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Gender variance, or gender nonconformity, is behavior or gender expression by an individual that does not match the gender norms of the gender they are perceived to be by society. People who exhibit gender variance may be called gender variant, gender non-conforming, gender diverse, gender atypical or genderqueer, and may be transgender or otherwise variant in their gender identity. In the case of transgender people, they may be perceived, or perceive themselves as, gender nonconforming before transitioning, but might not be perceived as such after transitioning. Some intersex people may also exhibit gender variance.
The terms gender variance and gender variant are used by scholars of psychology and psychiatry, anthropology, and gender studies, as well as advocacy groups of gender variant people themselves. The term gender-variant is deliberately broad, encompassing such specific terms as transsexual, butch and femme, queen, sissy, tomboy, travesti, or hijra.
The word transgender usually has a narrower meaning and somewhat different connotations, including a non-identification with the gender assigned at birth. GLAAD (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation)'s Media Reference Guide defines transgender as an "umbrella term for people whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth." Not all gender variant people identify as transgender, and not all transgender people identify as gender variant — many identify simply as men or women. Gender identity is one's internal sense of their own gender; while most people have a gender identity of a boy or a man, or a girl or a woman, gender identity for other people is more complex than two choices. Furthermore, gender expression is the external manifestation of one's gender identity, usually through "masculine," "feminine," or gender variant presentation or behavior.
In some countries, such as Australia, the term gender diverse or, historically, sex and/or gender diverse, may be used in place of, or as well as transgender. Culturally-specific gender diverse terms include sistergirls and brotherboys. Ambiguities about the inclusion or exclusion of intersex people in terminology, such as sex and/or gender diverse, led to a decline in use of the terms sex and/or gender diverse and Diverse Sexes and Genders (DSG). Current regulations providing for the recognition of trans and other gender identities use terms such as gender diverse and transgender. In July 2013, the Australian National LGBTI Health Alliance produced a guide entitled "Inclusive Language Guide: Respecting people of intersex, trans and gender diverse experience" which clearly distinguishes between different bodily and identity groups.
Childhood gender variance
Multiple studies have suggested a correlation between children who express gender non-conformity and their eventually coming out as gay, bisexual, or transgender. In some studies, a majority of those who identify as gay or lesbian self-report gender non-conformity as children. However, the accuracy of these studies have been questioned, especially within the academic community. The therapeutic community is currently divided on the proper response to childhood gender non-conformity. One study suggested that childhood gender non-conformity is heritable. Although it is heavily associated with homosexuality, gender nonconformity is more likely to predict childhood abuse. A recent study illustrated that heterosexuals and homosexuals alike who do not express their gender roles according to society are more likely to experience abuse physically, sexually, and psychologically.
Studies have also been conducted about adults' attitudes towards nonconforming children. There are reportedly no significant generalized effects (with the exception of few outliers) on attitudes towards children who vary in gender traits, interests, and behavior.
Children who are gender variant may struggle to conform later in life. They may try to lead a "normal" life by getting involved in heterosexual relationships or marriage to help subdue their core gender identity. As children get older and are not treated for the "mismatch" from mind and bodily appearance, this leads to discomfort, and negative self-image and eventually may lead to depression, or suicide, or self-doubt. If a child is not conforming at a very young age, it is important to provide family support for positive impact to family and the child. Children who do not conform prior to age 11 tend to have an increased risk for depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation as a young adult.
Roberts et al. (2013) found that of participants in their study aged between 23 and 30, 26% of those who were gender nonconforming experienced some sort of depressive symptoms, versus 18% of those were gender conforming. There is no curative treatment for gender non conformity, however behavioral therapy has been reported to be successful, such as recognition and open discussions, or counseling sessions. In fact, treatment for gender identity disorders (GID) such as gender variance have been a topic of controversy for three decades. In the works of Hill, Carfagnini and Willoughby (2007), Bryant (2004), "suggests that treatment protocols for these children and adolescents, especially those based on converting the child back to a stereotypically gendered youth, make matters worse, causing them to internalize their distress." In other words, treatment for GID in children and adolescents may have negative consequences. Studies suggest that treatment should focus more on helping children and adolescents feel comfortable in living with GID. There is a feeling of distress that overwhelms a child or adolescent with GID that gets expressed through gender. Hill et al. (2007) states, "if these youth are distressed by having a condition deemed by society as unwanted, is this evidence of a disorder?". Bartlett and colleagues (2000) note that the problem determining distress is aggravated in GID cases because usually it is not clear whether distress in the child is due to gender variance or secondary effects (e.g., due to ostracization or stigmatization). Hill et al. (2007) suggests, "a less controversial approach, respectful of increasing gender freedom in our culture and sympathetic to a child’s struggle with gender, would be more humane."
