The gender revolution

The new generations claim diversity and push society to look beyond the gender binary

7 min

BarcelonaMale and female. Masculine and feminine. This binary classification of the world leaves out many people who do not identify with it. They are the people with other gender identities and sexual orientations represented by the acronym LGTBI+. The new generations claim this diversity and push society to look beyond genitalia.


What is the difference between sex and gender?

Traditionally, sex has been considered to respond to biological characteristics (genitals, hormones and gonads), that which is determined by nature, while gender is a social and cultural construction based on the expectations of how men and women are expected to behave, dress or communicate. That is, "the interpretation of this biology based on stereotypes and associated roles", says Miriam Solá, a sociologist and gender policy consultant. "Originally the sex and gender division was very functional to understand that there were naturalised differences and feminists of the time said that gender was not natural at all, that it was cultural, and that we can transform this cultural part", explains trans and feminist activist Teo Pardo. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, new perspectives emerged from academic and philosophical spheres and from queer feminism, which says that what we had understood as biological, sex, is also cultural. "There is a part of the body's construction that is also very cultural and that has to do with the transformation of bodies: people shave, we hormone ourselves, we put on make-up", says Pardo.

Gracia Trujillo, professor of sociology at the Complutense University of Madrid, LGTBI-queer activist and feminist, maintains that "sex is a political category that is assigned according to the external genitalia" and believes that "we must move towards a freer society, where everyone can live their identity in freedom". Trujillo thinks that there are many unresolved issues. One is education, which for the scholar and activist is "emasculating" because from the infant stage "there is an obsession with gender, to know which of the two boxes you fit into, because depending on the box you are assigned you will develop expectations and capabilities. Everything is articulated in the gender binary and there is little option for more boxes, gender diversity is not allowed, we are forced to choose very early". Trujillo recalls that "there are different bodies, sexualities and identities that need different ways of expressing themselves".


Is it an obsolete distinction?

Sex and gender are terminologies that "help to understand that the male/female inequality continues to exist and, therefore, we must continue to talk about the origin that generates it, which is sex", says Teo Pardo, who points out that the sex/gender differentiation "is not so clear now because they are intertwined". He gives an example: "When you register a baby in the Civil Registry, you register the sex but in practice what you are registering are their expectations, because depending on that registration they will receive one treatment or another". For Gracia Trujillo, gender has been used to analyse issues such as violence and health, but she believes that "now we have to introduce other diversities and gender expressions". "The goal is to express yourself more freely, beyond binarism", she says.


How many genders are there?

There is a certain convention that gender can be male, female or non-binary (and this includes all those who do not identify with any of the above), explains Solá, who believes that we have to overcome the idea of gender "as a closed binary question and see it as a great diversity". She stresses that when we talk about gender and sexual diversity we have to be clear that "it is not a question of the LGTBIQA+ collective, but a right of citizenship": "To think in terms of sexual and gender diversity is to improve life, to make desire freer, and this is good for everyone. We have to be clear that living in a society that lets us want and be what we want to be benefits us all".

The binary consideration of gender, says Teo Pardo, "is a problem because it leaves people out and generates serious violence". For example, it makes intersex children, says Pardo, very invisible. "And remember that sex and gender have been understood as binary in Western culture, but there are others where the spectrum is broader".

Teresa Godàs, a clinical psychologist at the Hospital Clínic in Barcelona, also believes that the genders that exist are "male, female and non-binary, or also called neutral, which are all people who do not identify with the first categories". And she recalls the first time that the Gender Unit of the Clínic, created in 1986, made a report on a non-binary person because they did not identify themselves neither as a man nor as a woman: "We have come a long way since then".

Rosa Almirall states that reality shows us that there are people who "do not adapt to this binary sex-gender system". And within the non-binary system, she reminds us that "there is a wide range": "Each person has unique needs and health professionals should adapt to this new reality without judging, but this cannot be done if society does not open its eyes to other possibilities of being in the world that are not the traditional ones".


What is gender identity?

"It's like people who identify themselves based on a social and cultural question", explains Míriam Solá, who stresses that it all starts when we are born: "Depending on what we have between our legs, we are assigned whether we are men or women. There are people who identify with this assignment and there are people who don't, like trans people. But who determines gender? This is the main battle horse that confronts supporters and opponents of the transgender law being promoted by the Ministry of Equality and which provides for gender self-determination without the need to go through a medical process. At the heart of the dispute is the dilemma over what determines gender, whether it is personal feelings or biological sex.

