Just What Is Gender Really Anyway?

Gender is perhaps one of the most divisive concepts of modern times. This became more apparent to me than ever recently, when I attended a debate at the West Yorkshire Humanist Society, which both clarified my own feelings on the issue, and challenged them. So just what is gender really anyway?

Defining terms

Changing societal attitudes towards sex and sexuality have made gender one of the most loaded terms in the modern lexicon. In one corner you have the traditionalists, who as most people have for centuries, see gender and gender roles as defined ideas which must be maintained to ensure societal stability. In the other corner, you have the modernists, who view gender as something more fluid and individualistic.

For the purposes of our debate, we made a crucial distinction between the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ which for hundreds of years the vast majority of people have used interchangeably. As we understand it, sex is a biological term, referring to whether you are physically a man or a woman. Gender, on the other hand, refers to the society label ‘male’ or ‘female’ that you are assigned with, or choose to assign to yourself.

Thrilling debate

The question we were actually debating, to paraphrase, is “how should humanists view gender?” It’s important to note for the purposes of this article, that humanism isn’t a static belief system. The majority of humanists, I would say, believe that we should use human experiences to govern our attitudes to moral and social issues, so as humanity changes, so does humanism. Therefore, the humanist definition of gender isn’t necessarily fixed.

I don’t think any two opinions expressed in that room, on that night, were exactly the same. There were, of course, instances where in my opinion, sex and gender were conflated – but that itself is indicative, as many parts of society still do the same. Admittedly the humanist part of the discussion seemed to get left behind, as we emphatically debated the nature of gender itself. But the debate delivered some fascinating insights, which both bolstered my own beliefs and really made me think.

Confirmed and challenged

I have to admit that like lots of people, I have not always had a clear understanding of what gender means. It’s such a significant term with many connotations, and in this modern world, it’s meaning always seems to be changing, so I can never quite keep up. Yet, I always taken the individualistic approach – if somebody tells you what gender they are, believe them, as only they know themselves enough to answer this question. My belief in this approach was confirmed in the debate.

But one guy put forward an argument that really made me think – he said that with the way things are going, the idea of gender will be meaningless one day anyway. This seemed a little too out there at first, but then he mentioned that a similar thing is already happening with sexual orientation, with stars such as Miley Cyrus, for example, now saying “I am what I am – don’t call me gay or straight.” Maybe something like this could reasonably happen with gender later down the line?

Who really knows?

It’s clear that gender still plays a prominent role in our society. For example, I recently argued that misogyny should be a hate crime, because in many cases, women are targeted just because of their gender. But as this debate showed me, things are changing and it’s becoming obvious that we don’t really know what gender is at all – and it may be irrelevant soon anyway, so why should we care?

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