Gender identity refers to the self-identification of an individual as belonging to a particular gender, as opposed to the deterministic principle of biological sexes. While the basic division between male and female persons is rooted in biology and is commonly accepted in society, some individuals identify themselves with the opposite sex or adhere to more complicated self-concepts related to gender identity. The so called "Gender identity disorder" (GID) is recognised as a psychological disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. However there has been global campaigning for legalising and de-stigmatising of the right to self-determination of gender, focused on the self-identified "transgender" persons' community.
According to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) gender is defined as "a social and legal status" that differentiates "girls and boys, women and men" from an early age. The Federation argues that physical characteristics such as male or female genitalia alone are not sufficient to categorise a person's gender. There are underlying behavioral and ethical questions to be answered such as what personal traits can be considered masculine or feminine and what gender roles a person is called upon by society to fulfill.
PPFA argues that cultural and social expectations regarding the gender-related traits are "unrealistic" and may also be discriminatory. Publicly accepted feminine traits associated with notions such as passiveness or sensitivity and masculine traits associated with independence and aggressiveness are held in wide regard but oversimplify matters. Clearly, not all individuals can be expected to behave along those lines.
The PPFA argues that culture-instilled stereotypes may cause "unequal or unfair treatment" with respect to gender identity and the fulfillment gender roles. It lists four distinct categories of gender stereotypes: personality traits, physical appearance, domestic behavior and career orientation. For instance, females have to combat strong social expectations to appear graceful, be submissive, engage in child-rearing or pursue specific occupations. The PPFA observes that behaviors deemed not to be compatible with the accepted gender roles in a particular society are "ridiculed, shamed or punished". The ensuing result is that by the time they are 3-year old most children learn to exhibit at least outward conformity with gender role expectations, as evidenced by their choice of clothing or toys.
In her book Questioning Identity: Ethnicity, Class and Gender, sociologist Kath Woodword discusses gender identity in the larger framework of self-identification within social categories. She suggests that while categorisation by anatomy or even chromosome pattern, which is coincidentally the classification system currently used by the Olympic Committee, does not do justice to the non-discretely variable and sometimes impermanent nature of gender identity. According to Woodward, such a categorisation is representative of "essentialist" social attitudes, which recognise a clear and permanent gender distinction and nothing "in-between".
This "search for certainty" in fact mirrors the young child's own inclination when first developing gender identity notions between ages 3 and 7. Based on the results of numerous studies, Woodward points out that this search, enhanced by acquiring society's stereotypes, typically results in a gender identity that is neither completely fixed nor completely flexible:
"To explore the flexibility of gender categories and the diversity of gender identities we have looked at development from childhood to adulthood and seen how developing an understanding of gender involves a search for certainty. In early childhood, gender categories are used in a fixed, often stereotypical, essentialist way, but gradually, as children learn more about their social world, gender categories become more sophisticated and flexible. This increasing flexibility accommodates a diversity of masculinities and femininities. It is clear that gender identities are not fixed; they shift and change across time and between cultures. However, evidence suggests that our identities are not something that we are completely free to choose and use exactly as we want; they are shaped by society, the culture that we live in, and our experiences and understandings."
"Transgender" identities are perhaps the best illustration of the fact that changing social norms and expectations can lead to more diverse, albeit controversial, outcomes with regard to gender identity. Barb Burdge, a gender studies scholar and social worker focused on the transgender community, identifies this designation as "applicable to a range of individuals who express their gender in nontraditional ways". Overall, she states that "transgendered people find their sense of self as female, male, or other to be in conflict with their assigned gender role". She concludes that the transgender individuals' "very existence challenges the traditional gender dichotomy, and by stepping outside these fundamental social norms, they are vulnerable to discrimination and oppression."