Gender identity, What does it all mean?


What does it all mean?

Most of us acknowledge the formidable power of words to shape our perceptions of others; able to cause great harm, as well as great healing. How people choose to perceive and describe themselves is intimately concerned with identity and self-esteem.

Naming people and groups is a very sensitive business, so much so that certain names such as the “K word” and the “N word” are considered so degrading that they should not even be pronounced or written. The word “c**lie” used in India for a menial labourer, such as porters in the markets of Mumbai, has in this country become unusable; indicating profound disrespect.

Significantly, some redemption is generated when words such as queer, moffie, lettie, dyke, once used in an attempt to demean those of homosexual inclination, are reclaimed, revivified to express something of the unique courage, defiance and humour now articulated by those who are “proudly gay.” Many consider the term gay as inclusive of the entire homosexual community, whereas others, such as many lesbians, tend to dislike the term. Queer studies reflects this recovery of a term of derision, adopted by numerous academic courses examining sexual orientation and gender identity.


A recent Witness article by Barbara Boswell (November 16), teacher of black South African women’s literature and queer theory at the University of Cape Town, explored black women’s perceptions of the concept “Womanist” suggested by Alice Walker as a variant of feminism: “Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous, or wilful behaviour.

READ | Excerpt | And Wrote My Story Anyway by Barbara Boswell

“Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one.” Widely understood as applying to “a woman who loves other women sexually and/or non-sexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility … and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or non-sexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.”

Boswell congratulates editor Natalia Molebatsi of An Anthology of Womanist Poems: Wild Imperfections, for including “gender non-binary”, and “gender-expansive” poets who defy rigid definitions of womanhood and manhood, masculinity and femininity, creating space for multiplicities of self-definition for those disrupting structures of dominance.

Boswell uses the terms non-binary and gender-expansive to develop the theme of gender fluidity — a concept discussed in detail by the American queer feminist philosopher Judith Butler, who argues that gender is not an essential consequence of biological sex, but is socially constructed performance behaviour, determined by historical and social context. The demand that individuals act as either women or men according to societal expectations, creates the illusion of sexual behaviour being exclusively binary. Gender performance is thus cultivated and enforced; violations censured, usually through shaming, perpetuating domination of women by men; justifying oppression of homosexuals and gender nonconforming persons.

"So, the term heteronormativity expresses the conviction that heterosexuality is the norm for all social and sexual relationships; condemning all variations from this as abnormal, perverted."
Alleyn Diesel

Physical bodies exist within their cultural context. Being born with female or male genitalia does not necessarily mean that one will identify with this sex. Gender is “an incessant project, a daily act of reconstruction and interpretation”.

We have choices. We are not victims of circumstance, and must assume responsibility for who we choose to become. We have to engage with — play with — continually negotiating change. So we are bombarded with a slew of terms to be navigated, seemingly necessary in order to understand the bewildering array of choices available.


What is the difference between “sex” and “gender”? It is now accepted that “sex” refers to the biological, usually clearly distinguishable, male and female features with which one is born. Whereas “gender” is cultural, sociological; incorporating the social expectations of masculine and feminine roles.

So, the term heteronormativity expresses the conviction that heterosexuality is the norm for all social and sexual relationships; condemning all variations from this as abnormal, perverted.

However, human interactions frequently refuse to conform to the stereotypical roles demanded by social indoctrination, particularly questioning the inequalities created by the assumption of superiority by the male, resulting in subjugation of females in most cultures and societies. Also reflected in religious practices, where the spiritual nature of humans — and the divine — is portrayed in male terms.

“Gender non-conforming” describes those who ignore gender stereotypes — sexually and sociologically. “Gender non-binary”, rejecting the binary concept of only two genders, that one must be either male or female, which reinforces the notion that gender (as opposed to one’s birth sex) is biologically determined, with the expectation that men and women are destined to play different roles in society.

“Bisexual” refers to those acknowledging the potential to be sexually and romantically attached to people across genders — eloquently expounded by Robyn Ochs. “Gender expansive” reflects the expansion of ideas of gender identity and expression beyond expected societal norms; individuals comfortable with a range of chosen lifestyles — reflecting gender as a spectrum, rather than a binary.

“Androgynous” applies to those who display both traditionally masculine and feminine virtues; exercising a wider array of abilities to regulate and adapt their responses and emotions.

Shri Ardhanarishwara (literally Half-Woman God), t
Shri Ardhanarishwara (literally Half-Woman God), traditional image of Parvati and Shiva in one body. Image on the wall of ancient Kali temple in Puri, Orissa

Both ancient Greek and Hindu mythology and religion depicted androgynous archetypes and deities as the synthesis of masculine and feminine, celebrating the sacredness of transcending gender; perfect union and harmony.

The potent, evocative image of the Shiva/Shakti androgynous deity (Ardhanarishvara) portrays male and female creative energies of the universe — extolling our essentially androgynous nature — requiring melding into the unique beings we are capable of becoming.

Sandra Bem (d.2014), American psychologist, researcher in gender studies and androgyny, also questioned assumptions that sex roles are bipolar and mutually exclusive, concluding that enforced gender roles frequently produce negative consequences for women and men. She maintained androgynous behaviour extends one’s freedom to engage in traditionally male and female fashions, granting greater adaptability, greater levels of creativity, more stable mental health; better able to cope with ambiguity and ambivalence.

