This chapter is adapted from: Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies by Miliann Kang, Donovan Lessard, Laura Heston, Sonny Nordmarken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

“Transgender,” vs. “Transgendered,” “Trans,” “Trans*,” “Non-binary,” “Genderqueer,” “Genderfluid,” “Agender,” “Transsexual,” “Cisgender,” “Cis”

Transgender generally refers to individuals who identify as a gender not assigned to them at birth. The term is used as an adjective (i.e., “a transgender woman,” not “a transgender”), however some individuals describe themselves by using transgender as a noun. The term transgendered is not preferred because it emphasizes ascription and undermines self-definition. Trans is an abbreviated term and individuals appear to use it self-referentially these days more often than transgenderTransition is both internal and social. Some individuals who transition do not experience a change in their gender identity since they have always identified in the way that they do. Trans* is an all-inclusive umbrella term which encompasses all nonnormative gender identities (Tompkins 2014). Non-binary and genderqueer refer to gender identities beyond binary identifications of man or woman. The term genderqueer became popularized within queer and trans communities in the 1990s and 2000s, and the term non-binary became popularized in the 2010s (Roxie 2011). Agender, meaning “without gender,” can describe people who do not have a gender identity, while others identify as non-binary or gender neutral, have an undefinable identity, or feel indifferent about gender (Brooks 2014). Genderfluid people experience shifts between gender identities. The term transsexual is a medicalized term and indicates a binary understanding of gender and an individual’s identification with the “opposite” gender from the gender assigned to them at birth. Cisgender or cis refers to individuals who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. Some people prefer the term non-trans. Additional gender identity terms exist; these are just a few basic and commonly used terms. Again, the emphasis of these terms is on viewing individuals as they view themselves and using their self-designated names and pronouns.

#LiA Living History of the LGBT Movement Since The 1800svingHistory 

The Life and Death of Marsha P Johnson  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00U7rnz6trk

“Queer,” “Bisexual,” “Pansexual,” “Polyamorous,” “Asexual,”

Queer as an identity term refers to a non-categorical sexual identity; it is also used as a catch-all term for all LGBTQ (lesbiangaybisexualtransgenderqueer) individuals. The term was historically used in a derogatory way, but was reclaimed as a self-referential term in the 1990s United States. Although many individuals identify as queer today, some still feel personally insulted by it and disapprove of its use. Bisexual is typically defined as a sexual orientation marked by attraction to either men or women. This has been problematized as a binary approach to sexuality, which excludes individuals who do not identify as men or women. Pansexual is a sexual identity marked by sexual attraction to people of any gender or sexuality. Polyamorous (poly, for short) or non-monogamous relationships are open or non-exclusive; individuals may have multiple consensual and individually-negotiated sexual and/or romantic relationships at once (Klesse 2006). Asexual is an identity marked by a lack of or rare sexual attraction, or low or absent interest in sexual activity, abbreviated to “ace” (Decker 2014). Asexuals distinguish between sexual and romantic attraction, delineating various sub-identities included under an ace umbrella. In several later sections of this book, we discuss the terms heteronormativity, homonormativity, and homonationalism; these terms are not self-referential identity descriptors but are used to describe how sexuality is constructed in society and the politics around such constructions.


