Breaking Through the Binary: Gender Explained Using Continuums

Editor’s Note: The Genderbread person, though popularized and expanded on by Killerman, was initially a community effort by trans* people created through various conversations. The original credit goes to Cristina González, Vanessa Prell, Jack Rivas, and Jarrod Schwartz.

Gender is a tough subject to tackle. There are a lot of facets to consider, a lot of pressures at play, and we have all been conditioned in such a way that our first instinct is almost unanimously wrong.

But we’re going to tackle it. No, we’re going to tackle the balls out of it. Coming to our aid, I would like to present to you: The Genderbread Person!

The schema used here to map out gender is what I like to call the “-ness” model. You could call it the independent unidirectional linear continua model, but that seems wordy.

Individuals can plot where they identify along both continua to represent varying degrees of alignment with the traditional binary elements of each aspect of gender, resulting in infinite possibilities of “gender” for a person.

If that was a bit dense for you, it’ll all make sense soon. Just know that in each category (gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and attraction), you are to place a point on each of the directional lines, representing your man-/ woman-/ masculine-/ feminine-/ male-/ female-ness, whether it be nada or a lotta.

Understanding the Genderbread Person

As you see above, we have four main elements that we’re looking at. I will break those down, but before that I want to talk in generalities.

First of all, if you noticed that the first three categories all pertain to gender, while the fourth pertains to sexuality, great job. Skip ahead to the next paragraph.

For everyone else: if that doesn’t make sense to you, or you’re unsure of how all four interrelate, worry not. By the end of this article it’ll all make sense or you can have your money back.\

Whenever I talk to groups about gender, a common problem arises: people tend to assume that someone will consistently be masculine/male/man or feminine/female/woman, and when I tell them that couldn’t be further from the truth, I get blank stares.

I’m about to say something that will likely freak you out, but be cool, because it’ll all make sense soon. Gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation are independent of one another (i.e., they are not connected).

With that said (I’m going to say it again later), let’s move on and talk about what each of those concepts represent.

Gender Identity: Who You Think You Are

gender identity

On the left of both continua we have “nongendered,” which, you guessed it, means existing without gender, and on the right we have “woman-ness” (the quality to which you identify as a “woman”) and “man-ness” (ditto, but with “man). Below we have some examples of possible plots and possible labels for those plots. Examples of common identities that aren’t listed include agender, bigender, third-gender, and transgender.

Gender identity is all about how you, in your head, think about yourself. It’s about how you internally interpret the chemistry that composes you (e.g., hormone levels).

As you know it, do you think you fit better into the societal role of “woman,” or “man,” or do neither ring particularly true for you? That is, do you have aspects of your identity that align with elements from both? Or do you consider your gender to fall outside of the gender norms completely?

The answer is your gender identity.

It has been accepted that we form our gender identities around the age of three, and after that age it is incredibly difficult to change them. Formation of identity is affected by hormones and environment just as much as it is by biological sex.

Oftentimes, problems arise when someone is assigned a gender based on their sex at birth that doesn’t align with how they come to identify. We’ll talk about that more later.

Gender Expression: How You Demonstrate Who You Are

gender expression

On the left of both continua we have “agender,” which means expression without gender (“genderless”), and on the right sides we have “masculine” and “feminine.” Examples of different gender expressions and possible labels are down below. “Androgynous” might be a new word, and it simply means a gender expression that has elements of both masculinity and femininity.

Gender expression is all about how you demonstrate gender through the ways you act, dress, behave, and interact–whether that is intentional or unintended.

Gender expression is interpreted by others based on traditional gender norms (e.g., men wear pants, women wear dresses).

Gender expression is something that often changes from day to day, outfit to outfit, event or setting to event or setting.

It’s about how the way you express yourself aligns or doesn’t with traditional ways of gendered expression, and can be motivated by your gender identity, sexuality, or something else completely (e.g., just for fun, or performance).

Like gender identity, there is a lot of room for flexibility here. It is likely that your gender expression changes frequently without you even thinking about it.

How about an example? You wake up and you’re wearing baggy grey sweatpants and a t-shirt. As you walk into your kitchen to prepare breakfast, you’re expressing an androgynous-to-slightly-masculine gender.

However, you see your partner in the kitchen and decide to prowl in like Halle Berry from Catwoman, then you are expressing much more femininely. You pour a bowl of cereal, wrap your fist around a spoon like a viking, and start shoveling Fruit Loops into your face, and all-of-a-sudden you’re bumping up your levels of masculinity.

After breakfast, you skip back into your bedroom and playfully place varying outfits in front of you, pleading your partner help you decide what to wear. You’re feminine again.

I assume this entire time you were imagining it was you, with your gender identity, acting out that example. Now go through the whole thing, but imagine someone with the a different gender identity from you going through the motions.

Now you are starting to understand how these concepts interrelate, but don’t interconnect.

Biological Sex: The Equipment Under the Hood

biological sex

On the left we have “asex,” which means without sex, and on the right we have “female-ness” and “male-ness” (both representing the degree to which you possess those characteristics). In the examples below, you see a new term, “intersex,” which is a label for someone who has both male and female characteristics. You also see two “self ID” (self identification) labels, which represent people who possess both male and female characteristics, but identify with one of the binary sexes. Oh, and how did you feel about me expressing my masculinity in the heading of this section?

