Gender as Mediator between the Origin of Identity and Social Environment

Between “Why” and “Who” lies “How”

Amethysta Herrick
Amethysta Herrick

Previously, I described gender and gender dysphoria as universal human experiences. That is, every human must develop gender and does so by expressing gender characteristics within society, sometimes to be met with disapproval. Feedback I received indicated the origin of gender is commonly misidentified as its implementation.

Further, explaining the clear distinction between sex and gender addresses only observable phenomena. The distinction does not address deeper levels of gender we experience. As a result, attacking anti-LGBTQ rhetoric remains difficult — a more complete gender theory is required.

The implementation of gender as physical presentation answers the question “Who Am I?” Beneath the implementation — and based on the near-universal experience of “wrongness” described by countless transgender people (including me) — must lie a good reason. Ostensibly, the question “Why Am I?”

But another level must exist that mediates between the “why” and the “who” — what might best be expressed as the question “How Do I Become Myself?”

The origin of identity

Because each human expresses a unique identity, an origin of identity must exist, which is likely either immutable or very difficult to change. I believe the origin of identity is a soul that exists outside body, mind, and social environment, similar to Indian philosophical views. That said, purely physical components of brain structure, biochemistry, or genetics and epigenetics suit this purpose as well.

The difficulty in changing the origin of identity is derived from empirical evidence. Each of us knows certain facts about ourselves without evidence. Broccoli tastes bad; cats rule, dogs drool; women with purple hair are awesome. The knowledge may come from a soul, it may come from biology, but the result is the same: we know it, but we don’t know why.

Regarding the development of gender, however, the nature of the origin of identity is irrelevant. What is relevant is an origin exists, and in it lie our deeply-seated beliefs, desires, and motivations.

Beginning to develop identity

Born with a largely immutable origin of identity, humans are immediately subject to a social environment: the mother, at least. This social environment is a necessary condition of survival for a newborn human.

As a result — and purely for survival — the newborn takes on the task of integrating into the social environment. The level of success at integration defines (in part) the friction felt between individual and social environment. The human must learn how to get along well enough not to be booted out of the social environment, which entails learning and internalizing social norms.

The end result — certainly by teenage years — is a human whose identity is largely contextual to the social environment that fostered development. Identity is a complex of physical characteristics and psychological characteristics expressed within context of a social environment.

Physical characteristics may be voluntary or involuntary. The clothing, hair, and makeup one wears voluntarily (if begrudgingly). The height, eye color, and place of birth we do not choose.

Psychological characteristics may include thought patterns, emotional responses, and adherence to social groups. The level to which any psychological characteristic is voluntary is a topic of vigorous debate, but many derive from social norms, such as Western society’s abhorrence of eating dog or horse.

Gender as mediator

The attempt to express physical characteristics and psychological characteristics — our effort to develop identity — is both fueled by and hindered by the pressures extant within the social environment. But each unique physical or psychological characteristic, each choice we make, each compromise we accept — the result of developing identity — must, at root, be caused by the origin of identity.

However, a cognitive process, whether conscious or otherwise, must exist in-between origin of identity and personal implementation of identity. A mediator must be present: one capable of shaping the involuntary aspects of the origin into specific and unique implementations of human expression within the context of socio-environmental factors.

That mediator is gender.

Given the distinction between sex and gender, however, do we observe universal processes of development in Nature?

Sex, gender, and biologists

In biology, sex and gender are very clearly distinguished. Sex is a species-level abstraction regarding the type of gamete an organism may contribute to sexual reproduction. Males contribute sperm; females contribute ova. Many species — several fish in particular — are born capable of developing sexual maturity for either gamete depending upon pressure exerted by social environment.

Organisms of those species are observed to change the gamete contributed to reproduction over the course of their lives — sometimes multiple times, even within one mating season. As a result, another concept was devised to describe the role an organism plays in one act of reproduction. That concept is gender.

For instance, groups of one species have only one male organism present at a time. When he leaves, another female spontaneously changes sex and takes his place. All other members of society contribute ova to reproduction; the sole male contributes sperm. That social role — contributing a particular type of gamete to reproduction — is an expression of species-level sex characteristics at the level of the individual organism.

Sex is a species-level abstraction; gender is an individual-level expression.