The Stonewall Riots: How the gay rights movement began




Unit II: Challenging Binary Systems and Constructions of Difference

The Sex/Gender/Sexuality System

The phrase “sex/gender system,” or “sex/gender/sexuality system” was coined by Gayle Rubin (1984) to describe, “the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity.” That is, Rubin proposed that the links between biological sex, social gender, and sexual attraction are products of culture. Gender is, in this case, “the social product” that we attach to notions of biological sex. In our heteronormative culture, everyone is assumed to be heterosexual (attracted to men if you are a woman; attracted to women if you are a man) until stated otherwise. People make assumptions about how others should act in social life, and to whom they should be attracted, based on their perceptions of outward bodily appearance, which is assumed to represent biological sex characteristics (chromosomes, hormones, secondary sex characteristics and genitalia). Rubin questioned the biological determinist argument that suggested all people assigned female at birth will identify as women and be attracted to men. According to a biological determinist view, where “biology is destiny,” this is the way nature intended. However, this view fails to account for human intervention. As human beings, we have an impact on the social arrangements of society. Social constructionists believe that many things we typically leave unquestioned as conventional ways of life actually reflect historically- and culturally-rooted power relationships between groups of people, which are reproduced in part through socialization processes, where we learn conventional ways of thinking and behaving from our families and communities. Just because female-assigned people bear children does not necessarily mean that they are always by definition the best caretakers of those children or that they have “natural instincts” that male-assigned people lack.

A photograph of a baby in a pink dress smiling at a doll.
“Kid Girl Doll Child Expression Cute Face Baby” by Max Pixel is in the Public Domain, CC0

For instance, the arrangement of women caring for children has a historical legacy (which we will discuss more in the section on gendered labor markets). We see not only mothers but other women too caring for children: daycare workers, nannies, elementary school teachers, and babysitters. What these jobs have in common is that they are all very female-dominated occupations AND that this work is economically undervalued. These people do not get paid very well. One study found that, in New York City, parking lot attendants, on average, make more money than childcare workers (Clawson and Gerstel, 2002). Because “mothering” is not seen as work, but as a woman’s “natural” behavior, she is not compensated in a way that reflects how difficult the work is. If you have ever babysat for a full day, go ahead and multiply that by eighteen years and then try to make the argument that it is not work. Men can do this work just as well as women, but there are no similar cultural dictates that say they should. On top of that, some suggest that if paid caretakers were mostly men, then they would make much more money.   In fact, men working in female-dominated occupations actually earn more and gain promotions faster than women. This phenomenon is referred to as the glass escalator. This example illustrates how, as social constructionist Abby Ferber (2009) argues, social systems produce differences between men and women, and not the reverse.


Gender and Sex – Transgender and Intersex

A binary gender perspective assumes that only men and women exist, obscuring gender diversity and erasing the existence of people who do not identify as men or women. A gendered assumption in our culture is that someone assigned female at birth will identify as a woman and that all women were assigned female at birth. While this is true for cisgender (or “cis”) individuals—people who identify in accordance with their gender assignment—it is not the case for everyone. Some people assigned male at birth identify as women, some people assigned female identify as men, and some people identify as neither women nor men. This illustrates the difference between, gender assignment, which doctors place on infants (and fetuses) based on the appearance of genitalia, and gender identity, which one discerns about oneself. The existence of transgender people, or individuals who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, challenges the very idea of a single sex/gender identity. For example, trans women, women whose bodies were assigned male and who identify as women, show us that not all women are born with female-assigned bodies. The fact that trans people exist contests the biological determinist argument that biological sex predicts gender identity. Transgender people may or may not have surgeries or hormone therapies to change their physical bodies, but in many cases they experience a change in their social gender identities. Some people who do not identify as men or women may identify as non-binarygender fluid, or genderqueer, for example. Some may use gender-neutral pronouns, such as ze/hir or they/them, rather than the gendered pronouns she/her or he/his. As pronouns and gender identities are not visible on the body, trans communities have created procedures for communicating gender pronouns, which consists of verbally asking and stating one’s pronouns (Nordmarken, 2013).

The existence of sex variations fundamentally challenges the notion of a binary biological sex. Intersex describes variation in sex characteristics, such as chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. The bodies of individuals with sex characteristics variations do not fit typical definitions of what is culturally considered “male” or “female.” “Intersex,” like “female” and “male,” is a socially constructed category that humans have created to label bodies that they view as different from those they would classify as distinctly “female” or “male.” The term basically marks existing biological variation among bodies; bodies are not essentially intersex—we just call them intersex. The term is slightly misleading because it may suggest that people have complete sets of what would be called “male” and “female” reproductive systems, but those kinds of human bodies do not actually exist; “intersex” really just refers to biological variation. The term “hermaphrodite” is therefore inappropriate for referring to intersex, and it also is derogatory. There are a number of specific biological sex variations. For example, having one Y and more than one X chromosome is called Kleinfelter Syndrome.

