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Understanding Gender as a Spectrum

Understanding Gender as a Spectrum

Understanding gender is one of the first steps in understanding adolescent behavior and development.  In recent years the conversation about gender has expanded from a focus on the binary representations of sex and gender to a more inclusive model that asks that we place these identities on a spectrum.  Whether or not an adolescent feels connected to the gender they have been assigned, it is important to realize that gender strongly impacts decision making, sense of self, and the expectations that are placed on adolescents by society.  It is because of these implications that having conversations with students and educators about gender is an integral part of the work being done at Hallways

Traditionally we have understood the term “gender” to refer to whether a person is a boy or girl, man or woman.  Today when we talk about gender we are talking about a couple of different things.  Here’s a list of useful terms to understand when thinking about gender

Sex: The assignment and classification of people as male, female, or intersex based on a combination of anatomy, hormones, and chromosomes.
Gender: The socially constructed characteristics of women, men, and other genders—such as norms, roles, and relationships between gender categories.
Gender Identity: A person’s internal sense of being male, female, neither of these, both, or another gender.
Gender Expression: The physical manifestation of a person’s gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, pronoun, etc.

These constructs work in concert with one another to form a person’s sense of their own gender.  However, it is important to note that not all aspects need to correlate with one another in order to be deemed valid. For example, a person’s whose sex is female may be expected to adhere to typically feminine gender norms, but internally may feel more connected to traditionally masculine behavior and can choose to express themselves in a way that aligns with their internal sense of self.

These terms help us to begin thinking of gender on a spectrum.  As an alternative to a binary line of thinking about gender, a spectrum allows for opposites to be connected to each other by qualities that fit in between.  Thinking about gender on a spectrum removes some of the pressures of having to fit into the prescribed roles of “masculine” or “feminine.”  The spectrum perspective also helps us to be more inclusive of those who do not feel connected to or identify themselves as fitting within the binary, such as gender nonconforming and transgender people.

Expanding our understanding of gender gives children, adolescents, and adults alike the freedom to move outside of the prescribed ‘gender boxes’. In our workshops, we hear students begin to identify and unpack complex and often harmful messages from society, such as those dictating that boys should be strong and unemotional, and girls should be attractive and pleasing.  When we put these rigid and stereotypical expectations on children – directly or inadvertently – we limit who they think they should be and how they can identify themselves. These internalized expectations carry on into adolescence and adulthood, impacting the types of decisions a person makes, as well as their self-esteem and level of confidence. Research also shows us that internalization of traditional gender norms increases the risk of a host of negative health outcomes for youth, including substance use and risky sexual behavior. For students who conform to traditional notions of masculinity, there is an increased risk of engaging in chauvinistic and harassing/violent behavior.

As adults it can be difficult to break out of the gender binary and accept behaviors and identities that fall along a new spectrum since we ourselves have been subject to a binary line of thinking for decades. Expanding our views to include a variety of gender experiences sends the message to our children that we accept them as they are, no matter what external expectations are placed upon them. When we break out of the gender box we give everyone, including ourselves, room to be themselves.

To learn more, visit:
The Gender Unicorn 
Waiter, There’s Some Theory in My Gender
The Safe Zone Project

Desiree Caro is a Prevention Educator/Counselor and SAP at one of our partner schools. In addition to facilitating workshops, providing interventions and consultation, she contributes to the development of Hallways’ gender based violence prevention programming.