History of LGBT: Gender and Sex

Bruce Freeman. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

Gender and sex are social constructs associated with culturally and historically specific ideas about femininity-masculinity and femaleness-maleness. While gender and sex definitions and patterns vary significantly across cultural and historical contexts, they matter greatly in all human societies.

From Sex to Gender

The term “sex” traditionally was used in ways that assumed that there is a correspondence between individuals’ biological sex, their perception of themselves as female and feminine or male and masculine, and their social circumstances. Sex in this sense incorporates a wide range of phenomena ranging from the presence or absence of particular forms of genitalia to psychological dispositions. In the traditional view, all biological females, for example, perceive themselves as possessing similar female and feminine characteristics and are recognized socially as female and feminine. According to this conceptual framework, sex is biologically determined and immutable and all that is associated with that “fact” is a product of biological destiny. Moreover, there are fundamental anatomical differences between those we characterize as female and those we characterize as male; sex differences are associated with different reproductive capacities and social roles; and individuals perceive themselves as having masculine or feminine characteristics that correspond to normative cultural values. Conservative traditionalists believe that, in the absence of trouble, biological sex determines social gender in inevitable and desirable ways.

This deterministic position has been subject to harsh criticism, in part because it fails to take into account the influence of social, cultural, and historical factors. Because of racial or ethnic differences, for example, women of color and white women often conceptualize femininity in different ways. The traditional view also fails to acknowledge changes over time, ignores differences between cultures, treats femininity in men and masculinity in women as signs of trouble, and regards LGBT people as deviants. To mark the distinction between biological and social components, the term “gender” came into use in the mid-twentieth century to refer to the nonphysiological aspects of femininity and masculinity. For many proponents of this term, sex might be fixed, but gender is variable.

According to this view, while biological sex differences do matter, social influences have a significant effect in developing gender roles for males and females. Through the process of socialization, individuals learn gender roles and develop gender identities. In her influential paper “The Traffic in Women” (1975), anthropologist Gayle Rubin argues that each human society has a specific “sex/gender system” through which cultural understandings of gender organize and institutionalize sexual practices through marriage and kinship systems. These often translate into exchange systems where men are the givers and women are the gifts. Those who endorse the view that society constructs gender attack the conservatism of the biologically deterministic view, arguing that the latter legitimates power differentials by grounding gender differences in supposedly universal differences between females and males. To say that social inequities are grounded in “nature” limits the efficaciousness of raising voices of dissent to promote social change.

Beyond Biological Sex and Social Gender

More recently, scholars and theorists have taken steps that challenge the notion that sex is biological and gender is social. Much feminist and queer theory seeks to destabilize the deterministic naturalism of sex and the dual-gender system. Judith Butler points out in Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993) that while there exists a corporeal, material aspect to human bodies, they are viewed and indeed experienced through a priori cultural lenses. In other words, sex is “always already” gendered and cultural understandings of gender precede sex rather than the other way around. According to this view, efforts to distinguish biologically between the sexes through references to body parts, reproductive capacities, or DNA invariably are based on conceptions of gender, these traditionally being the notion that men without penises are not really men and women without breasts or uteruses are not really women; the belief that prepubescent girls, postmenopausal women, and infertile and nonreproducing females are not really women; and the idea that people without XX or XY chromosomes are abnormal.

A second challenge comes from those who question the utility and applicability of concepts grounded in dual-sex, dual-gender systems. Anthropologists have long viewed gender as learned and have recognized the existence of cultures that transcend the Western male-female sex dichotomy and masculine-feminine gender dichotomy. Third and fourth gender systems are well documented in the ethnographic record. Furthermore, some argue that the parameters of male and female and femininity and masculinity are not mutually exclusive. This perspective holds that individuals possess both male and female and both masculine and feminine characteristics. As Anne Fausto-Sterling observes in Sexing the Body(2000), sex and gender need not be conceptualized in ways that suggest that more femininity means less masculinity and more masculinity means less femininity. Fausto-Sterling advocates instead the use of an orthogonal model of masculinity and femininity in which individuals may be high (or low) on both schemata.

Other challenges to the notion that sex is biological and gender is social have also emerged. Some scholars point out that the constellation of gender and sex attributes is not necessarily stable over the life course. And some trans theorists reverse the usual understanding of sex and gender by suggesting that while an individual’s gender identity is relatively stable, sex is malleable (through modification of the body).