Rosa Almirall introduces a third element: gender expression, which is the way a person expresses their identity. One thing is how you present yourself to the world (gender expression) and another how you feel (gender identity). "You can be a biological woman with a masculine expression and feel like a woman, or a biological man with a masculine gender expression but feel like a woman", she gives as an example. And between hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity there is a wide range, recalls Almirall, in which each person is situated.


What role does sexual orientation play?

Sexual orientation and gender identity are different concepts, but they are closely related, say Solá and Pardo. "The first step is whether you feel female, male or non-binary and then who you like, who arouses desire in you", says Solá. "We are told that there are two sexes and only two and that to each one corresponds a gender and this marks the sexual division of labor and care and, in addition, we are told that these two genders will be complementary and that desire and natural sexuality would be heterosexual", adds Pardo, who believes that if we lived in a "much less rigid system" many trans people "would not have needed to transition". "We have to think about a horizon in which everyone can live happily with the body they have and we also have to understand that we have not reached this horizon and that [trans people] want to live livable lives and, therefore, sometimes we have to take decisions about our bodies and our lives", argues Pardo.


How do young people experience it?

"Young people have accepted it much more" says Míriam Solá, who appreciates how sexual and gender diversity is lived more naturally in the classroom: "In a high school you find for example people who identify themselves as bisexual or pansexual because as non-binary categories they are comfortable places in which to place themselves". The older generations, on the other hand, have to break down mental barriers, but they also accept it, says the sociologist.

Although Teo Pardo agrees that today's young people have "non-binary approaches that can be very transformative and that question the whole system", he also recalls that "90% of the voice and space in the classroom continues to be occupied by boys". "The most transformative discourse coexists with practices that continue to be very unequal", he explains. He is a high school teacher and often presents himself as a trans man because he believes that it is necessary to generate close references.

Rosa Almirall believes that young people have embraced this diversity. "They are more open-minded and more critical and see it as absurd that parts of their clothes or body indicate whether they are male or female", she says, and believes that this is a consequence of the work done by feminism. "First it has been necessary that feminism has broken rigid schemes about how a woman has to behave and dress, and now we are one step ahead and young people are questioning beyond that. They understand that between masculinity and hegemonic femininity there is a huge continuum in which a person can position themselves and evolve".


Is it possible to grow up without gender?

In countries such as Germany, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, India, Canada and Nepal, among others, the third gender or neutral gender is legal when someone does not identify as masculine or feminine. In the Spanish state it is not possible, although there are families that educate in the neutral gender. Teresa Godàs finds it difficult to grow up without assigned gender because, in her experience, "infants around the age of 3 already acquire and act according to a gender identity: they have it in their heads and this cannot be hidden". Teo Pardo believes that with the attempt to make gender unimportant we end up generating the opposite effect and giving it even more importance, "because the effort that has to be made to hide the sex of an infant ends up making the upbringing revolve around this". That's why he advocates, rather, making it "unimportant". He believes that the strategy involves rethinking "how we explain the stories, what expectations we place on our infants, what games we favour or how we generate references for them so as not to reproduce stereotypes".

Rosa Almirall is confident that people who have been educated in gender neutrality will be more "critical of gender and it will be easier for them to express themselves if they have a diversity or the spectrum of preferences will widen, and this in itself is already good, even if they later define themselves as binary". But she notes that in today's society it is very difficult to grow up with a neutral gender "because you will always clash with the environment"; at the moment an infant "is socialized, they are constantly receiving messages from this society, which is not gender-neutral".


What role does biology play?

Rosa Almirall, gynaecologist and director of Trànsit, the ICS health service for trans people, explains that there are two theories, located at the extremes. There is a biologicist current that tries to explain gender identity with biological parameters ("due to a different gene that is being searched for, due to a different brain structure in male or female identities..."), while on the other side there is a current that denies biologicism and assumes other criteria, such as social construction. "I think there is a mixture of both things, probably there is something biological and also of social construction, but we don't know in what percentage". In any case, Almirall maintains that this debate takes us away from what is really important: "To socially accept this diversity and give space". And she recognizes that medicine "is extremely biologicist", although there are professionals, like her, who have changed. "What medicine sees is sex and the body, and doesn't ask many other questions. Medicine is part of the cisheteropatriarchal power and therefore the approach to care for people with diverse gender identities still involves trying to get them to go from A to B, that is, to fit the gender stereotype. If you don't want to have surgery or a hormonal transformation, you don't have a place in the health system or have more difficulties. But some of us see it differently".