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Saturday, 2 November 2013

What's Decent?

Every once in while, there is a book that opens your eyes. Annabel  by Kathleen Winter made me consider things I had never thought of earlier. It is a book about a gender-variant child. Through our teenage years, most of us struggle with our identities, discovering who we are and our place in the world. It is difficult enough coming to grips with our gender identities and our sexuality when we fall within the accepted norm but for a child growing up outside of that safe space, life can be appallingly cruel. This book opened a door for me. It placed me in the life of a gender-variant child; a world of uncertainties and rejections.

As a child in Pakistan, I was taught to avoid “hijras” but like all children, I was curious. Hijras dressed like women but looked like men. In my teens, I was told that when a child is born who is different, hijras come to the family and claim the baby. It was never specified what the difference was but I did understand that hijras lived on the periphery of society. They were ridiculed and feared. Isn't that the most common reaction to people we don't understand? Decent people did not even discuss the topic because it was and is considered dirty and inappropriate.

Most of us, do not even know what a hijra is. Terms like “gender-variant”, “trans-gender”, “cross- dresser” confuse us. I found these definitions from the Gender Equity Resource Centre.  


A person appearing and/or identifying as neither man nor woman, presenting a gender either mixed or neutral.


Someone who wears clothes associated with another gender part of the time.  This term has replaced "transvestite," which is now considered outdated and offensive.


Intersex is a set of medical conditions that feature congenital anomaly of the reproductive and sexual system. That is, intersex people are born with "sex chromosomes," external genitalia, or internal reproductive systems that are not considered "standard" for either male or female. The existence of intersexuals shows that there are not just two sexes and that our ways of thinking about sex (trying to force everyone to fit into either the male box or the female box) is socially constructed.


Transgender (sometimes shortened to trans or TG) people are those whose psychological self ("gender identity") differs from the social expectations for the physical sex they were born with. To understand this, one must understand the difference between biological sex, which is one's body (genitals, chromosomes, ect.), and social gender, which refers to levels of masculinity and femininity. Often, society conflates sex and gender, viewing them as the same thing. But, gender and sex are not the same thing.Transgender people are those whose psychological self ("gender identity") differs from the social expectations for the physical sex they were born with. For example, a female with a masculine gender identity or who identifies as a man.
An umbrella term for transsexuals, cross-dressers (transvestites), transgenderists, gender queers, and people who identify as neither female nor male and/or as neither a man or as a woman. Transgender is not a sexual orientation;transgender people may have any sexual orientation. It is important to acknowledge that while some people may fit under this definition of transgender, they may not identify as such.


A complicated, multi-step process that can take years as transgender people align their anatomy with their sex identity and/or their gender expression with their gender identity.  


Transsexual refers to a person who experiences a mismatch of the sex they were born as and the sex they identify as. A transsexual sometimes undergoes medical treatment to change his/her physical sex to match his/her sex identity through hormone treatments and/or surgically. Not all transsexuals can have or desire surgery.


Individuals who regularly or occasionally wear the clothing socially assigned to a gender not their own, but are usually comfortable with their anatomy and do not wish to change it (i.e. they are not transsexuals). Cross-dresser is the preferred term for men who enjoy or prefer women's clothing and social roles. Contrary to popular belief, the overwhelming majority of male cross-dressers identify as straight and often are married. Very few women call themselves crossdressers.

The term hijra itself, is derogatory. The way we treat these individuals shameful. I consider myself a feminist and often find myself indignant about the way women are treated but it's only recently that I have come to realize that there is a group who is treated even worse. People who are transgender are generally shunned. Most of us, don't know enough to understand but it's about time we educated ourselves and opened our minds.

Transgender people are not a dirty secret to be swept under the rug. Everyone deserves respect and equal opportunities in life. A person's gender should be of no consequence when it comes to their right to human dignity.

Most of us grew up in a world where we are lead to believe that there are just two genders; male and female. In this world, little girls like pink and little boys, blue. Girls play with dolls and enjoy crafts. They are good at language. Boys play with cars and enjoy sports. They are good at math. Girls grow into women who have babies, stay home, cook and clean while looking beautiful and singing songs. Boys grow into men with big muscles, deep voices and brilliant careers.

