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Illustration by Kas Moreno Madrigal

Sex and (trans)gender? Definitions, history, intersectionality

Bitesize Dissertation | Part 5

Answering what is the self’ has been the lifelong study of philosophers, psychologists, sociologists throughout history and I argue, it has always come with a gender bias. The following analysis comes from Will Buckingham’s ‘The Philosophy Book’, 2011.

The birthplace of Western thought and theories of the self began in ancient Greece with thinkers still relevant today, such as Plato and Aristotle.

Plato believed that the self was guided by logic and the abstraction of ideas. His philosophy of the duality of the self and consequent division between the soul and the body influenced Islamic and Christian thinkers. His disciple, Aristotle, a biologist, took the opposite route — our senses are the guiding rules of the self and nature should be our inspiration. For Aristotle, the self is truly fulfilling its natural purpose and capabilities when in the pursuit of virtue — wisdom. Whilst both philosophers disagreed in how to find virtue, as descendants of Socrates, they believed in absolute, universal truths — thus epistemology was born.

Epistemology is the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge. The term is derived from the Greek epistēmē (“knowledge”) and logos (“reason”), and accordingly the field is sometimes referred to as the theory of knowledge. (Martinich, 2020,

A world where some concepts were right and some were wrong and the way toward them was rationality. These seemingly simple philosophical concepts such as absolute truths or the importance of rationality have influenced most of Western thought and expanded throughout the world. From the 17th century onwards, theorists and philosophers stood on the shoulders of Plato and Aristotle and continued the rationalist versus empiricist discourse. Rene Descartes, Gottfried W. Leibniz and Emmanuel Kant defended rationalist Plato and John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume stood with Aristotle and empiricism (Buckingham et al, 2011).

The importance of these origins of Western thought cannot be understated — Francis Bacon, founder of what we call ‘the scientific method’ founded his work on Aristotle’s structures of organising nature and his influence has since guided modern science.

The British logician Alfred North Whitehead8 stated “The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’ (Columbia College,

One could argue that when these key figures spoke of the ‘self’, there was a gender neutrality to these terms, that these key philosophers did not make distinctions in gender. However, Plato and Aristotle openly wrote works on why women were indeed inferior to men, and this was reflected in their wider societal structures, as women in ancient Greece did not hold the same rights (Cartwright, 2006,

Aristotle writes “the male (to be) ruler and the female subject,” and everyone “who participates in reason so far as to apprehend it but not to possess it” — that is, participates in passive reason only — to be “by nature slaves.” (Aristotle, in Steinvorth, 2009, p.6)

It is therefore logical to say that the origins of the study of the ‘self’ was purely masculine, and made masculinity a default of the self (De Beauvoire, 1949; Spencer, 1985; Lerner, 1986; Ahmed, 2017; Perez, 2019).

And so, analysing the history of the self as a preparation for gender identity comes with two levels of conflict. Firstly, that the ‘default’ of the self has been historically categorised as male and even the term ‘gender’ was correlated to ‘woman’ as a symbol that we only need to recognise ‘gender’ when it is not ‘default’, that is, when it is not male (Scott, 1986). Secondly, and most importantly, that even when the concept is stretched to its limits in the inclusion of women it still holds the primary bias of a gender binary (masculine-feminine). Thus the study of the history of the self is tainted by already set beliefs of gender and makes this, an already complex exercise, even more challenging.

Even though gender is not explicitly discussed in many of the classic theorists, there is no such thing as a genderless conception of the self.

For this reason I will concentrate on the origins of the self through the study of gender and it’s multiplicities.

Western society remained blinded by the ‘masculinity default’ for most of its history.

It was only until the 1960s and 70s in the USA and Great Britain that ‘gender theory’ began as a relevant discussion point in academia. This is not to say that gender as a concept was not discussed, acknowledged or written about before this time. Anthropologist’s Margaret Mead in 1928, wrote about the distinction in gender roles in non-Western societies. Simone de Beauvoirs’ work in the 1940s ‘The Second Sex’ is considered a milestone in european gender theory and speaks precisely of this conundrum — ‘Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male’ (De Beauvoir, 2014,

The piece of work from Margaret Mead has been highly contested in its accuracy and scientific methods. The point to be raised is not whether Mead brought an accurate account of her study, but that a research was indeed being required on nature of the self and gender as socially constructed, specifically from Franz Boas (Freeman, 2000).

We can see two specific discourses in the history of gender that clarify and create a stepping stone to current gender biases. They follow suit in the discourses presented in Chapter 1 when analysing the nature of organisations. Firstly, gender as historical and cultural, secondly, gender as performative.