Sex and Gender in Early America

Scholars in LGBT studies have examined gender and sex in a variety of contexts, including several key historical moments that have shaped current understandings. One such context is colonial America. According to the Christian views held by most European colonial settlers, sex differences between males and females reflect God’s will. According to the Judeo-Christian origin myth, God’s design for humanity incorporates a sex dichotomy. Genesis 1:27 states that God created male and female. This distinction became decisive when the first humans were cast out of the Garden of Eden. Although women and men were created in the equality, sameness, and perfection of God’s image, the first woman was punished for transgression by being made to suffer pain in childbirth and required to be submissive to her husband, according to Genesis 3:16. Thus, the biblical creation account established for Western societies a schema with four distinct characteristics. First, there are two categories of persons: males and females. Second, these two sexes are distinguished by essential biological differences. Third, males and females will unite sexually and produce offspring. Fourth, the sex-gender order involves a social distinction based on status, with women expected to obey their male partners. By associating these features with God’s creation and authority, these assumptions were normalized as immutable qualities of nature. Those who denied this order defied God’s law.

When European travelers first came to North America and encountered indigenous cultures, many observed Native people who came to be called berdaches. The berdaches offended the sensibilities of the Christian colonizers, missionaries, and traders because they defied what these travelers thought should be the division of society into females and males. Many of these Native individuals—both biological males and biological females— engaged in economic activities typical of people of the opposite biological sex, cross-dressed, and took partners of the same biological sex. Of great concern to Christians was that these violations of God’s will were not only recognized and accepted by members of indigenous communities but were also said to be sanctioned by supernatural powers, giving berdaches significant spiritual roles. Over time, pressures from both concerned Christians and the grand colonization project disrupted this once-venerable institution. Many Native Americans are now actively reclaiming their third and fourth gender heritage and self-identifying as Two-Spirit people to reflect their lack of fit in a dual-gender system imposed upon them by Europeans.

Fairies, Clones, and Drag Queens

George Chauncey in Gay New York (1994) documents the existence of a vibrant gay male culture in the very heart of urban America in the early twentieth century. Like the berdaches of Native American societies, the effeminate male fairies and pansies of working-class New York City were members of a third gender defined not primarily on the basis of their sexual orientation or preference but rather on the basis of their variation from normative “masculine” deportment and dress. These fairies situated themselves in an intermediate but culturally relevant category outside of masculine-feminine dualism and participated in a system that allowed them to be recognized socially as members of a third gender. When assuming this gender role, the fairies were perceived as fundamentally different from other biological males who displayed “masculine” gender identities and roles. According to Chauncey, not only did fairies and pansies draw attention to themselves, but their difference was tolerated by working-class New Yorkers. Some working-class straight men felt perfectly comfortable having sex with fairies and pansies since it seemed normal for someone masculine to have sex with someone feminine. These third gender fairies and pansies created and occupied a gender category and social space that was both meaningful to and affirming of them.

A new type of gendered male emerged in many major American urban centers following the Stonewall Riots of 1969. In Gay Macho (1998), Martin P. Levine depicts the “gay male clone,” arguing that between 1969 and the mid-1980s gay men in various American cities developed a “hypermasculine” gender role and identity. In doing so they rejected cultural assumptions that men who desire other men must also renounce their masculinity. Unlike the effeminate New York City fairies of decades before, the gay clone embraced many aspects of traditional masculinity. Gay clones displayed gym-toned bodies adorned in masculine dress and they played hard by dancing in discos and consuming copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. Consistent with the masculine ideal, the gay clone flaunted a heightened sexual drive, continuously seeking sexual partners. Of course, the gay clone exhibited one fundamental difference: he sought sexual encounters not with women but with other men. For the gay clone, hot sex was gay sex, and promiscuous gay sex provided an opportunity to affirm the masculine ethos of males having and acting upon intrinsically strong sexual desires.

Both before and after Stonewall, drag queens (and more recently drag kings) have used performance to deconstruct conventional male-female sex and masculine-feminine gender dichotomies. When males dress as women and females dress as men, they challenge the notion that the performance of gender follows naturally and inevitably from the realities of sex. Esther Newton argues in Mother Camp (1972) that by “doing drag” individuals question the “naturalness” of their culture’s normative sex and gender roles.

Femmes and Butches

LGBT studies scholars have focused attention on not only the gay genders of fairies, clones, and drag queens but also the lesbian genders of femmes and butches. Since the early twentieth century, some American lesbians, particular working-class lesbians, have adopted femme/butch mannerisms and identities. Butch lesbians assume certain stereotypical “masculine” characteristics of dress and personality whereas femmes take on more conventional “feminine” displays of self. Most of the informants interviewed by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis for Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold (1993), their study of a working-class lesbian community in mid-twentieth-century Buffalo, New York, self-identified as butch or femme and paired off in femme/butch couples. Likewise, in her account of LGBT life in Cherry Grove, Fire Island (1993), Esther Newton noted similar patterns among women of the “young crowd” who arrived after World War II.

