Method: Twelve self-identified male and female heterosexuals drawn from undergraduate introductory psychology class and 12 self-identified gays/lesbians and 11 self-identified transgenders recruited through campus community contacts were interviewed on their definitions of, understanding of the relationships between, and perceptions of their own gender roles, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Results: While all of the participants understood gender roles to be social constructs, half of the lesbians and all of the transgender individuals viewed gender identity as being more fluid, compared to the more biologically essentialist, binary beliefs about gender identity of the remaining interviewees. This fluid view of gender identity also reflected a tension between the perceived embodied aspects of gender identity vs. those aspects that were personally and socially constructed. These lesbian and transgender participants also viewed sexual orientation as being dynamically related to gender identity, in contrast to the remaining interviewees, who regarded sexual orientation as being entirely independent of gender identity.
Conclusions and Implications: Feminist and queer theories of gender developed in opposition to traditional biologically essentialist ideas about gender that served to maintain the dominant position of men over women in society. These theories emphasized that gender roles and sexual orientation were social constructs that individuals could choose to adhere to or not. The experiences of transgenders, however, suggest that gender identity is both embodied and personally/socially constructed, with life experiences providing the dynamic continuity and integration between these two aspects of identity. This is consistent with an emerging transgender theory of the nature of gender that reconciles and transcends essentialist traditional, as well as social constructivist feminist and queer theories.