51 shades of gender identity

It's a ... baby! Infants get categorised as boys or girls at birth, which may confuse their gender identity for life. (Waltraud Grubitzsch/AFP)

It's a ... baby! Infants get categorised as boys or girls at birth, which may confuse their gender identity for life. (Waltraud Grubitzsch/AFP)


The world has been waking up to the fact that things are not as black and white as history has had society believe them to be. Gender is not binary, not exclusively male or female. Gender is complex and assigned.

More people are coming out about their own journeys travelled with gender identity, and it’s necessary to understand why.
From conception, we develop first as a neutral body. We sprout male or female genitalia and reproductive systems at a later stage of gestation, once our hormones kick in. This is why males have chests and nipples: they are remnants of having been a possible female. Hormones don’t always produce a person who then becomes 100% male or female, either in respect of genitalia or psyche.

At birth, a person is usually assigned one of two genders based on their external genitalia. They are given a gender-specific name, clothed in blue or pink, given cars or dolls to play with, and ultimately moulded into the traditional form of what is acceptably male or female and expected to fulfil that role. We have limited say in who we are.

Beyond allowing the convenient identification of a reproductive mate, there is no value in defining gender as binary (male/female) and distinguishing ourselves as such. We don’t couple for the sole purpose of copulation, as animals do. We’ve been past that for at least 8 000 years.

Binary gender definition is inaccurate. Gender is a facet of identity; it’s not about being absolutely male or female. Some find it difficult to understand the identity of someone who is intersex (an inoffensive term for hermaphroditic), as that person and their social role is categorised as absolutely male or female, whereas that person’s genitalia and psyche may vary in degrees of masculinity and femininity.

Multiple genders exist in hundreds of animal species, such the as red deer, which have a female and two male gendermorphs.

Gender and sexual preference are different things. A person may be attracted to no one. A person given a male role at birth, who identifies as some degree of female, may prefer sex with males.

There are 51 recognised gender definitions. Here are a few: male and female; bi-gender (identifying as both male and female); androgynous (fluctuating between male and female); a-gender (having no gender role); female-to-male and vice versa (identifying as opposite to the role assigned at birth, regardless of having had any physical alteration or not); transmasculine and transfeminine (people whose identity includes some degree of the opposite gender); transgender (in varying degrees, where gender transcends what is traditionally described); two-spirit (a third gender, with both masculine and feminine representation), as described by the Native American Zuni people. This third gender has its own social role beside male and female, as with the Hijra in India. Western society finds a poly-binary gender code foreign.

Our society has held the conviction that gender be either male or female, and that those roles’ identity styles should be adhered to. If they are not, the individual faces ostracism for, say, not enjoying drinking beer around a fire and discussing the intricacies of organised games.

To be acceptable to others, we must fit our identities into set definitions. This is why many gay men, in South Africa especially, claim to be “straight-acting” – a term upsettingly indicative of insecure gay men trapped in an over-masculinised society.

They have to disguise themselves in a fake role; they usually belittle others who present themselves in ways not socially approved.

You might not understand why someone born with male genitalia wants to identify as a woman. You don’t need to. That person’s choice has nothing to do with you.

Genitalia do not dictate how people need to present themselves in society; identity needn’t conform to your ideals because you’re comfortable with your own genitalia and gender.

The manner in which individuals choose to present themselves is their right to decide. It has zero effect on anyone else; it requires no assessment or judgment on anyone else’s part.

We need a neutral pronoun – “he” and “she” do not cover all bases. It’s odd to refer to a person in the third person plural (“they”) because one is not referring to a group. Using “it”, which would identify someone as an object, is not acceptable.

Hence, in reference to the Venn diagram, which shows commonality or neutrality between different sets, I propose these neutral pronouns:

  • Ve (subject);
  • Ven (object);
  • Veir (possessive determiner);
  • Veirs (possessive pronoun); and
  • Veirself (reflexive).

  Graham Robert is an independent social commentator with a degree in media studies

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