriately to his gender.

It’s interesting to note also how we use the same way of classifying people in terms of their sex and gender identity, using male and female. By doing this it reinforces the belief or assumption that if you are born a particular sex then your gender identity will be the same and match it.

A nature / nurture explanation of gender identity

An interesting article in The Scientist highlights the scientific research into the biological basis of gender identity. The writer Shawna Williams talks about the complex relationship between biological, psychological and social factors in defining what makes up our gender identity. Summarising her work, she writes how each of us have a similar brain, yet each brain has subtle differences which affect how we all individually develop. So, who you are today, has resulted from your individual biology, an enormous amount of conscious and unconscious psychological processing and the effects of social interaction.

That children, young people and adults come to recognise that their gender does not match the sex they were assigned with, suggests that our gender identity is in part, something we are born with. After birth though, social factors kick in, conditioning and defining a person based on their sexual characteristics. That is until a person defines and decides for themself who they are, based on their own internal reflections of how they think and feel about their gender identity.

By coming out, Transgender people aren't choosing an identity, like people choose the latest summer clothing. If they did, they might put it back, because having a transgendered identity can mean facing huge social, mental and physical obstacles. They are choosing to let people know that they have a gender identity that is different to the body they were born with. An identity naturally built within their minds and shaped by the structure of their brain.

A genderless world

It's interesting to imagine what it would be like if we were to take away all the gendered social conditioning that arises after we are born. Would our identity be different if we got to choose by ourselves who we are? Would there be less or no prejudice and discrimination of people perceived to be different because they don't follow the 'normal' expectations of society? Would we choose to be male or female, would we choose something different, would we perhaps even not define ourselves in terms of any gender identity?

One way of imagining this is to think about clothing. We can easily think about what types of clothes are associated with each gender, but what if we didn't have gender to categorise certain types of clothes. People would wear trousers in the winter and skirts in the summer. People would wear certain types of clothes based on their body size, not related to their sexual characteristics.

As we can all appreciate, we don't live in a world like this. There are very fixed views on what people should wear, particularly for men. It's deemed inappropriate and unacceptable for a man to wear a skirt or dress. Though it's just a piece of fabric, a skirt is heavily gendered in our society to be associated as female or feminine. We are not born knowing this, we learn these rules from society, and these rules become so infused with the way we live our life, that we believe they are natural.

It's interesting to contemplate what the world would be like if we didn't split people in terms of gender, or in terms of other social and cultural groupings. Creating division can be useful for the brain, but leads to seriously negative social consequences such as prejudice, discrimination, isolation and conflict.


Why it's important to talk about gender identity?

Being curious and interested in our identity is important. It constantly changes. We develop from infancy to childhood, adolescence to adulthood. We become parents, teachers, leaders. We can be healthy, then unhealthy. We learn languages, move around the world and live in places far from our initial home. These new experiences change our identities, as a result of our developed understanding of ourselves and others. Identities are not fixed, they are always changing, just as the world is constantly changing.

Also, there is more and more evidence of people challenging traditional views of who they are meant to be in terms of their gender. People are growing in confidence, supported by the law and changes in the attitude of society. Living a more authentic life that embraces the gender they identify with, rather than an identity that is defined by the sexual characteristics they were born with.

Next month, in the second part of this article, I will talk more about what happens for some people when their biological sex and gender identity don’t match, resulting in gender dysphoria. I will highlight the impact gender dysphoria can have on a person’s sense of self and wellbeing.


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