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Psychologists have developed a new way of visualizing gender and sex diversity


When it comes to gender and/or sex (gender/sex), the story is much richer than simply “female or male.” All over the world, people use an array of terms to describe their identities, with Facebook offering as many as 71 gender options. These diverse gender/sex terms help people make sense of themselves and communicate their gender/sex to others. Scholars can find these useful too, but scientists sometimes want to be able to think about all these gender/sexes together, which can be difficult with so many terms. Scientists also sometimes want to know whether different people mean the same thing when they use a term; do all people mean the same thing when they say they are “nonbinary” or a “woman”?

In our study, we used specially-designed diagrams that people drew on, and we collated their responses to create “heatmaps.” These heatmaps provide a visual representation of the wide range of gender/sex diversity. We took inspiration from the natural sciences, where complex phenomena like brain activity or global climate patterns can be communicated through a single picture.

To make our heat maps, we used diagrams from “sexual configurations theory”, which one of us (van Anders) created in 2015. Participants marked their “location” on these diagrams, including aspects of gender (sociocultural aspects of femininity, masculinity, and gender-diversity), sex (biological/physical aspects of sex-diversity, maleness, and femaleness), and “gender/sex” (whole identities or phenomena related to men, women, and gender-diverse people). This included how strongly they identified with their gender/sex, whether they were binary or nonbinary, whether they felt their gender/sexes challenged norms, and their degree of femininity and masculinity.

Participants could use the diagrams however they liked, which made for fascinating shapes in individual responses. We used computer programming to put the individual drawings together, resulting in heatmaps that showed the locations of many individuals on the same diagram.

Here, we describe the heatmap for cisgender women’s “gender/sex,” or their relation to their whole identity. There is a hotspot – red –  at woman, which means that a large number of cisgender women thought of themselves squarely as women. But some women felt somewhat like women and somewhat like men, which may be surprising to people who haven’t met someone with this existence (or aren’t aware that they have). Some marked themselves in the nonbinary area. And, many women reported that they did not actually feel their womanhood strongly.

This is a heatmap for our nonbinary participants focusing on gender, which describes relationships to femininity, masculinity, and other genders. Nonbinary people showed a diverse array of locations. Not surprisingly, this included a fair bit of the nonbinary area of the diagram and almost the entire “challenge area,” where genders that buck the norm of what society considers as “feminine” or “masculine” can go.

Many nonbinary people feel like their gender is outside the norm and/or they are intentionally challenging society’s expectations for their gender, so it makes sense that they heavily utilized the challenge area. And, nonbinary participants reported a broad range of how important their gender was to them from not at all to very much.

These heatmaps reveal complexity that we might not have seen otherwise, like some cisgender women’s identification as something other than just women. And, they help us represent something very complex in one image, like nonbinary people’s various relationships to gender, so that we can think across the rich diversity of gender/sex.

Our hope is that these heatmaps can encourage even more creative thinking about gender beyond a male/female binary and help scientists and scholars conduct research that reflects the stunning array of gender/sex diversity in the world.

The study, “Visualizing Gender/Sex Diversity Via Sexual Configurations Theory“, was published in Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity.

This content was originally published here.

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