A Quick Learning Guide To ‘Gender’ And ‘Sex’ (And Why They’re Different)

Posted on July 3, 2016 in LGBTQ, Staff Picks

By Avinaba Dutta for Cake:

In the wake of all the hate crimes against gender and sexual minorities across the globe, a clear understanding about the gender and sexuality spectrum is one of the best ways to build up resistance. The general ideas about the diversity of biological sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual preference and gender performance are limited by this pre-existing binary (man-woman) construct in society. It is our ignorance about our very own identities which loads bullets of hatred one-by-one into the gun that reaches aggressors like Omar Mateen in Orlando, Florida.

History knows how queer individuals have paid a heavy price for this ignorance. Once we educate ourselves about the existing identities, it will be easier for us to begin to see the queer population as a part of mainstream society.

So let’s start with the basics:

‘Sex’, ‘Gender’ and ‘Gender Identity’ – The Complicated Relationship Which Doesn’t Really Exist

‘Sex’ or biological sex‘ refers to an individual’s biological status as per their chromosomal characters, whereas ‘gender’ is a social construct, and ‘gender identity’ can be defined as the mental sex of that person. In this article we will keep our discussion limited to ‘biological sex’ and ‘gender identity’.

‘Biological sex’ includes an individual’s physical attributes such as external genitalia, secondary sexual organs, reproductive system, sex chromosome, sex hormones, etc. A host of factors, from climate to ethnicity, lifestyle, and nutrition, could shape those physical attributes. However, an overly simplified version of identification of one’s biological sex is nowadays done on the basis of their external genitals.

Gender identity‘, on the other hand, is solely about what an individual feels about oneself, how one identifies oneself and expresses one’s feelings, what kind of ‘gender roles’ (the ‘outward manifestations of personality which reflects one’s inner feelings’) one is going to play. So, gender identity is undoubtedly the personal experience of one’s being which is neither inherently nor solely connected to one’s physical anatomy (i.e. biological sex). Hence, we must stop using these terms interchangeably.

The Various Categories Of ‘Sex’

Depending upon the chromosomes, ‘sex’ can be categorized as ‘Male’ (XY), ‘Female’ (XX), ‘Klienfelter’ (XXY), ‘Turner’ (XO), ‘Triple-X’ (XXX), ‘XYY’, etc. However, apart from the first two, i.e. male and female, the others are considered as sex chromosomal abnormalities (syndrome) and affect bodily functions. So, many bioethicists do not consider them as the categories of ‘sex’.

As mentioned earlier that the classification of ‘sex’ is usually done on the basis of external genitalia – ‘sex’ is typically categorised as ‘male‘, ‘female‘, and ‘intersex‘. So if an individual is born with external genitalia, i.e. testicles and penis, then that person is invariably known as ‘male’ at birth; if one is born with a vagina, then that person by default is classified as ‘female’. When individuals develop differences in sexual development (DSD) in genitals,they are known as ‘intersex’.

The general notions associated with a male body talk about development of body and facial hair, deepening voice, growth of various muscles and external genitalia, etc. In case of a female body, one develops breasts, gets menstruation cycles, develops adipose tissues in and around their hip and buttock, etc. These biological changes, also known as secondary sexual characteristics, are greatly determined and affected because of hormonal roles in one’s body, testosterone in males and estrogen, progesterone in females. However, we should know that the degree of these changes does vary in individuals. For instance, some males are less hairy and some females have underdeveloped breasts and hips.

The term ‘intersex’ is not a homogeneous term either. An individual having female sexual characteristics might have been born with a noticeably large clitoris; or another person with male sexual characteristics might have been born with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. There could be many other variations in the ‘intersex’ category.

The aforementioned cited examples are merely simplified versions taken from the general studies conducted in the field of ‘Genetics’. Ian Steadman’s intriguing article under the title of “Sex Isn’t Chromosome” might be a good read. Thankfully, there is no universal norm – nothing is termed as ‘unnatural’ in a human body – anything might happen.

Categories Of ‘Gender Identity’

Depending upon what and how an individual feels, gender identity can broadly be categorised as ‘Cisgender’, ‘Transgender’ and ‘Genderqueer’.

Cisgender individuals are those whose gender identity and biological sex are congruent by predominant cultural standard, and can be further categorised as ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’. So cisgender men and women develop gender identities that match their respective biological sex. So far, this is the most generalised category seen of two gender identities around us.

Transgender individuals are those whose gender identity is in sharp contrast with their biological sex. Almost every transgender individual suffers from gender dysphoria, where they feel trapped in a wrong body. So a transgender man (trans man) is someone who was assigned into the female sex at birth but identifies as a man. Due to various social atrocities and the extremely dreadful experience of gender dysphoria, a feeling of dissatisfaction, anxiety and restlessness grows in transgender individuals which prevent them from having a sense of belonging. Medical science, however, provides few options (treatments). But medical science doesn’t consider gender dysphoria a mental illness or a disorder. So whatever treatment it offers, they do not aim to change what a transgender person feels about their own gender, rather it tries to deal with the distress.

In order to develop the traits of the ‘sex’ transgender individuals identify with, individuals go through a process popularly known as ‘transition’. It starts with having a conversation with a psychologist or psychiatrist or gender therapist. This simple ‘talk’ helps individuals address their mental health issues and understand what kind of necessary measurements they need to take in order to no longer feel dysphoric. This is followed by Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS).

Genderqueer‘ is an umbrella category intended to encompass individuals who feel that terms like ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are not sufficient enough to describe the way they feel about their respective gender. They express a persistent and deep unease with being associated with either of the two identities and play roles based on the same. They argue that every individual has their own version of gender which could vary from time to time or from situation to situation.

The experiences, expressions and preferences of genderqueer individuals vary abundantly from individual to individual – few of them do undergo surgical procedures while others don’t; some of them identify themselves partially with one gender while some don’t – thus indeed making it an individualistic approach towards their gender identity. ‘Agender’, ‘bigender’, ‘pangender’, and ‘genderfluid’ are few of these gender identities which might fall under this category. However, not everyone is comfortable with the political underpinning of the word ‘queer’ and wants to identify themselves as the way they are.

To conclude, the biological sex and gender identity of an individual are two independent features. So, by looking at a person, it is quite impossible to assume what that person feels about their own gender. Assuming one’s gender based on the biological sex or appearance is a bad conclusion from which we should refrain. The best practice which many people follow, or at least try to follow, is to not impose their version of gender while rejecting others’ by calling it ‘a phase’ or even worse, ‘unnatural’. Asking what people identify themselves as could be a good start of a new yet interesting journey called ‘knowing others’.

Wanna know more about this topic? Check out “Sex, Gender and Society” by Ann Oakley, and “The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender,” by Sam Killermann.

Featured Image Source: Leland Bobbé/Facebook. For representational purposes only.