Abstract: Perceptions of Gender Roles, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

12437 Perceptions of Gender Roles, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation

Friday, January 15, 2010: 10:30 AM
Golden Gate (Hyatt Regency)
* noted as presenting author
Stephan/ie Brzuzy, PhD , Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH, Chair, Cincinnati, OH
Background and Purpose: The experiences and perceptions of transgender individuals fundamentally challenge societally normative beliefs and theoretical ideas about the nature of gender roles, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Transgender individuals “destabilize” gender categories “not only through assertions of not fitting either gender, but also through claims to actually being a bit of both. The idea is that “by being transgender, one really embodies an 'intersexual' identity of being both man and woman” (Broad, 2002). To the extent that a gay or lesbian identity also represents a challenge to the heteronormative gender binary, the question can be raised as to whether a non-heteronormative sexual orientation is perceived by gays/lesbians as similarly destabilizing of gender categories. The qualitative research presented here compared the responses of self-identified heterosexual, gay/lesbian, and self-identified transgender individuals on what defines gender roles (masculinity vs. femininity) and gender identity (male vs. female, binary vs. fluid), how they define themselves in terms of gender roles and gender identity, and what they perceive to be the relationships among gender roles, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

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.