Atypical gender roles
An atypical gender role is a gender role comprising gender-typed behaviors not typically associated with a cultural norm. Gender role stereotypes are the socially determined model which contains the cultural beliefs about what the gender roles should be. It is what a society expects men and women to think, look like, and behave. Gender role stereotypes are often based on gender norms.
Examples of some atypical gender roles:
- Househusbands: men who stay at home and take care of the house and children while their partner goes to work. According to Sam Roberts of the New York Times, in 1970 four percent of American men earned less than their wives. National Public Radio reported that by 2015 this had risen to 38%.
- Metrosexual: a man of any sexual orientation who has interest in style and fashion and dresses well.
- Androgynous people: identifying as neither male nor female; OR presenting a gender either mixed or neutral
- Crossdresser: a person who dresses in the clothing and approximating the appearance of members of the opposite gender, in public or solely in private, without proclaiming themselves to be that gender. Cross dressers may be cisgender, or they may be trans people who have not yet transitioned.
- Hijra: A (sometimes neutered) person whose anatomy is in most cases identified as male (more rarely female or intersex), but whose gender identity is neither masculine nor feminine, whose gender role includes special clothing that identifies them as a hijra, and whose gender role includes a special place in society and special occupations.
- Khanith: The gynecomimetic partner in a heterogender homosexual relationship, who may retain his public status as a man, despite his departure in dress and behavior from a socio-normal male role. The clothing of these individuals must be intermediate between that of a male and a female. His social role includes the freedom to associate with women in the entire range of their social interactions, including singing with them at a wedding.
Association with sexual orientation
Gender norms vary by country and by culture, as well as across historical time periods within cultures. For example, in Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan, adult men frequently hold hands, without being perceived as gay, whereas in the West this behavior would, in most circumstances, be seen as proof of a homosexual relationship. However, in many cultures, behaviors such as crying, an inclination toward caring for and nurturing others in an emotionally open way, an interest in domestic chores other than cooking, and excessive self-grooming can all be seen as aspects of male gender non-conformity. Men who exhibit such tendencies are often stereotyped as gay. One study found a high incidence of gay males self-reporting gender-atypical behaviors in childhood, such as having little interest in athletics and a preference for playing with dolls. The same study found that mothers of gay males recalled such atypical behavior in their sons with greater frequency than mothers of heterosexual males. But while many gay or bisexual men exhibit traditionally feminine characteristics, many of them do not, and not all feminine men are necessarily gay or bisexual.
For women, adult gender non-conformity is often associated with lesbianism due to the limited identities women are faced with at adulthood. Notions of heterosexual womanhood often require a rejection of physically demanding activities, social submission to a male figure (husband or boyfriend), an interest in reproduction and homemaking, and an interest in making oneself look more attractive for men with appropriate clothing, make-up, hair styles and body shape. A rejection of any of these factors may lead to a woman being called a lesbian regardless of her actual sexual orientation, or indeed to a man "crossing her off the list" as a potential romantic or sexual partner regardless of whether he actually believes she is a lesbian. Therefore, attracting a male romantic or sexual partner can be a strong factor for an adult woman to suppress or reject her own desire to be gender variant.
Lesbian and bisexual women, being less concerned with attracting men, may find it easier to reject traditional ideals of womanhood because social punishment for such transgression is not effective, or at least no more effective than the consequences of being openly gay or bisexual in a heteronormative society (which they already experience). This may help account for high levels of gender nonconformity self-reported by lesbians.
Among adults, the wearing of women's clothing by men is often socially stigmatized and fetishised, or viewed as sexually abnormal. However, cross-dressing may be a form of gender expression and is not necessarily related to erotic activity, nor is it indicative of sexual orientation. Other gender-nonconforming men prefer to simply modify and stylise men's clothing as an expression of their interest in appearance and fashion.
- Douglas C. Halderman (2000), Gender Atypical Youth: Clinical and Social Issues. School Psychology Review, v29 n2 p192-200 2000
- Lynne Carroll, Paula J. Gilroy, Jo Ryan (2002), Counseling Transgendered, Transsexual, and Gender-Variant Clients, Journal of Counseling & Development, Volume 80, Number 2, Spring 2002, pp. 131 - 139
- Arlene Istar Lev, (2004) Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working With Gender-Variant People and Their Families. Haworth Press, ISBN 978-0-7890-0708-7
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- Serena Nanda (2000) Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2000 ISBN 1-57766-074-9 NB: Nanda uses the term "gender variance" to encompass gender phenomena in different cultures.
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