Sex Versus Gender by Lejla brackovic

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

From the time we are born we are taught that there are only two biological sexes and subsequently two different gender types, which correspond to the biological sex (often only considered as external genitalia at birth, and not taking into account internal biological factors). In other words, we are taught that sex = gender. This equation is not only very wrong, as our Genderbread Person breaks down for us – the societal norms upon which the equation is built on has a detrimental impact for individuals whose gender identity differs from the prescribed social gender:

  • LGBTI youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers (US numbers)
  • LGBTI people have a much higher rate of depression and substance disorder than heterosexual people.
  • LGBTI people experience institutional discrimination; in some 76 countries, discriminatory laws criminalize private, consensual same sex relationships. 7 countries have a maximum penalty of death.
  • LGBTI people experience human rights abuses, both by individuals, institutions and societies.

Gender and culture

Culture; the learned behaviors and attitudes that are characteristic of a particular society or population as a shared belief system of society.

Gender is a socially created construct which becomes adopted within a culture and society through the process of gender socialization where a person will internalize the roles, norms and values deemed as culturally appropriate. Gender norms and what is accepted expressions of gender varies across cultures, with some cultures having a more binary view of gender, whereas others view gender as a more fluid construct. Western societies have largely looked at gender as a binary concept, where individuals are socialized to express gender as either male or female. Individuals not expressing their gender within the binary framework have traditionally been seen as culturally non-conforming, and furthermore exposed to several forms of discrimination – something that luckily has slowly begun to change. Not all cultures and societies have however traditionally practiced a binary view on gender. Among Native Americans, the role of a third, fourth and fifth gender has been observed. Children with an assigned sex of female or male at birth showing a proclivity for expressing their identity within the opposite gender have traditionally been encouraged to live their lives within their preferred gender identity, such as the Mohave Alyha. Cultures across Polynesia operate with different terms for gender roles, with a third-gender term such as the Fa’fafine of Samoa, the Mahu of Tahiti and the Fakaleiti in Tonga. These recognized gender identities are used to describe individuals assigned a male gender at birth, which explicitly embody both male and female gender traits.

The variety in gender roles and identity across cultures shows that there is no one right way to express gender identity, and a call should be made for abandoning the current gender labeling craze within our societies and cultures, as clearly there is not a one size fits all approach to something as complex as biological sex, gender expression, gender identity, sexual attraction and romantic attraction. In fact, our Genderbread Person tells us that these 5 factors have their own continuum and that they are all independent from one another, meaning that labeling a person into a limited number of gender categories will inherently be wrong and never fully explain and accept the complexity of us as human beings.

Detrimental effects of gender stigmatization

All humans have needs that drive their motivation and their behavior. According to Maslow’s concept of hierarchy of needs, introduced in 1943 in his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”, people have 5 groupings of needs they will seek to have fulfilled. More specifically, there is a hierarchical relationship between the different groupings of needs, with the highest need level being the need to reach a state of self-actualization. Self-actualization is a state where an individual is in full acceptance of him/herself and motivated by personal growth.

Maslow’s motivational pyramid

Maslow’s motivational pyramid

However, as Maslow’s pyramid suggests, there is a hierarchical relationship between human needs, and people will seek to fulfill more basic needs before being motivated to fulfill higher level needs. In other words, your main motivation in your present moment won’t be your dream becoming an artist, a doctor, a CEO, a teacher if you are living in a war torn country. Your focus will be to take care of your safety needs.

Why does this really matter for our discourse on LGBTI people? If an individual’s expression of self is not accepted by society at large, and even in some cases exposed to human rights abuses, that may have a detrimental effect on that person being able to reach their fullest potential as a human being – both for themselves and for the society. Imagine what a loss that is. Imagine what we could do as humanity if we were all accepting of each other and if we could all live our fullest potential. Warren Buffett once stated in a famous quote that one of the reasons for his great success was that he was competing with only half of the population (i.e. the male population). This is the reality overall for humanity when we do not allow people to exercise their full human rights and reach their fullest potential as human beings. Is that really the world we want to live in?

What is happening on the multi-lateral level in support of LGBTI rights?

In June 2011 the UN Human Rights Council adopted the first United Nations resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity – resolution 17/19. Following the resolution the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) conducted a report bearing the name Born Free and Equal, which presents evidence of systematic violence and discrimination directed at people in all regions because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Furthermore the reports addresses 5 key recommendations for Member States designed to strengthen the protection of the human rights of LGBTI people:

  • Protect people from homophobic/transphobic violence. Practical ways of ensuring protection means including sexual orientation and gender identity as characteristics protected by hate crime laws, establishing systems to report hate crimes and ensure effective investigation and prosecution of perpetrators.
  • Prevent torture and degrading treatment of LGBTI people kept in detention, investigate all acts of mistreatment by State agents and providing appropriate gender training to law enforcement officers.
  • Repeal laws that criminalize homosexuality as well as all laws prohibiting private sexual conduct between consenting adults of the same sex.
  • Prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and ensure non-discriminatory access to basic services, including access to basic services, equal rights in employment and health care.
  • Safeguard the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly for LGBTI people, as well as protecting individuals who exercise their rights to freedom of expressions.

The adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by the UN and Member States in September and the their guiding principle leaving no one behind, gives a positive outlook for the focus on LGBTI rights in the multilateral context. To further support the work for LGBTI rights, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has stated that the vision of leaving no one behind will only be realized if all people are reached – regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. “Ending marginalization and exclusions of LGBTI people is a human rights priority – and a development imperative” – Ban Ki-moon.

So, what can we do?

Get involved. Speak up against bullying and the use of degrading language. Register to vote and use your voting rights to support LGBTI rights. Show your support on social media. Be the change that you want to see.

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