I am often confused by gender fluidity and how it relates to sexual orientation (it doesn’t). Although I try, I inadvertently use the wrong pronoun to people who are not cisgender. (For those who have not yet heard the term, cisgender refers to people whose gender identity matches their sex organs, chromosomes, and hormones.)
It is easy to understand why I am confused. The science and psychology are evolving as this marginalized group is no longer being ignored. One article identified 20 terms for gender fluidity.
There are different types of gender fluidity. Gender, like sexuality, operates along spectrum and not the binary forms of male and female that we grew up believing.
There are several different types of gender dysphoria. Transgenders feel that their gender is different from their sex organs. Transgender people may identify as male or female, nonbinary, or simply ‘trans’. Trans people may or may not choose hormonal or surgical interventions to make their bodies reflect their gender identity.
Intersex individuals are equally diverse. Some individuals have external or internal sex organs that fall outside of typical binary categories. Others are born with chromosomal or hormonal differences. Some male babies are born with two or three X chromosomes, just as some female babies are born with a Y chromosome. Some individuals do not realize that they are intersex until they reach puberty. Intersex individuals are not as rare as we think; it is estimated that between 1%-2% of the population are intersex.
Under the gender fluidity umbrella are individuals who feel that they are both genders or something else entirely. Nonbinary people fit into this category. They can have no gender, more than one gender, or their gender can fluctuate.
Sexuality, on the other hand, is not related to gender identification. It refers to the gender that we are attracted to. There are four recognized types of sexuality: heterosexual (attracted to the opposite sex), homosexual (attracted to the same sex), bisexual (attracted to both sexes), and asexual (attracted to neither).
Western society has typically been intolerant of those who are not heterosexual and cisgender. In fact, homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder until 1987.
But apparently other societies do not see the world as rigidly.
Hindus have deities that are both male and female or neither in different incarnations. Rather than seeing someone different as “defective”, the hermaphrodite (now called intersex), the homosexual, and the transvestite have a symbolic value and are considered privileged beings.
India recognizes a third gender, called Hijras. Hijras are often assigned male at birth, but a few are born with intersex variations. The India Supreme Court in April 2014 recognized transgender people, eunuchs, and intersex people as a ‘third gender’ in law, and on their passport. Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have also legally accepted the existence of a third gender.
In some indigenous cultures in Mexico, Muxes (pronounced Mu-SHAY) are a recognized third gender. Muxes are typically born male, but early in their development, their families recognize and accept their female identities.
Native Hawaiians and Tahitians recognize Māhūs, which is an intermediate state between man and woman, or a “person of indeterminate gender.” Some Native Americans and Polynesians acknowledge a spectrum of genders: feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, and masculine man.
So, the Western world’s recognition of nonbinary gender and sexuality is really just catching to less restrictive cultures.
Now comes the hard part, avoiding offending someone who does not fit into our binary, heterosexual world. The English language doesn’t help, as we only have male and female pronouns for people. Transgenders and nonbinary people sometimes use they/them…but using that as a singular, is just hard, especially for those of us schooled in grammar.
But the English language is adaptable…many of our words have been derived from other languages. Just like Ms. has become accepted, I hope that English will evolve to include pronouns that are equally receptive.
I think about how many people have suffered due to our rigidity. And how much the world has lost.
After all, Leonardo da Vinci was a gay man who was born out of wedlock. Had he not lived in liberal, Renaissance Florence, his genius might never have been realized. How many other da Vinci’s have been unable to contribute to humanity because we rejected them?
We will never know.
But it is better late than never.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.