These findings confirmed by Carolyn Heilbrun, feminist author and academic at Columbia University, New York, who championed fellow women authors such as Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Dorothy Sayers, anthropologist Margaret Mead as women exemplifying androgyny, fearlessly challenging rigid gender-role expectations. She defined androgyny as “a movement away from sexual polarisation and the prison of gender toward a world in which individual roles and modes of personal behaviour can be freely chosen.”


Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, written in 1928, extended the implications of this topic further than had yet been considered.

Her passionate love for Vita Sackville-West inspired the character Orlando, a male who began life as a young Elizabethan man, later becoming a woman ambassador in Constantinople, living through the Victorian age, to contemporary 1920s. Despite exploring crossing boundaries between notions of binary sex-roles and same-sex relationships, it soon became a best-seller, the most popular of Woolf’s works.

The novel — she called it a biography — was also engendered by the liberal attitude of the Bloomsbury Group of British writers, artists and intellectuals of the early 20th century, meeting regularly at the Bloomsbury home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, whose unconventional attitudes and richly varied lifestyles became a powerful force in developing the modernist view — defying the view of many who considered their behaviour wicked and degenerate. Way ahead of her time in challenging assumptions about sexual expression, she envisaged a more open society where personal sexual identity is freely chosen. She was particularly distressed by the unfair treatment of women writers whose work was less valued than that of men, commenting: “I would venture to guess that Anon who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

Vita’s son, Nigel Nicolson, later described the fantasy novel as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she [Virginia] explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her, and ends by photographing her in the mud at Long Barn, with dogs, awaiting Virginia’s arrival next day.”

“The androgynous mind is resonant and porous; it transmits emotion without impediment; it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” Quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The Truth is, a great mind must be androgynous.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This unique experience of an individual experiencing life as both male and female, accords much opportunity for contemplation on the meaning of life and how one’s sexual identity determines one’s destiny.

On awakening as a woman, Orlando admires his/her new ravishing body: “His form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace.”

“Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what is above.” For Orlando, “it was this mixture in her of man and woman, one being uppermost and then the other, that often gave her conduct an unexpected turn.”

Virginia comments on the power of clothing to affect perceptions of our identity: “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have more important offices than to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us … Thus there is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us, and not we them.”

Orlando displayed this androgynous mix of characteristics in her tender-heartedness, unable to endure seeing a donkey beaten or a kitten drowned, but detesting household matters, preferring to be out in the fields among the crops. She was apt to think of poetry rather than thinking of taffeta, and her walk was a little too much of a stride for a woman.

She explores the perennial question, “Life, life, what art thou?” contemplating our multiplicity of personas — “… how many people are there not, having lodgement at one time or another in the human spirit?” Allowing one to call out, “I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.”

READ | Caster Semenya and the politics of gender

Casting aside the confining, entrapping, stiffened crinoline, donning whipcord breeches and boots to drive six galloping horses across London Bridge, Orlando finally settles to a deeply reflective self-knowledge; a contentedly androgynous woman who, like Vita, revels in her love of poetry, nature, animals, the countryside and wild-life, horse-riding and fast cars.

Woolf commented on this odyssey of discovery: “The androgynous mind is resonant and porous; it transmits emotion without impediment; it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” Quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The Truth is, a great mind must be androgynous.”


Likewise the term “camp”, once a derogatory term applied to mock the cliched effeminate boy with bouffant hair and limp wrist, ostentatiously mincing into a party, assumed by characters such as Oscar Wilde, Quentin Crisp, Andy Warhol, Elton John, Prince — has been creatively morphed into flamboyant, exaggerated humour by performers such as Kenneth Williams in the movie Carry on Camping, and David Walliams as Daffyd Thomas in the spoof Little Britain.

A style exuberantly claimed by many gay people, male and female, as their invention, a kind of “secret language” used to disguise and convey to those in the know, where one’s interests lay.

Susan Sontag described camp as “a codification of gay taste, conveying a love of artifice and exaggeration — something of a private code, a badge of identity even …”

Thanks to her writing, such performance became trendy, assumed as an amusing way of flouting stereotypes, ridiculing heterosexual hegemony. Performance artist and cross-dresser Grayson Perry, with his alter-ego Claire, exploits the comic ability of performance drag and camp to taunt and disrupt stereotypical expectations, “negotiating the burden of manhood”, interrogating, “how should a woman/man dress and behave?”


With ever more varied, complicated choices, and the realisation that identity is neither fixed nor stable, that gender depends on self-categorisation, increasing numbers seek alternative ways to navigate their place and purpose in perplexing circumstances.

However, while defining the unique characteristics of various lifestyles can be instructive in illustrating the range and complexity of sexual orientation, rigid labelling can become divisive, exacerbating and fixing differences, possibly alienating categories of people. “I am this, but not that!”

Admitting the freedom to choose personal fulfilment without harming others, should alert us to defy rigid categorisation; dissolving boundaries, generating inclusivity — the melding effects of androgyny and gender-expansion — celebrating openness and tolerance of difference — enhancing wholeness for all.

• Alleyn Diesel (PhD) previously taught religious and gender studies at the University of Natal.

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