Gender identity is an individual's experience of identification with his or her own gender, a private sense of being either male or female and acceptance of that gender category.
An individual's sense of gender identity emerges between ages two and three; it is influenced by a combination of biological and sociological factors. Gender identity is formed as children search for cues within their family and society and discover that they identify with certain characteristics viewed as socialized aspects of gender. By ages four to six, formation of gender identity is usually complete, and identity then becomes more rigid until about age seven, when gender roles are more relaxed. Gender identity as either male or female is typically reinforced at puberty and, once established, is generally fixed for life.
A major step in the formation of gender identity occurs at about age three when children first become aware of anatomical differences between the sexes, usually through observation of siblings or peers. The awareness of physical differences is followed by awareness of cultural differences between males and females and identification with the parent of the same sex, whose behavior the child begins to imitate.
In 1966 Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) advanced a staged concept of gender constancy in which children pass through an initial phase of gender identity as they become aware at about age three of their own gender and the gender of others. Children then move to a stage of gender stability at ages four to five as they recognize that gender is stable over time but not necessarily stable in situations. Finally, gender constancy is achieved when children at about age seven understand that gender is permanent, and they cannot change it the way they can change their clothes or their behavior. At gender constancy, children begin assuming appropriate gender-based behavior, imitating the behavior of members of their own sex systematically.
Biological contrasts between males and females are evident in childhood. Girls mature faster than boys, are physically healthier, and are more advanced in developing oral and written linguistic skills. Boys are generally more advanced at envisioning and manipulating objects in space. They are more aggressive and more physically active, preferring noisy, boisterous forms of play that require larger groups and more space than the play of girls the same age. In spite of conscious attempts to reduce sex role stereotyping in recent decades, boys and girls are still treated differently by adults from the time they are born. The way adults play with infants has been found to differ based on gender: Girls are treated more gently and approached more verbally than boys. As children grow older, many parents, teachers, and other authority figures tend to encourage independence, competition, and exploration more in boys and expressivity, nurturance, and obedience in girls.
While most people follow a predictable pattern in the acquisition of gender identity, some develop a gender identity inconsistent with their biological sex, a condition variously known as gender confusion, gender identity disorder, or transgender. This is believed to affect about 1 in 20,000 males and 1 in 50,000 females. Researchers suspect that both early socialization and hormonal factors may play a role in the development of gender dysphoria. People with gender dysphoria usually feel from their earliest years that they are trapped in the wrong body and begin to show signs of gender confusion between the ages of two and four. They prefer playmates of the opposite sex at an age when most children prefer to spend time in the company of same-sex peers. They also show a preference for the clothing and typical activities of the opposite sex; transsexual males may show interest in dresses and makeup. Females with gender dysphoria are bored by ordinary female pastimes and prefer rougher types of activity typically associated with males, such as contact sports.
Both male and female transsexuals believe and repeatedly insist that they actually are members of the opposite sex. They desire to live as members of the opposite sex, sometimes manifesting this desire by cross-dressing, either privately or in public. In some cases, adult transsexuals (both male and female) have their primary and secondary sexual characteristics altered through sex reassignment surgery and hormone treatments. In this way, an individual's sexual identity can be matched with their gender identity.
See also Gender constancy ; Gender dysphoria disorder ; Transgender.
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