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

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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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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