Does the presence of more than one X mean that the XXY person is female? Does the presence of a Y mean that the XXY person is male? These individuals are neither clearly chromosomally male or female; they are chromosomally intersexed. Some people have genitalia that others consider ambiguous. This is not as uncommon as you might think. The Intersex Society of North America estimated that some 1.5% of people have sex variations—that is 2,000 births a year. So, why is this knowledge not commonly known? Many individuals born with genitalia not easily classified as “male” or “female” are subject to genital surgeries during infancy, childhood, and/or adulthood which aim to change this visible ambiguity. Surgeons reduce the size of the genitals of female-assigned infants they want to make look more typically “female” and less “masculine”; in infants with genital appendages smaller than 2.5 centimeters they reduce the size and assign them female (Dreger 1998). In each instance, surgeons literally construct and reconstruct individuals’ bodies to fit into the dominant, binary sex/gender system. While parents and doctors justify this practice as in “the best interest of the child,” many people experience these surgeries and their social treatment as traumatic, as they are typically performed without patients’ knowledge of their sex variation or consent. Individuals often discover their chromosomal makeup, surgical records, and/or intersex status in their medical records as adults, after years of physicians hiding this information from them. The surgeries do not necessarily make bodies appear “natural,” due to scar tissue and at times, disfigurement and/or medical problems and chronic infection. The surgeries can also result in psychological distress. In addition, many of these surgeries involve sterilization, which can be understood as part of eugenics projects, which aim to eliminate intersex people. Therefore, a great deal of shame, secrecy, and betrayal surround the surgeries. Intersex activists began organizing in North America in the 1990s to stop these nonconsensual surgical practices and to fight for patient-centered intersex health care. Broader international efforts emerged next, and Europe has seen more success than the first wave of mobilizations. In 2008, Christiane Völling of Germany was the first person in the world to successfully sue the surgeon who removed her internal reproductive organs without her knowledge or consent (International Commission of Jurists, 2008). In 2015, Malta became the first country to implement a law to make these kinds of surgeries illegal and protect people with sex variations as well as gender variations (Cabral & Eisfeld, 2015). Accord Alliance is the most prominent intersex focused organization in the U.S.; they offer information and recommendations to physicians and families, but they focus primarily on improving standards of care rather than advocating for legal change. Due to the efforts of intersex activists, the practice of performing surgeries on children is becoming less common in favor of waiting and allowing children to make their own decisions about their bodies. However, there is little research on how regularly nonconsensual surgeries are still performed in the U.S., and as Accord Alliance’s standards of care have yet to be fully implemented by a single institution, we can expect that the surgeries are still being performed.

The concepts of “transgender” and “intersex” are easy to confuse, but these terms refer to very different identities. To review, transgender people experience a social process of gender change, while intersex people have biological characteristics that do not fit with the dominant sex/gender system. One term refers to social gender (transgender) and one term refers to biological sex (intersex). While transgender people challenge our binary (man/woman) ideas of gender, intersex people challenge our binary (male/female) ideas of biological sex. Gender theorists, such as Judith Butler and Gayle Rubin, have challenged the very notion that there is an underlying “sex” to a person, arguing that sex, too, is socially constructed. This is revealed in different definitions of “sex” throughout history in law and medicine—is sex composed of genitalia? Is it just genetic make-up? A combination of the two? Various social institutions, such as courts, have not come to a consistent or conclusive way to define sex, and the term “sex” has been differentially defined throughout the history of law in the United States. In this way, we can understand the biological designations of “male” and “female” as social constructions that reinforce the binary construction of men and women.