But biology is messy. Genetics is semi-random and only mostly works. Sometimes organisms produce no gametes or inviable gametes. Sometimes organisms choose not to engage in reproduction. In the species of fish with only one male in society, not every surviving female competes to become the next male — psychologically, something prevents the others from attempting.

These statements explain why sex and gender must be separate concepts — not every individual in a species is physically and psychologically capable of contributing to reproduction, and social roles are not static from birth.

Sex, gender, and humans

To return to humans, we do not appear capable of changing sex readily, although spontaneous parthogenesis has been observed in rare situations of genetic mutation, such as ovarian cancer. Further, our social environments are likely more complicated that those of fish (no offense intended toward fish reading this article, of course).

A theory of gender commensurate with the rest of Nature, yet consistent with human sex characteristics and human socio-environmental factors is clearly appropriate. Unfortunately, however, prevailing gender theory encompasses only a fallacious conflation of sex and gender: that is, a human capable of contributing sperm to sexual reproduction — a male — must express the sex characteristic as a man, and vice versa.

However, there is no evidence the prevailing theory is empirically accurate. In the animal kingdom, on the other hand, there is a multitude of evidence against. In species up to and including primates, we observe clear examples of hermaphrodism, homosexuality and transgender[1]. The prevailing gender theory simply chooses to ignore the evidence. I believe there is an obvious reason why this has occurred, and I leave treatment of that point to another article.

In humans, then — due to more complicated social environments and less fluid sex characteristic development — gender exists as the mediator between our origin of identity and our implementation of identity within our social environment.

Gender in my life

Growing up, I knew I should not wear a male body — I was distinctly feminine. This complicated my social interaction: I wanted to wear pretty dresses, but I was not allowed to. Instead, later in life, I expressed what I could through the length of my hair, my jewelry, the occasional makeup, and dressing as a woman on Halloween. These were “permissible” expressions of femininity within the expectations my social environment had of my masculinity.

Obviously, those slight expressions of femininity were insufficient. I could not change the characteristics of my origin of identity. Deep down, I am feminine; I know it, just as you know characteristics of your identity. As a result, I rejected traditional masculine roles when expressing my deep-seated beliefs, desires, and motivations.

Regardless of the origin of identity, gender is not made of one single decision. It is a complex of presentation, actions, and thoughts within context of social environment. Incoming expectations from social environment are mediated to the origin of identity, which evaluates them and responds with outgoing expressions. Gender is not a static object — it is an ongoing negotiation between internal knowledge and external expression.

This negotiation is true of all plant and animal species; it is true for humans. Although I knew the complete set of tools used to express femininity in my social environment, my cognitive process of gender selected presentation, actions, and thoughts suitable to my immediate surroundings.

Over the course of my life, the negotiation changed: to the point that I transitioned presentation, actions, and thoughts and am now perceived as a woman in society, despite lacking female sex characteristics to produce ova.

Nature vs. nurture

The debate over whether human development is dictated at birth versus developed over the course of life has raged for centuries. Empirically, however, we observe people struggle when they do not accept the truths they know inside.

Humans exist because of nature and nurture. The deeply-seated answer to “Why Am I?” resides in the origin of identity. Clinical research by Rollo May indicates we may rebel against the origin of our identity, but we cannot escape it.

Humans, however, reside in societies. Each of us experiences pressures and expectations from our social environment. Viktor Frankl noted the ability to pause between action and reaction in order to choose our response. We may define “Who Am I?” through our voluntary presentation and actions.

However, Frankl did not consider the ramifications of choosing responses consistently in conflict with the truths we know inside. Each human develops gender, and experiences discomfort during the process.

It is the mediation between our immutable origin of identity and the imperfect implementation of identity we present to the social environment that defines gender. It is the answer to the question “How Do I Become Myself?”

Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is founded on equating sex and gender: that identity and its expression are defined by genetics. Its proponents claim the theory is based in science while ignoring the negotiation each of them conducts with their social environment on a daily basis.

Proponents simply want to refuse those of us who fall outside their narrow bounds of expression a seat at the negotiation table.

[1] Roughgarden, Joan. Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. First Edition, Reissue, Tenth Anniversary Edition, With a New Preface by the Author. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2013.


Amethysta Herrick

Ami is a transgender woman dedicated to exploring identity and gender. She is Editor-in-Chief of Purplepaw Publications, LLC.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the offical policy or position of Purplepaw Publications, LLC. Please view the Disclaimer page for further information.