Gender and Sex: Are Two Choices Really Enough?

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #102, Summer 2003.

by Li Anne W. Taft

I once read a novel in which the only life choices for the characters were to look and act like John Wayne or Madonna. I trembled at the thought of such limitations being put on my own gender expression. Recently, when I read a letter to the editor in the Honolulu Weekly, the phrase ?the gender of our sex? caused me to shiver once more. Both writers seemed to assume that sex?our biological characteristics?is inevit-ably linked to the appropriate socially-constructed gender.

I calmed myself by reviewing my beliefs that gender identity need not follow any particular path or the social dictates of our assigned-at-birth sex. Realizing that not everyone feels the same and that society often chooses what is appropriate, I quivered once more, even as I sat in the warm tropical sun.
Changing my gender has been a challenge?a wonderful lesson in human sexuality that has given me much inner strength. I take pride in my new gender as a non-conventional, unique woman with more personality and less rigidity than was the case in my 42 years as a man. I had always been athletic, capable, and skillful. Now as a woman, I have life experiences and skills that even a decade ago a woman wouldn?t seek to acquire or dare claim to possess. For instance, I proudly recall the times in my life when I built a house and led teenage boys on wilderness canoe trips.

For four decades, my assigned-at-birth male sex defined a conservative gender role for me. I learned all the ?appropriate? manly behaviors. Yet throughout this life as a boy/man, my soul felt trapped, and gender identity dysphoria greatly affected my quality of life. Unfortunately, my identity as a man was tangled up with the misconception that women were restricted to limited roles. I believed I would lose my independence and outgoing personality if I changed genders. I was trapped.

As my desire and motivation grew to change my life to truly reflect my inner self, my acceptance of the socially-imposed limitations of gender roles waned. Yet, even when I started my gender transition, I still followed society?s rules and regulations. To be seen as a woman with different physical and gender traits was so frightening to me that for the first two years living as Li Anne, I tried hard to appear a feminine woman with limited ambitions and a not-so-self-assured disposition, even though I was really quite different in regard to those traits, and a
feminist at heart.

In 1997, I joined a women?s paddling club. For the first time in my life, I came in contact with people who exhibited a variety of unique gender expressions and roles, some quite unconventional. I observed that almost everyone?TG/non-TG folks, gay/straight folks alike?seemed happier with identities free from the expected behavior of their assigned gender/sex. With this diversity all around me, I was encouraged to express my own inner self and a stronger desire to blend my outward expressions into this gender spectrum.

I?ve often thought that two sexes/two genders don?t reflect the reality of our world today. Renowned science fiction writer Isaac Asimov described future people having three sexes and multi-gender roles. Dr. Milton Diamond, a University of Hawaii professor and researcher of human anatomy and sexuality, recently wrote in an editorial in the Honolulu Star Bulletin that ?more options than man and woman are needed.? In a recent article, human sexuality researcher Anne Fausto-Sterling revisits a concept she first introduced eight years ago: that five different gender/sex categories really exist in our society.

While living in these diverse islands, I?ve observed a wide range of gender/sex combinations that go beyond society?s imposed limit of two. Based solely on my readings and observations, the labels and descriptions below are not meant to be complete or scientifically accurate. Rather, they are common use and street terms for the most part, a sampling of the wide range of lifestyles and expressions of people living in 21st century Hawaii.

Straight, Heterosexual, Gay, Bisexual, Asexual:

People who remain in their assigned gender/sex throughout life, learn the associated ?appropriate
behaviors,? and have a variety of sexual orientations.

Transgendered, Transsexual:

Men and women who desire to transform their bodies to women/men (also known as New Men and New Women, Pre/post/non-op).

Hermaphrodites, Intersexed:

People with sex organs with ambiguous or both female and male characteristics. Some live openly, some in secret.


People with non-conventional, gender-blending gender traits. Androgynes may appear or feel neither male nor female and usually express gender ambiguity openly.

Fem, Dyke, Butch, Prissy, Macho Man:

People with over-pronounced/overstated, gender expressions which may or may not be congruent with their assigned gender or appearance.

Transvestites, Drag Kings/Queens:

People living in their assigned-at-birth gender/sex but who appear at times as the opposite for sex, money,
pleasure or to entertain.

She-Males, Genderfuckers:

People who blend gender/sex characteristics in unique ways, striving to be different for self-attention, to shock others, or to make a social statement.

Some characteristics common to each of the above:

-Attraction can be to the same, opposite, both, or neither sex;

-Cosmetic surgery, body piercing, and tattoos may be used to change or accent appearance;

-Not everyone fits neatly into one category; may switch at will or over time;

-Some people may be accepted as normal, others viewed as odd, no matter what their category;

Also consider:

-Some people enjoy others who are of like mind and those who accept their uniqueness; others are repelled by sameness;

-All people have equal civil rights and deserve fair treatment and respect, no matter how they may express themselves.

In my life as a transgendered woman, happiness came only when I began to accept the diversity of expression all around me. I have a life now that is truly my own with many good friends and a capacity to love others better. If such a binary world of John Wayne and Madonna did really exist, what role would you choose?

Li Anne Taft has been a resident of Hawaii since 1993. She resides in Honolulu, where she lectures at area colleges on transgender/transsexual social and legal issues.

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