Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sex vs. Gender

This is everything I've wanted to say whenever someone mixes up "gender" and "sex," and assumes there's only two of each. I just needed to let it all out.

“Say No to Gender!”

Such were the words which spawned a great discussion/debate on my friend’s Facebook page recently. There seemed to be a great deal of confusion over what gender even was, much less whether it was important to preserve or just eradicate completely.
In my years as a budding gay rights activist, I’ve learned a fair amount about what gender truly IS, and, based on my friend’s discussion and the confusion of other friends and family, I’d like to take this time to explain my understanding of…


No, not that kind of sex. Get your mind out of the gutter.

Isn’t gender just male and female?

Nope. That’s sex. And even sex isn’t limited to the binary of “male” and “female”. That excludes the entire group of people known as “intersex” (you might know them as “hermaphrodites,” but that term is falling out of use in the queer community).

The issue with explaining gender and sex is that, for the longest time in Western society, there’s been a binary. You’re either male or female, masculine or feminine. More specifically, you were either a masculine man or a feminine woman. Anything else, and you were a freak. At the very least, shunned by society, but often worse.

Neither sex nor gender fits into a binary, and it’s important to allow one’s mind to stretch to accommodate the great variety of ways people define and express themselves through their gender presentation.

Okay… so what’s the difference?

SEX is biological, genetic, and hormonal. You have a certain set of sex chromosomes at birth, be they XX, XY, XXY, XYY, or any other combination (of course, XX and XY are the most common). Also, when you’re a fetus developing inside your mother, certain hormones kick in at a particular point in the pregnancy which, usually, cause you to develop all of the biological aspects of your sex, aka, your man- or lady-parts. During a pregnancy, many things can happen wherein a person’s mind develops as one sex but their body is another, or they are genetically one sex but develop physically as another. These are the people who are classed as “intersex”.

GENDER is how one presents oneself in relation to their sex, society, and self-perception. Common genders are masculine, feminine, and androgynous, but there are others, as well. Gender and sex *sometimes* match up (masculine males and feminine females), but other times, they really don’t. Sex only determines a person’s gender to a point, and sometimes, it doesn’t at all.

A sex/gender disparity is more common than you think. I’ll use my dear sister as an example. She’s straight and female, but her gender is neither particularly feminine nor particularly masculine- she’s androgynous. (I, on the other hand, am a feminine female- my sex affects my gender enough that there’s little to no disparity. I do enjoy presenting myself in a more masculine manner on occasion, but I am on average feminine.) It’s perfectly normal, and it in no way affects her sexual orientation.

Why is this all so complicated?

This is probably why the binary was so rigidly enforced in the past. Once male/female and masculine/feminine are shown to be the tip of a convoluted iceberg, one wishes that life was simpler.

It's just that, as people become more open about their unique sex or gender, it becomes clear that the binary is artificial, and sometimes even harmful. When your options in life are masculine male and feminine female, that leaves anyone who falls outside the norm to be an outcast. It's like when people could finally be open about their sexual orientation (if it wasn't straight) and all of a sudden we're realizing that there's no black-and-white. You're not fully gay or fully straight. More often than not, you're a mix of both.

What is one to do with all of this information?

Think about it. Reflect on it. Maybe it'll help change your perspective, or maybe it'll just confuse you more.

Regardless, I encourage all of you to do research on this. The difference between sex and gender is a huge deal in the transgender community, as well as the queer community at large. The more we educate ourselves, the easier it'll be for others to be educated in the future.


  1. Perhaps what we need to get rid of is the idea that not fitting into a certain gender is wrong. Gender is still a fitting way to describe yourself or another person, however the wrong ideas behind gender, aka persecution, should be done away with and shunned.