Chapter 3
Sex, Gender, Rank, and Power

Many of us grew up at a time where transgender and gender non-conforming people were forced to be closeted. Although the law supports gender non-conforming persons, and teachers are obligated under the C     onstitution to stand up for the rights of all children and adolescents, in some places in South Africa it is still difficult to be open for fear of harm. We heard harsh messages from      our families, churches, and communities about transgender and gender non-conforming people. Some of us were hurt because of our own gender identity or sexual orientation. Many of us saw family and friends hurt because of their gender identity, or sexual orientation. We need to do our own work first before we take the lead in our classrooms.


To create inclusive learning environments and support transgender and gender non-conforming children and adolescents, we need to be aware of what these terms mean. Especially, we need to examine our own meaning- making around these terms and be conscious about what messages we send out into the classroom and into the learning environment     .

Let’s have a look at the key terms and definitions, which you can also access in the resource tab.

Key terms & definitions


The sex, i.e. “male” or “female” which is assigned to us at birth by default of our primary sexual characteristics.

Gender expression/presentation

The physical manifestation of one’s gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, body shape, etc. Most transgender people seek to make their gender expression (how they look) match their gender identity (who they are), rather than their sex assigned at birth.


Gender is how a culture or society expects male persons and female persons to act and feel. Some people say that gender is a performance of a particular expected behaviour. For example, in some cultures, it is considered inappropriate for male people to show feelings or cry.

Gender identity

One’s internal sense of being male, female, neither of these, both, or another gender(s). Everyone has a gender identity, including you. For transgender people, their sex assigned at birth and their own internal sense of gender identity are not the same. Female, woman, and girl and male, man, and boy are also NOT necessarily linked to each other but are just six common gender identities.

Transgender and gender non-conforming

Some small children don’t conform to the cultural gender expectations. In other words, perhaps a male child doesn’t behave in all the ways his society has come to expect of boy children or a female child doesn’t behave in all the ways a society has come to expect of girls. These children are referred to as “gender non-conforming children.” They don’t meet the expectations and conform to the gender associated with their birth assigned sex. There are many gender non-conforming children. Most of these children grow up to identify across the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and straight continuum. Only a few gender non-conforming children are transgender children.

Sexual orientation

It is important to remember that gender and sexual orientation are very different. Being ransgender is about having a body that is different from what your brain tells you are. Sexual orientation is about which sex you are attracted to.

Romantically/Emotionally attraction    

It is important to note that sexual and romantic/emotional attraction are influenced by a variety of factors including, but not limited to, gender identity, gender expression/presentation, and sex assigned at birth.

The continuum

We often like things to be one way or the other, but the truth is that gender identity (and sexual orientation) exist on a continuum. In other words, many of us don’t fit neatly on one or other side of the continuum. For many of us, it’s a bit of this and a bit of that, rather than either/or.

It’s also worth remembering that some people don’t feel like they have a gender (a-gender) and some people don’t experience themselves as being sexually attracted to anyone or any gender (asexual). “The Gender Unicorn” found in your resource tab is one way to explore these different aspects of sex and gender continuums. For example, identifying on the left of the sexuality spectrum would indicate no attraction. More detailed definitions are given in the Gender Unicorn.

Sex assigned at birth

The assignment and classification of people as male, female, intersex, or another sex based on a combination of anatomy, hormones, and chromosomes. It is important that we don’t simply use “sex” because of the vagueness of the definition of sex and its place in transphobia.

Sexual Orientation      

It is important to note that sexual and romantic/emotional attraction are influenced by can be from a variety of factors including, but not limited to, gender identity, gender expression/presentation, and sex assigned at birth.

Sexual Fluidity

People’s sexual responses are not set in stone, and can change over time, often depending on the immediate situation they’re in. Like any other social trait, sexual preferences, attitudes, behaviours, and identity can be flexible to some degree.

Understanding rank, privilege, and intersectionalities 

Rank is a way of talking about status, privilege, and power stemming from things like age, where we live, the kind of place we live, our skin colour, our religion, the way our physical beauty is perceived, and of course, gender and sex. High rank often comes from membership to a dominant culture or grouping, e.g. straight, healthy, and male.

Not aware of our rank and privilege

Rank is often inherited and comes more from the circumstances into which we are born, rather than our own efforts. For example, if you are considered beautiful, you get rank. We are all often unconscious of our rank and privilege. The saying goes, that if you don’t have to think about it, you’ve got rank and privilege around it. People who have never had to think about whether the sex they were assigned at birth is the same as their gender identity, get rank and power from this.

High rank means we can dismiss those of lower rank

Rank is not inherently bad. All of us have some kind of rank whether we are aware of it or not. But we tend to be more conscious of the rank we do not have, than the rank that we do have. Usually, when we are unconscious of our high rank, we have the luxury or privilege of being able to ignore or dismiss the concerns of others. We can say: “This is not my problem     ”; “The outcome doesn’t not affect us.” We can judge those of lower rank as being irrational, hotheaded, or even abnormal and delusional.

Rank in some areas but not in others

Remembering our personal and collective experiences of lower rank can help remind us of what it is like to be on the receiving end of unconscious rank. Many of us have rank in some areas, but not in others. Some of us are excluded in many different ways. For example, being born disabled, into a poor household, and being gay.

The concept of “intersectionalities” or the intersections of different privileges, ranks, and oppressions holds that human lives cannot be explained by taking into account single categories, such as gender, race, and socio-economic status. Relationships and power dynamics between social locations and processes (e.g., racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and sexism) are linked.

They can also change over time and be different depending on geographic settings. People’s lives are multi-dimensional, and complex. Lived realities are shaped by different factors and social dynamics operating together.

Developing awareness of our own rank and power is important for creating safe, inclusive learning environments. Complete the power shuffle activity in section 4 which helps to explore these concepts. We cannot give away our rank so we had best use it for our own benefit and that of others with an attitude of humility and gratitude for the fortunate position in which we find ourselves.