In Western terms, ‘gender’ has been the focus on a discussion between nature and nurture, the biological and the social, hence closely linked to ‘sex’.

That is, sex is what defines a human as male or female, whilst gender is simply the expression of this sex. In Western thought this correlation between masculine and masculinity, feminine and femininity is deemed ‘natural’ and hence any variation of this will be considered ‘unnatural’. It is understood that the relationship between sex and gender is one directional — that is, sex affects gender, but gender does not affect sex. This is considered a branch of biological determinism, thoroughly challenged by feminist discourse in the 1970s onwards — ‘we argue against the notion that cross-cultural variations in gender categories and inequalities are merely diverse elaborations and extensions of the same natural fact’ (Yanagisako and Collier, 1987, p.15).

‘Biological determinism, also called biologism or biodeterminism, the idea that most human characteristics, physical and mental, are determined at conception by hereditary factors passed from parent to offspring.(…) the term biological determinism has come to imply a rigid causation largely unaffected by environmental factors.’ (Allen, 2020,

If gender is but a direct, constrained expression of sex, women are directly constrained to what is it understood to be the ‘nature’ of women — to be only introverted, emotional and domesticated; whilst men are to be only brave, extroverted, confident and rational (Oakley,, 1972. p.43).

It is then, no wonder that feminist discourses challenge this dualistic and directly connected understanding of sex and gender (Oakley,, 1972). Gender, then becomes dependent not on sex, but on culture and history. To put simply — who decided that masculinity is directly correlated with rationality?

Gender is a classic example for Plato’s duality of thought as well as the direct consequences of understanding the ‘self’ as masculine, with its main virtue to be rational.

These attributes are but an interpretation of what it means to be male (Collier & Yanagisako, 1987, p.15; Stolke, 199; Moore, 1993, p.196). Gender becomes detached from ‘nature’ and becomes all ‘nurture’.

The criticism of this discourse is that there is still inherent meaning in the correlation between sex and nature, as anthropological discourses suggest that ‘sex’ is also cultural. The proof of this seems not to be in whether the flesh and bone of people along the world differs or whether we can biologically find differences in ‘sexes’, but on the fact that ‘sex’ is perceived and understood differently along the world.

There is currently biological reasons to perceive sex as more than just binary — ‘there are not only females who are XX and males who are XY, but rather, there is a range of chromosome complements, hormone balances, and phenotypic variations that determine sex.’ (World Health Organisation, 2020,

For example, for the Khumbo in Nepal, there are no words for ‘female’ or ‘male’. This does not mean that there is no physiological distinction, they simply understand these biological distinctions differently.

The hijras in India are a community of people from multiple sexes and genders that do not conform to Western understandings of masculinity and femininity. Yet in Indian traditions, these individuals are so by birth regardless of their physiology, they understand ‘sex’ as equally performative as ‘gender’ (Agrawal, 1997)

Nevertheless, seeing ‘sex’ as purely a biological concept is also critiqued in Western thought (Moore, 1993; Taylor, 2001; Laqueur, 1991; Stolke,1993, Gatens, 1983) — ‘it makes no anthropological sense to suppose that a scientifically correct sex model exists nor to conceive of the modern Western two-sex model as the ‘real’ foundation on which gender relationships are construed.’ (Stolcke, 1993, p.30).

In this case, both sex and gender are cultural and historical phenomena, standing side by side and independent from each other, instead of the original understanding in which gender sat on the shoulders of sex and was directly linked to it. Bodies are seen as ‘cultural objects’ (Agrawal, 1997) and sex and gender are then understood as performative.

Within the performative discourse, the self is seen as a constant actor is the stage of society, sociologist Erving Goffman is believed to the first to coin this term and the metaphor of theater is profusely used (Goffman, 1997,). Sex and gender are simply performances that we have created — products, not causes of identity (Taylor, 2001, p.273; Butler,1990).

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Visual example of firstly, gender standing on sex; secondly, of gender as cultural. Finally, both gender and sex as cultural as independent gradients to each other.

The self as a gendered entity has undergone a profound shift in its definition and the different ways in which gender and sex are experienced in the 21st century live side by side in Western societies. The more academically contemporary understanding of gender is therefore seen as an experience, not a normative ideal, as explained in recent modern literature such as Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler (Butler, 1990, p.130).

There are two distinctions to be made therefore in the experience of gender. Firstly, a binary experience, namely cisgender, where female-femininity, male-masculinity are linked and correlated, also called by Butler ‘intelligible genders’ (Butler,1990, p.130). Secondly, a non-binary / trans-gender experience, where there is no connectivity between sex and gender, or there is simply a different type of cohesion, hence people that identify as ‘transgender’ feel they have been born in the ‘wrong body’ (Anon S., 2020, Zoom interview).

