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Atypical gender identities

There are several atypical gender identities, that is, gender identities that do not correspond to the much more common ones, male and female. Gender identities are, primarily, determined by whether the individuals in question consider themselves to be boys, girls, men, women, or something else.

The sex of an individual is generally determined by examining one’s external genitalia. Most of the time this method is adequate, but sometimes the differentiation of one’s external genitalia have been influenced by abnormal hormone levels while still in the womb, or some other changes have occurred that create incongruences among chromosomal factors, internal genitalia, and/or external genitalia.

In such cases, the sex of the individual may be ambiguous. When hormonal abnormalities influence pre-natal formation of the body of an individual whose chromosomal nature (XY) would ordinarily produce a person with male genitalia, that person will may be born with female external genitalia. Similarly a chromosomally female (XX) foetus can be masculined and may be born with external genitalia that appear to be male.

Sometimes hormonal influences are of an intermediate strength and the body of the individual is ambiguous. It may be impossible to determine by examination of external features whether the baby in question is an XX female who has been masculinized to some extent, or an XY male who has been feminized to some extent.

There are also individuals who have other chromosomal combinations (XXY, XYY, etc.) as well as individuals whose bodies may contain approximately equal numbers of XX cells and XY cells and who may have both male genitalia and female genitalia. Arbitrarily designating these individuals as boys, girls, men, or women would serve to deceive all people involved concerning the realities of gender identity and gender role of these people.

In addition to the physical ambiguities and combinations, there are also mental characteristics that appear to be strongly influenced by hormone levels at certain critical times in foetal development. This phenomenon is very clearly understood in the case of cattle because a fairly frequent mishap in gestation produces a freemartin (unconventional heifer), a cow that is female in respect of its genitalia but one that behaves sexually like a bull.

Post-natal conditioning may also strongly influence the self image by which a person categorises and understands himself or herself.

If someone’s chromosomal status is XX, if that person’s period in the womb is normal and as a baby has normal female genitalia, and if that person is raised as are other female children in that culture, then that individual will almost certainly say that she is a girl, and later she will say that she is a woman. To that extent that nothing puts her strongly at odds with her society, she will probably take up an ordinary gender role rather than doing something unusual like becoming a knight in armour.

If someone’s chromosomal status is XY, if that person’s gestation is normal and the genitalia are typical of males, and if that person is raised as are other male children in that culture, then that individual will almost certainly say that he is a boy, and later he will say that he is a man. If nothing puts him strongly at odds with his society, the chances are that he will follow the pursuits that are common among other men in his culture rather than, e.g., try to function as an escort for lonely heterosexual males.

But what will be the gender identity of someone who does not fulfil these ordinary expectations? Chromosomal differences may have profound behavioural or reproductive consequences. Hormonal differences during gestation may have effects on external genitalia, sexual motivation, or other behavioural characteristics. Post-natal conditioning may have easily recognisable effects on the behaviour and motivations of individuals.

The gender identity that each individual possesses is unique. Individuals act out their gender identities as gender roles. Other people then observe their gender role – dress, behaviour, and other such indications –, and infer the gender identity and the sex of these individuals.

If everything were as simple as language paints it, then there would be only XX and XY individuals, XX individuals would all call themselves girls and then women and mean exactly the same thing in every case, and they would take up a standard gender role from which other people could unfailingly infer their gender identity and their sex.

Similarly, XY individuals would be unambiguously male in all the external signals they give off, and other people in the society could infallibly infer their gender identities and sex from those public signals. Reality, however, is far from being that simple.

Despite this, statistically speaking, one would find an overwhelming majority of those individuals with XX identifying themselves with the feminine gender roles and those XY individuals with the male, regardless of the sexual orientation of the subjects.

Examples of atypical gender identities


The hijra are a clearly defined category of individuals in India. They wear clothing that is defined by social custom to share elements used in both the masculine and the feminine gender roles, they have their own category of occupations, their own religious constellation of divinities and ceremonies, and frequently are transsexual as a part of the ritual requirement of their gender role.


Xanith in the Arab world fit a special niche in society that permits them to be both the sexual companions of individuals with masculine gender identities and roles and also to father children in more conventional marriages to individuals with feminine gender identities and roles.


American Indian societies are frequently accommodating to individual differences in situations where another society might enforce conformity to group norms. The Winkte is described as a person who does everything “backwards.” Their doing of things the “wrong” way may include non-sexual elements such as wearing winter clothing in the summertime to behaving the “wrong” way in sexual intercourse.

Yinyang ren

In Chinese society, some individuals are regarded as “yīnyáng rén”, i.e., people whose individual natures incorporate both strong yin (feminine) and strong yang (masculine) components. An often cited example is Cao Xueqin, author of The Dream of the Red Chamber (Hóng lóu mèng 紅樓夢).

The main character of that novel, Baoyu, is believed to be at least semi-autobiographical. Baoyu is physiologically male. He has a strong romantic attraction to attractive young women. His first sexual experience was sexual intercourse with his female bondservant. And yet he is strongly attracted to some boys, and the description of his psychological reaction to meeting one of his male cohorts is one of the most acute descriptions of the esthetic appreciation of one person by another to be found in world literature.

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