This Is What Non Binary Looks Like

 Challenging Binary Systems and Constructions of Difference

Alternatives to Binary Systems’


Through all these examples, we hope to show that binary ways of understanding human differences are insufficient for understanding the complexities of human culture. Binary ways of thinking assume that there are only two categories of gender, race, and class identities among others, and that these two categories are complete opposites. Just as men are defined as “not women” in a binary system, straight people are defined as “not gay,” white people are defined as “not Black,” and middle-class people are defined as “not poor.” Oppositional, binary thinking works strategically such that the dominant groups in society are associated with more valued traits, while the subordinate groups, defined as their opposites, are always associated with less valued traits. Thus, the poles in a binary system define each other and only make sense in the presence of their opposites. Masculinity only has meaning as the opposite of femininity. In reality, identities and lives are complex and multi-faceted. For one, all categories of identity are more richly expressed and understood as matrices of difference. More than that, all of us have multiple aspects of identity that we experience simultaneously and that are mutually constitutive. Our experience of gender is always shaped by our race, class, and other identities. Our experience of race is particular to our gender, class, and other identities as well. This is why taking an intersectional approach to understanding identity gives us a more complex understanding of social reality. Each of our social locations is impacted by the intersection of several facets of identity in a way that should give us pause when we encounter blanket statements like “all men are ______” or “all Latinas are _____” or “all lesbians are____.” The social world is complex, and rather than reducing human difference to simple binaries, we must embrace the world as it is and acknowledge the complexity.


As discussed in the section on social construction, heterosexuality is no more and no less natural than gay sexuality or bisexuality, for instance. As was shown, people—particularly sexologists and medical doctors—defined heterosexuality and its boundaries. This definition of the parameters of heterosexuality is an expression of power that constructs what types of sexuality are considered “normal” and which types of sexuality are considered “deviant.” Situated, cultural norms define what is considered “natural.” Defining sexual desire and relations between women and men as acceptable and normal means defining all sexual desire and expression outside that parameter as deviant. However, even within sexual relations between men and women, gendered cultural norms associated with heterosexuality dictate what is “normal” or “deviant.” As a quick thought exercise, think of some words for women who have many sexual partners and then, do the same for men who have many sexual partners; the results will be quite different. So, within the field of sexuality we can see power in relations along lines of gender and sexual orientation (and race, class, age, and ability as well).

Adrienne Rich (1980) called heterosexuality “compulsory,” meaning that in our culture all people are assumed to be heterosexual and society is full of both formal and informal enforcements that encourage heterosexuality and penalize sexual variation. Compulsory heterosexuality plays an important role in reproducing inequality in the lives of sexual minorities. Just look at laws; in a few states, such as Indiana, joint adoptions are illegal for gay men and lesbians (Lambda Legal). Gay men and lesbians have lost custody battles over children due to homophobia—the fear, hatred, or prejudice against gay people (Pershing, 1994). Media depictions of gay men and lesbians are few and often negatively stereotyped. There are few “out” gay athletes in the top three men’s professional sports—basketball, baseball, and football—despite the fact that, statistically, there are very likely to be many (Zirin, 2010). Many religious groups openly exclude and discriminate against gay men and lesbians. Additionally, heteronormativity structures the everyday, taken-for-granted ways in which heterosexuality is privileged and normalized. For instance, sociologist Karen Martin studied what parents say to their children about sexuality and reproduction, and found that with children as young as three and five years old, parents routinely assumed their children were heterosexual, told them they would get (heterosexually) married, and interpreted cross-gender interactions between children  as “signs” of heterosexuality (Martin 2009). In this kind of socialization is an additional element of normative sexuality—the idea of compulsory monogamy, where exclusive romantic and sexual relationships and marriage are expected and valued over other kinds of relationships (Willey 2016). Therefore, heteronormativity surrounds us at a very young age, teaching us that there are only two genders and that we are or should desire and partner with one person of the opposite gender, who we will marry.