Yet, each of us is something different. Each of us an unique mixture of so called male and female characteristics. I am physiologically female but hate shopping, enjoy the outdoors including activities that get my hands dirty like digging in the dirt. I enjoy dressing up but only six times a year. I do not like pink but love red. My younger brother is the more aesthetic of the two of us . His tastes in clothes, home decor and food are far more disparaging than mine but his body taller, his muscles bigger and his voice deeper. We are both a mixture of masculine and feminine.

The world does not like to acknowledge this blending of masculine and feminine. Anyone who pushes against the boundaries of what is the accepted average is labelled. Girls who are boyish, we term tom-boys and boys who are girlish, sissies. (Interestingly, it is deemed a bigger insult to be a sissy than a tom-boy. The implication being that while it's not too bad for a girl to be boyish; it's terrible for a boy to be girlish.)  All the while ignoring the glaring truth that none of us fit neatly in the box. All boys have girlish qualities and all girls some boyish ones. There aren't just two distinct genders. There is a gender continuum.

If we teach our children that sex and gender are a continuum rather than just two fixed points of reference, perhaps there would be less stereotyping and discrimination as well. Perhaps, we might be able to rear future generations who are more open minded and accepting of differences.

The terms 'sex' and 'gender are closely related but not to be confused. " 'Sex' refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.
'Gender' refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.
To put it another way:
'Male' and 'female' are sex categories, while 'masculine' and 'feminine' are gender categories.
So while "sex" is decided by physiological characteristics, gender is a social construct. Gender roles therefore vary from culture to culture. But "sex" isn't always so clearly distinguishable either. It is not always just a simple case of being either male or female. Some babies are intersex. It is extremely rare but since this does happen, why just have male and female? Perhaps both sex and gender should be regarded as continuums thus allowing for more inclusiveness.

"Two intersex babies are born each week in the United Kingdom. This compares with other developmental problems such as cleft palate, or genetic problems such as Downs Syndrome. Yet health professionals and parents find it very difficult to find information about it, and those who specialize in this area are seen as a rather bizarre group of fringe psychiatrists."

Germany recently changed laws to allow for indiscriminate gender at birth to accommodate intersex children. Australians have had the option of selecting "x" as their gender - meaning indeterminate, unspecified or intersex - on passport applications since 2011. A similar option was introduced for New Zealanders in 2012.In South Asia, Bangladesh has offered an "other" gender category on passport applications since 2011.Nepal began recognising a third gender on its census forms in 2007 while Pakistan made it an option on national identity cards in 2011.
India added a third gender category to voter lists in 2009."
In 2011, a Toronto couple decided to raise their child as genderless in an attempt to avoid gender stereotyping. The Toronto Star ran a piece on the topic and the couple received a lot of negative feedback from readers. While in the long term, it might not be practically possible to avoid gender identification; it is noble all the same to avoid gender stereotyping as much as possible. If we teach our children that sex and gender are a continuum rather than just two fixed points of reference, perhaps there would be less stereotyping and discrimination as well. Perhaps, we might be able to rear future generations who are more open minded and accepting of differences.


World Health Organization "What do we Mean by Sex and Gender", Nov 5 '2013.

About Gender, Nov 5' 2003.

BBC Europe News   "Germany Allows Indeterminate Gender at Birth" , Nov 6 '2013.

Jayme Poisson, "Parents Keep Child's Gender Secret", Toronto Star,  Published on May 21, 2011.

What's "decent"? - Canada Reads: Stories of Change - CBC


  1. I absolutely agree. However I think majority of us do not even know the difference, and consider them the people with indecent deeds.

  2. being female and male is judged by the body, not by the interests and what they end up being. It just so happens that someone decided that women clean and cook because they have the talent and men work at their jobs. Someone decided girls liked pink boys liked blue. But the difference between men and women is in the brain and body. That;s part of what you're saying, right?

    1. I am trying to say just the opposite. Perhaps, I didn't do a very good job of explaining what I think.