This is called gender dysphoria. It is a term that describes a sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity (NHS, 2020,

Nevertheless the term ‘transgender’ is not clear-cut or perfectly defined, even within the trans community. During one-to-one interviews with participants when asked ‘what does transgender mean to you?’ The common denominator was that a great variety of individuals were wrapped in this umbrella term without much consideration. ‘I think that it’s an umbrella term that’s gone too far. (…) to me, if you’re trans, it’s a case of — you feel like you were born in the wrong body. So, if you were to class somebody who was cross-dressing as trans, I wouldn’t put them under that category’ Anon S., 2020, Zoom interview. On the other hand, another participant raised that, whilst the term could be problematic, there was safety in umbrella terms — ‘It does bring, I guess, a sense of like solidarity (…) transness, because it carries so much with it.’ (Anon K., 2020, Zoom interview.)

It is fair to ask, for the purpose of the research question — who is included within this term ‘transgender’? Are cross-dressers, non-binary people, transexuals… All ‘transgender’?

Cross-dressers — the act of wearing clothes usually worn by the opposite sex’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2020,

Non-binary — ‘Having a gender identity (= feeling of being a particular gender) that is not simply male or female’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2020,

‘Transsexual individuals can be either pretransition/operative, transitioning/in the process of hormonal and surgical sexreassignment, or posttransition/operative’ (Nagoshi and Brzuzy, 2010)

I believe the reviewed history of the gender concept provides clarity in the understanding of these terms. What I wish to refer to in this dissertation is the experience and notion of gender that does not conform to the interconnectivity between sex and gender identity. This includes transvestites, cross-dressers, non-binary and gender dysphoric people, to name a few of the identities living outside of the gender binary. Because of the sensitivity and nuance of the word ‘transgender’, I wish to correct my own research question and substitute it with ‘gender-non-confirming people’ (GNCP). Thus ensuring that the history of this word is used correctly and that it does not invalidate any experience of the community this dissertation is bringing forth. The research question that remains is — ‘insights from the community of GNCP’. Moreover, in the process of this research, a great deal of academic overlap is given to the GNC community and other groups, namely disabled people (both physical and mental) and people of colour. The ‘self’ is after all, not a one-sided concept. Challenging communities and waves of thought have intertwined throughout history.

For example, some of the first moving films made in the USA represent characters that are both people of colour and gender-non-conforming, usually in a discriminatory way as antagonists or deviants (Exposure, 2020, film). One of the most important moments LGBTQI+ movement, the Stonewall Riots and a worldwide human rights movement was famously began by black trans women (Oliver and Ali, 2019,; Smith, 2020,

In fact, race, gender and disability are intersectional terms with ‘porous boundaries constitutive of the overwhelming force of ontological multiplicity’ (Puar, 2017, p.38).

This intersectionality is not only felt in the experience of these identities, but in similar experiences in discrimination.

The community of gender-non-conforming-people, is not only formed by gender, but by the intersectionanility of identities and its consequent discriminatory experiences.

The organisation Stonewall commissioned a report with YouGov in 2018 on GNC discrimination and found that 53% of GNC people aged 18 to 24 have experienced a hate crime or incident based on their gender identity.

Half of trans and non-binary people (51% and 50% respectively) have hidden or disguised the fact that they are LGBTQI+ at work because they were afraid of discrimination (Bachmann and Gooch, 2018), trans women of colour being the group with the highest vulnerability due to intensified racial stigma. A participant in this dissertation, a GNC woman of colour, comments on her experience of being openly GNC at work:

‘There was no support, there is no agency, there was no language (…) there was nothing. I was bullied. I was attacked, all kinds of things.’ (Anon I., 2020, Zoom interview.)

Intersectionality does not just make you vulnerable to wider society, but to people in the LGBTQI+ community as well. Another GNC participant with autism said

‘A lot of trans/queer/LGBT spaces are not very welcoming to people, particularly with learning disabilities’ (Anon (X), 2020, Zoom interview.)

Therefore the support network designed to keep the GNCP community safe becomes broken, increasing the chance of discrimination.

However, these characteristics also make the GNCP community a rich and insightful group, full of an agglomeration of perspectives and life experiences to learn from.

The writings dubbed Bitesize Dissertation are the results of the dissertation created for the Masters in Service Design in Ravensbourne University. They will be published in small excepts. The research question was — ‘In what ways can the redesign of business models gain insights from the transgender community and how can Service Design facilitate this?’ To vie the full dissertation click here.

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Service Design, Business Design, Organisational Design. They/them

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