20 Gender in Young Adulthood

Sex refers to physical or physiological differences between males, females, and intersex persons, including both their primary and secondary sex characteristics. Gender, on the other hand, refers to social or cultural distinctions associated with a given sex. When babies are born, they are assigned a gender based on their biological sex, male babies are assigned as boys, female babies are assigned as girls, and intersex babies are usually relegated into one category or another. Scholars generally regard gender as a social construct, meaning that it does not exist naturally, but is instead a concept that is created by cultural and societal norms. From birth, children are socialized to conform to certain gender roles based on their biological sex and the gender to which they are assigned.

Since the term sex refers to biological or physical distinctions, characteristics of sex will not vary significantly between different human societies. For example, persons of the female sex, in general, regardless of culture, will eventually menstruate and develop breasts that can lactate. Characteristics of gender, on the other hand, may vary greatly between different societies. For example, in the current majority Canadian and American cultures, it is considered feminine to wear a dress or skirt. However, in many Middle Eastern, Asian, and African cultures, dresses or skirts (often referred to as sarongs, robes, or gowns) can be considered masculine. Similarly, the kilt worn by a Scottish male does not make him appear feminine in his culture.

the trans pride flag includes the colours, blue, pink, and white, with the blue on the top and bottom, and the pink above and below the white stripe in the middle.
Image 4.20.1: The Transgender Pride flag was designed by Monica Helms in 2000 to represent the traditional boy and girl colours with white representing transition.

Gender identity is a person’s sense of self as a member of a particular gender. Individuals who identify with a role that corresponds to the sex assigned to them at birth (for example, they were born with male sex characteristics, were assigned as a boy, and identify today as a boy or man) are cisgender.  Those who identify with a role that is different from their biological sex (for example, they were born with male sex characteristics, were assigned as a boy, but identify today as a girl, woman, or some other gender altogether) are often referred to as transgender.

The term transgender encompasses a wide range of possible identities, including agender, genderfluid, genderqueer (signifying gender experiences that do not fit into a binary concept), androgynous, bigender, pangender, ambigender, non-gendered, and intergender, Two-spirit is a modern umbrella term used by some indigenous North Americans to describe gender-variant individuals in their communities.

Transgender is independent of sexual orientation; transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, asexual, or any other kind of sexuality, just like cisgender people do. It is difficult to determine the prevalence of transgender people in society; however, it is estimated that 700,000 individuals in the United States (0.3%) are transgender (Gates, 2011).

Some transgender individuals may alter their bodies through medical interventions, such as surgery and hormonal therapy, so that their physical being is better aligned with gender identity. Not all transgender individuals choose to alter their bodies or physically transition. Many will maintain their original anatomy, but may present themselves to society as a different gender, often by adopting the dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, or other characteristics typically assigned to a certain gender. It is important to note that people who cross-dress, or wear clothing that is traditionally assigned to the opposite gender, such as transvestites, drag kings, and drag queens, do not necessarily identify as transgender (though some do). People often confuse the term transvestite, which is the practice of dressing and acting in a style or manner traditionally associated with another sex, with transgender. Cross-dressing is typically a form of self-expression, entertainment, or personal style, and not necessarily an expression about one’s gender identity.

Transgender Discrimination

Transgender people are much more likely to experience harassment, bullying, and violence based on their gender identity; they also experience much higher rates of discrimination in housing, employment, healthcare, and education (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2015).  Transgender individuals of color face additional financial, social, and interpersonal challenges, in comparison to the transgender community as a whole, as a result of structural racism. Specifically, black transgender people reported the highest level of discrimination among all transgender individuals of color. As members of several intersecting minority groups, transgender people of color, and transgender women of color in particular, are especially vulnerable to employment discrimination, poor health outcomes, harassment, and violence. Consequently, they face even greater obstacles than white transgender individuals and cisgender members of their own race.

Gender Roles

a cover of “Good Housekeeping” magazine from 1908 depicts a woman on the cover, holding up a cup and looking at it, with other cups sitting in front of her, and a tidy shelf in the background.
Image 4.20.2: Cover of “Good Housekeeping” magazine in 1908, promoting the expected gender role for women.

As we grow, we learn how to behave from those around us. In this socialization process, children are introduced to certain roles that are typically linked to their biological sex. The term gender role refers to society’s concept of how men and women are expected to act and behave. Gender roles are based on norms, or standards, created by society. In American culture, masculine roles have traditionally been associated with strength, aggression, and dominance, while feminine roles have traditionally been associated with passivity, nurturing, and subordination.

The drive to adhere to masculine and feminine gender roles continues throughout life. Men tend to outnumber women in professions such as law enforcement, the military, and politics; women tend to outnumber men in care-related occupations such as childcare, healthcare, and social work. These occupational roles are examples of typical American male and female behavior, derived not from biology or genetics, but from our culture’s traditions. Adherence to these roles demonstrates fulfillment of social expectations, but not necessarily personal preference (Diamond, 2002).

Text in this chapter taken directly from Lally & Valentine-French (2017). Figures were curated by O’Neil, McCarthy, & Williams.

Media Attributions



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Always Developing Copyright © 2019 by Anne Baird is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book