For many New Zealanders it’s very straightforward: You wake up in the morning and understand inherently that you’re either a boy or a girl. You don’t even have to think about.
But, like a whole lot of other things in life, and for more people than you might think, gender just isn’t quite that simple.
In 2012, the University of Auckland conducted a survey across 8,500 students across New Zealand, and found 1% of students said they were transgender, and 3% weren’t sure.
From the moment we’re born, gender norms are enforced upon us, so brace yourselves, we’re gonna bust some fundamental myths about it all.
Myth 1: Your gender’s the same as your sex, it’s what’s between your legs.
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, sex and gender are different! Your sex is your makeup - your anatomy, chromosomes, hormones, as well as what’s between your legs and so on. Your gender however is a lot more complicated, as it’s broken up into gender identity and gender expression. Gender identity is your internal sense of self and where you fit in on the gender spectrum (yes, it’s a spectrum! But we’ll get to that soon) and your gender expression is how you outwardly present your internal beliefs of your gender. An easy way to think of this is: your sex is your body, and what’s between your legs and your gender is what you feel in your head and heart.
Myth 2: There are only two genders, male and female.
There are 7 billion people in the world, all of them with different perceptions of self, so how could we get them all into two little boxes? Well, the short answer is, we don’t. Like all of nature, human beings are infinitely complex and filled with variation. Rather than being stuck in a binary (male/masculine and female/feminine), gender is actually a fluid spectrum that can grow and shift.
At either end of this spectrum, you have male and female. But the brilliant thing is, there’s an infinite amount of possibilities in and around this spectrum. People can be anywhere in, on, and around the spectrum, can move around it, or even be outside it. Because of the variables allowed by this spectrum, you get all of these wonderful genders, all equally as valid as each other, like genderfluid, bigender, agender, androgyne, demigender, pangender, and many more.
Myth 3: If sex is what’s between your legs, then there’s only two, right?
In the womb, everyone begins as female, but as the body grows and develops, it is entirely possible to be born intersex, that is, having characteristics from both sexes. However. there are many different types of intersex. Some of these are obvious at birth (babies born with ‘ambiguous’ genitalia - meaning they may have a combination of both a penis and vagina, but it’s rare someone is born with two complete sets).
Other intersex conditions aren’t obvious until puberty, (for instance someone may be born with a vagina, but around puberty their body releases male hormones, meaning they grow facial hair and their voice deepens) - but some intersex people can even go their whole lives not knowing they are intersex. This may be because it’s only their chromosomes that differ from their outward appearance, and we generally don’t get our chromosomes tested, so it’s hard to be sure.
Myth 4: If you’re transgender that means you’re gay.
Gender and sexuality are both very different concepts, but often get linked together. Your sexual orientation is who you’re attracted to, but gender identity is who you are. You may identify as one gender, have been biologically another, but that does not have anything to do with your sexuality. If a transgender person (trans for short) was male at birth, then transitioned to female, but was attracted only to women this can seem confusing, as they were ‘straight’ and now they’re ‘gay’. In these instances, the terms androsexual (attracted only to men) and gynesexual (attracted only to women) come in handy. You can even identify as pansexual, meaning you can be attracted to all different types of people, regardless of gender identity. So if someone tells you their gender identity, don’t immediately assume that means you can figure out their sexual orientation, the two aren’t linked!
Myth 5: Kids are too young to know their gender identity.
Unlike sexuality/sexual orientation, which develops when puberty hits, it’s usually believed a person’s gender identity develops around the age of three years old. This is the point where kids often say “I’m a boy!” or “I’m a girl!”. However, some people don’t embrace their gender identities until later in life, often because of societal pressure and the stigma of being trans. Also, since gender is fluid, as a person grows older their identity can change.
If a child tells you their gender identity, trust that they are the experts of their own experience. How do you know your own gender identity? You just… know, right? The same goes for anyone else, no matter how old they are or what gender they identify as.
Myth 6: Transgender people are the third gender.
This isn’t entirely true. While there are people who do identify as a ‘third gender’, such as nonbinary folk (which can include anything from androgyne, bigender, genderqueer, agender etc), some trans people find the ‘third gender’ term harmful when applied to them. For instance, a trans person who identifies as a woman may not want to be a part of the third gender, because she is a woman.
Myth 7: Transgender people have a mental disorder.
This is one of the more harmful myths. Being transgender is not a mental disorder. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), mental disorders are defined as a psychological state that causes distress or disability to a person’s life. Many transgender people don’t find their gender distressing or disabling, but other obstacles such as discrimination, lack of social support or inability to express their gender can lead to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety. Gender dysphoria is a psychological condition, when a person suffers significant distress because they can’t express themselves as the other gender - but being transgender is not a mental disorder in itself.
Myth 8: All trans people feel trapped in the wrong body and want surgery.
No, there are a lot of trans people who choose not to get ‘the surgery’, and feel pretty content in their bodies. The ‘trapped in the wrong body’ motif is often used to describe transgender people in an easy way that helps cisgender people (those who identify with their gender assigned at birth) understand, but it is very limiting.There are a variety of reasons trans people decide against surgery - they may not be able to afford it, or may not want it. There are many nonbinary people too who don’t even consider surgery. While some people may feel trapped in the wrong body, it is only of one the many, many trans-narratives out there.
Myth 9: It’s easy to for trans people to transition in New Zealand.
Transitioning can be a long and difficult experience. There are four steps to transitioning on the Ministry of Health website - at least two years of real life experience, hormones, surgery, and a follow up post-surgery. The last surgeon capable of doing male to female (MTF) reassignment surgery retired last year, so now all reassignment surgeries have to be done overseas. Many people opt to go to Thailand for the operation, and the government only funds three MTF surgeries and one female to male (FTM) surgery every two years.
Myth 10: Transgender people are just confused.
Realising your gender goes against what society has instilled in you can be quite a strange experience, but it doesn’t make transgender people confused. They know their gender identity, and while it goes against what is known as ‘traditional gender’ roles or ‘gender norms’, it does not make them confused.
What can be confusing though, is the stigma that society places on trans people. So often in life many trans people feel as if who they are is ‘wrong’ or defunct in some way. But this is a societal defect that needs to be checked, not something trans people have done.
This piece has been written in conjunction with Rainbow Youth. If you're looking for help with gender and sexuality, contact Rainbow Youth or an LGBTQIA support group near you.