Just like gender, sexuality is neither binary nor fixed. There are straight people and gay people, but people are also bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, queer, and heteroflexible, to name a few additional sexual identities. Also, sexual attraction, sexual relations and relationships, and sexual identity can shift over a person’s lifetime. As there are more than two genders,,there are more than two kinds of people to be attracted to and individuals can be attracted to and can relate sexually to multiple people of different genders at once!

Another common misconception is that not all transgender people are sexually queer. This belief may stem from the “LGBT” acronym that lists transgender people along with lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. A trans man who previously identified as a lesbian may still be attracted to women and may identify as straight, or may identify as queer. Another trans man may be attracted to other men and identify as gay or queer. This multiplicity suggests that the culturally dominant binary model fails to accurately encapsulate the wide variety of sexual and gender lived experiences

“It Gets Better” — Love, Pixar



References: Unit II

Accord Alliance. http://www.accordalliance.org/about-accord-alliance/our-mission/. Accessed 30 March, 2017.

Block, Fred, Anna C. Korteweg, Kerry Woodward, Zach Schiller, and Imrul Mazid. 2006. “The Compassion Gap in American Poverty Policy.” Contexts 5(2): 14-20.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cabral, Mauro & Justus Eisfeld. 2015. “Making depathologization a matter of law. A comment from GATE on the Maltese Act on Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics.” http://wp.me/p1djE5-9K. Accessed 30 March, 2017.

Clawson, Dan and Naomi Gerstel. 2002. “Caring for Young Children: What the US Can Learn from Some European Examples.” Contexts, 1(4): 28-35.

Connell, RW. 2005. Masculinities. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Dreger, Alice. 1998. “Ambiguous Sex’—or Ambivalent Medicine?” The Hastings Center Report 28(3): 24-25.

Feagin, Joe. 2006. Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.

Ferber, Abby. 2009. “Keeping Sex in Bounds: Sexuality and the (De) Construction of Race and Gender.” In Gender, Sex, & Sexuality: An Anthology by A. Ferber, K. Holcomb, and T. Wentling (Eds.) New York: Oxford University Press. 136-141.

Halberstam, Judith. 1998. Female Masculinity. Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press.

Hill Collins, Patricia. 2005. Black Sexual Politics: African-Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge.

International Commission of Jurists. 2008. “In re Völling, Regional Court Cologne, Germany (6 February 2008).” https://www.icj.org/sogicasebook/in-re-volling-regional-court-cologne-germany-6-february-2008/. Accessed 30 March, 2017.

Intersex Society of North America. http://www.isna.org. Accessed 04 April, 2011.

Lambda Legal. http://www.lambdalegal.org/states-regions/indiana. Accessed 30 March, 2017.

Mantsios, Gregory. 2007. “Media Magic: Making Class Invisible.” In Race, Class, & Gender: An Anthology, Sixth Edition by M.L. Anderson and P. Hill Collins. Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth. 384-392.

Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. 1965. “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action.”

Nordmarken, Sonny. 2013. “Disrupting Gendering: How Trans and Gender Variant People Interrupt and Transfigure the Gender Accomplishment Process.” Conference Presentation, Eastern Sociological Society Annual Meeting, Boston, MA.

Pershing, Stephen B. 1994. “Entreat me not to leave thee: Bottoms v. Bottoms and the custody rights of gay and lesbian parents.” William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 3(1): 289-325.

Pew Research Center. 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/12/22/what-does-middle-class-meantoday/who-should-be-the-judge-of-middle-class. Accessed 30 March, 2017.

Rich, Adrienne. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs 5(4): 631-660.

Roediger, David R. 1991. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso.

Rubin, Gayle. 1984. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex.” In Pleasure and Danger by C. Vance (Ed.). New York: Routledge.

Verhoeven, Paul (Dir.) 1995. Showgirls. Carolco Pictures. [Film]

Willey, Angela. 2016. Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology. Durham: Duke University Press.

Zirin, Dave (Dir.). 2010. Not Just a Game: Power, Politics, and American Sports. MediaEducation Foundation. [Film]


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