Some argue that the practice of imitating heteronormative gender roles condones a gender order that subjugates women and imposes heterosexist standards on LGBT people. The use of these gender and sexual categories is said to achieve a degree of tolerance at a high price: an agreement to resemble the normative gender and sexual order. This tacit agreement to conform imposes strict limits on the freedoms of nonheterosexuals because it situates the normative order as the ideal while recognizing that some individuals are incapable of achieving that goal. Rather than critiquing structures of inequality, these practices are said to affirm that which oppresses marginalized peoples.

Others assume a more accepting stance to femme/butch. Pointing to elements such as the butch’s desire to sexually please her partner (which is not characteristic of normative masculinity) and the femme’s greater earning power (which is not typical of straight women), Kennedy and Davis argue that butches and femmes do not imitate heterosexual roles but rather create distinct gender roles. In Identities in the Lesbian World (1978), Barbara Ponse views the use of conventional masculine and feminine characteristics as a form of role play, the specific forms of which vary across lesbians communities. Femme/butch may thus be considered as a way of creatively and playfully experimenting with different gender categories to suit the context and one’s own interests. Rather than reinforcing the rigidity of a “natural” dual-gender system, such role play accentuates the plasticity of gender. As such, gender is recognized not as biologically determined but instead as socially accomplished.

Changing Sex and Gender: The Intersexed and Transsexuals

Intersexuality and transsexuality present a significant challenge to those who espouse biologically deterministic and dichotomous views of sex. A surprisingly large number of individuals are intersexed. Fausto-Sterling estimates cautiously that 1.7 percent of American births result in babies with indistinct genitalia possessing features of both biological sexes. This suggests either that biology can be a cruel trickster or that the dual-sex system is itself not as “natural” as some would claim. The inter-sexed also present a formidable problem for Western physicians who seek to classify infants using the male-female dichotomy, preferably prior to leaving the hospital. Suzanne J. Kessler points out in Lessons from the Intersexed (1998) that sex assignment of sexually ambiguous newborns is based primarily on sociocultural rather than biological criteria.

As Joanne J. Meyerowitz explains in How Sex Changed (2002), while transsexual people are at birth classified according to their biological sex, there is a lack of concordance between their biological characteristics (their sex) and their sense of self as a cohesive gendered being (their gender identity). Technological advances in the twentieth century have provided American physicians with a variety of therapeutic measures, ranging from hormonal treatment to genital reassignment surgery, to offer their transsexual patients. At the same time, the popular media have raised public awareness of the issue of transsexuality. Beginning in the 1950s, when prestigious transsexuals such as Christine Jorgensen were featured in the news, individuals who have felt that their gender identity was inconsistent with their anatomical bodies have had a way to classify their feelings and, more importantly, a community to turn to for help and support. Transsexual activists initially lobbied for access to new technologies to transform the malleable body so that it conformed to what they viewed as the constant, the individual’s gender identity.

Over time it has become clear that many, perhaps most, transsexuals do not seek complete sex reassignment surgery. Today the transgender movement includes not only transsexuals but also cross-dressers, feminists, transvestites, LGB people, and anyone else who does not conform to the rigid, binary sex-gender system. Transgender activists push the limits of gender by exposing the artificiality of gender and sex as rigid constructs and by championing the legal rights of those of nonconventional sex and gender. Although some transsexuals and transgender people endorse elements of conventional sex and gender dichotomies, others radically destabilize these dichotomies.

Beyond Sex and Gender

In The Epistemology of the Closet (1990), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick challenges heterosexual-homosexual dualism, arguing that this binary opposition is reductionist in that it fails to capture all of the nuances and dimensions of sexuality. For Sedgwick, sexuality, like gender, must be viewed in historical and cultural contexts. Sexual distinctions are intertwined with different configurations of relations between the sexes, classes, races, and ethnicities. Systems of oppression thus operate not as isolated entities but rather are embedded in other aspects of the social fabric. Moreover, while some component of the social order may empower an individual, another element may function to oppress that same person. Sedgwick takes issue with an LGBT movement that is androcentric, Caucasian, middle-class, and European American. By destabilizing privilege, a new queer politics emerges. To embrace this movement one need not discard social conventions like sex, gender, and sexuality, but instead recognize that as social constructs there is no basis for assigning status to particular sexes, genders, and sexualities over others.