The Cultural Model of Gender

Trans folks talk a lot about how we conceptualize gender, but I don't think enough attention is paid to how gender is influenced by the culture we're brought up in. We generally think of gender as an innate identity independent of external factors, but the basic premise of what gender is varies widely between human cultures.

Within the transgender community, there are different conceptual models we use for understanding gender. These kinds of models help us answer questions like, “At what point is a trans woman considered a woman?”. Is it when she begins identifying as a woman? When other people start thinking of or referring to her as a woman? When she reaches some milestone in her transition? Or has she always been a woman, even from birth? The answers to these questions many vary based on context and who you ask. Most trans people consider their gender to be an innate part of their identity, and they don’t think of their transition as “switching” genders so much as embracing who they are. This innate identity model of gender is probably the most widely accepted conceptual model of gender among trans people in contemporary Western culture, but there are more components to gender than just identity alone.

The multi-faceted nature of gender becomes evident when we take a look at the ambiguity in the language we use to talk about gender. When people refer to their gender, sometimes they’re referring to the label they use to describe themselves (“I am a woman.”), sometimes they’re referring to how they act and present themselves (“I was in girl mode when I went to the grocery store earlier today.”), sometimes they’re referring to how other people see and refer to them (“The cashier totally thought I was a woman!”), sometimes they’re referring to their physical characteristics (“I want to start hormones so I can be a woman.”), sometimes they’re referring to their gender assigned at birth, (“I’m assigned male at birth.”), and sometimes they’re referring to something else entirely. Typically, people in trans communities explain gender using the “genderbread person” model, where we decompose the concept of gender into a few distinct components like identity, expression, and physiology. In this model, we think of each component as existing on a two-axis plane, with male/masculine on one axis and female/feminine on the other.

Something that isn’t talked about often in trans communities is how culture influences our gender identity. Cultures throughout human history have had widely different attitudes toward gender, and it turns out that our genderbread person model doesn’t account for all the variations in gender that have existed throughout history. Even this flexible model of gender provides a fairly limited view of how humans can understand gender, and it really only represents a contemporary, Western view.

For many cultures with third genders—a term anthropologists use to describe any gender which falls outside the binary—gender has been intrinsically tied to not just identity, expression, and physiology, but social class, occupation, religion, sexuality, and other aspects of life. In many cultures, one’s gender determines their social class and occupation or vice versa; people of certain genders hold certain positions in society and government, have certain careers, and enjoy certain legal rights. Religion is an important part of gender in some cultures, where people of some genders hold particular religious significance or have certain religious duties. While we typically consider gender and sexuality to be completely independent, in many cultures, they are intrinsically connected—people’s attraction is part of what determines their gender.

While understanding other cultures’ attitudes toward gender can be an important step in deconstructing toxic gender norms in our own culture, it’s important that we don’t romanticize or idealize these cultures. In some cultures with third genders, forced sterilization and castration of gender minorities is practiced. Often third genders exist to allow women to have certain legal rights in highly patriarchal societies. Gender minorities in some cultures are forced into certain occupations—often sex work. Many of these cultures suffer from systematic inequality and rigid gender roles, similar to our culture.

The wide variance in how humans have understood and continue to understand gender across cultures shows that the genderbread person model of gender is an artifact of how we understand gender and not what gender is or can be. Our contemporary Western understanding of gender is deeply rooted in the gender binary and Western gender norms. We use the term “non-binary” to be inclusive of any gender identity which falls outside the binary, but most non-binary people in our culture still define their gender in relation to the gender binary—some combination of male and female.

This isn’t to say that the genderbread person model is bad or that our understanding of gender is invalid or incomplete; our culture has as much a right to our own concepts of gender as any other. However, when having conversations about gender, it’s important to realize that gender is influenced by one’s culture as much as by innate identity. Gender identity cannot be fully divorced from culture, because a person’s gender can only be fully understood in the context of the culture in which they live. Transphobic people often decry attempts at widespread acceptance and visibility for non-binary genders under the premise that it’s all propaganda designed to recruit impressionable young people to our wicked cause. While these denouncements are obviously laughable and baseless, how trans people understand their identity is influenced by the cultural norms of our time. In a different time and place, that same trans person may have understood their gender identity differently. When having conversations about what gender is and what it can be, I think a more culturally aware understanding of gender would be beneficial to all of us.