Biological sex refers to the objectively measurable organs, hormones, and chromosomes you possess.

Being female means having a vagina, ovaries, two X chromosomes, predominant estrogen, and you can grow a baby in your stomach area.

Being male means having testicles, a penis, an XY chromosome configuration, predominant testosterone, and you can put a baby in a female’s stomach area. Being intersex can be any combination of what I just described.

For example, someone can be born with the appearance of being male (penis, scrotum, etc.), but have a functional female reproductive system inside.

There are many examples of how intersex can present itself, and below you can see some statistics from the Intersex Society of North America that describe the frequency of intersex births. (check out the stat I bolded, but be prepared to be shocked)

Not XX and not XY one in 1,666 births
Klinefelter (XXY) one in 1,000 births
Androgen insensitivity syndrome one in 13,000 births
Partial androgen insensitivity syndrome one in 130,000 births
Classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia one in 13,000 births
Late onset adrenal hyperplasia one in 66 individuals
Vaginal agenesis one in 6,000 births
Ovotestes one in 83,000 births
Idiopathic (no discernable medical cause) one in 110,000 births
Iatrogenic (caused by medical treatment, for instance progestin administered to pregnant mother) no estimate
5 alpha reductase deficiency no estimate
Mixed gonadal dysgenesis no estimate
Complete gonadal dysgenesis one in 150,000 births
Hypospadias (urethral opening in perineum or along penile shaft) one in 2,000 births
Hypospadias (urethral opening between corona and tip of glans penis) one in 770 births
Total number of people whose bodies differ from standard male or female one in 100 births
Total number of people receiving surgery to “normalize” genital appearance one or two in 1,000 births

Sexual Orientation: Who You Are Attracted To


On the left we have “nobody,” meaning no feelings of attraction. On the right we have “men/males/masculinity” and “women/females/femininity.” Examples below include “pansexual,” which is attraction to all genders (“gender-blind”), “asexual,” someone who experiences no (or little) sexual attraction (but might still experience romantic/other attraction), and “bisexual,” a person attracted to people of their gender and another gender.

Sexual orientation is all about who you are physically, spiritually, and emotionally attracted to (so really, you could plot three points on each of those continua, if you wanted to get really specific), and the labels tend to describe the relationships between your gender and the gender types you’re attracted to.

If you are a man and you’re attracted to women, you’re straight. If you’re a man who is attracted to men and another gender, you’re bisexual. And if you’re a man who is attracted to men, you’re gay.

This is the one most of us know the most about. We hear the most about it, it’s salient in our lives, and we understand where we stand best. It’s pretty cut and dry, right? Maybe.

Interestingly enough, pioneering research conducted by Dr. Alfred Kinsey in the mid-20th century uncovered that most people aren’t absolutely straight or gay/lesbian. Instead of just asking “do you like dudes or chicks?” (very sciency, I know), he asked people to report their fantasies, dreams, thoughts, emotional investments in others, and frequency of sexual contact.

Based on his findings, he broke sexuality down into a seven point scale (see below), and reported that most people who identify as straight are actually somewhere between 1 – 3 on the scale, and most people who identify as lesbian/gay are 3-5, meaning most of us are a little bi-.

0 – Exclusively Heterosexual

1 – Predominantly heterosexual, incidentally homosexual

2 – Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual

3 – Equally heterosexual and homosexual

4 – Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual

5 – Predominantly homosexual, incidentally heterosexual

6 – Exclusively Homosexual


Putting It All Together – Interrelation vs. Interconnection

Wow, that was a lot of information all at once, can we agree? The crazy part: I held back.

I have written separate articles about each of the sections above, because there is still so much to say. But you don’t need to worry about that right now. We need to make this all make sense — synthesize some knowledge up in your brain.

Remember earlier when I said that thing, then I said I would say it again? It’s on the right, in case you forgot. This me saying that again: though the four things I presented above are certainly interrelated, they are not interconnected.

What do I mean by that? Gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation are independent of one another (i.e., they are not connected).

People’s sexual orientation doesn’t determine their gender expression. And their gender expression isn’t determined by their gender identity. And their gender identity isn’t determined by their biological sex. And also every other mismatch of A isn’t determined by B combination you can dream up from those inputs.

Those things certainly affect one another (i.e., they are related to one another) but they do not determine one another.

If someone is born with male reproductive organs and genitalia, he is very likely to be raised as a boy, identify as a man, and express himself masculinely. We call this identity “cisgender” (when your biological sex aligns with how you identify) and it grants a lot of privilege (here are some examples). It’s something most of us who have it don’t appreciate nearly as much as we should.

Questions, Concerns, or Thoughts?

Take some time to mull all of this over, particularly if it’s the first time you’re learning about this super-complex, super-hard-to-swallow subject. There’s a lot of information to process, and most of it goes against a lot of what you might have been learned growin’ up.

Also, feel free to use the comments on this post to discuss, ask questions, or provide different insights to what you read above. Heck! That’s what they’re there for!

And as always, get in touch here if you have any questions you’d rather not ask in an open forum. I’m always willing to help, if I can.

Sam Killermann is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and the person behind It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, a comedy show and blog focused on issues of identity, stereotypes, and oppression. A social justice advocate and ally, Sam performs the show at colleges around the country and writes for the site when he is at home in Austin, TX. Follow on Twitter @Killermann.