What’s the difference between gender and sex?
I define gender and sex differently from each other. The two terms are NOT interchangeable, unlike what we’ve been taught.
Sex is biological, but even then it’s not exclusively the binary that people are taught. We are told that there are two variations of sex chromosomes: XX for female and XY for male. However, this isn’t the entire story. Some people only have X, and others may have XXY. The categories created by sexual organs in the body are not mutually exclusive either, as intersex individuals may be born with complete or incomplete sets of what are considered male and female genitalia.
Gender, on the other hand, are categories that have been socially constructed and reinforced, and they can change over time and space. We are “assigned” one of these categories based on how we behave. Liking pink, wearing dresses, and having long hair are aspects that do not inherently have a gender, but they have been designated as feminine over time through hegemonic ideology. The same goes for liking blue, wearing pants, and having short hair, but these are considered masculine instead. Even genres of music and movies have become gendered: pop vs rock, and romance vs action.
And then there’s a neutral zone. Colors such as green and yellow, wearing t-shirts, and Converse shoes are also not inherently gendered, but they don’t exactly fit into one of society’s binary categories.
However, gender is actually a spectrum on which different identities lay. There are no strict lines between them, unlike what society and media will portray. The differences between masculine, feminine, and neutral are overlapping and ever changing, much like a Venn diagram that’s constantly rippling. Here are some diagrams that might help explain that concept a bit better:
(Images from the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network)
When someone is born of one sex, they are expected to act according to the guidelines assigned by society to the “corresponding gender”. Men are expected to act and perform as masculine, and women are expected to act and perform as feminine. Neutral aspects and performance are up for grabs. Some prefer to stick exclusively to neutrals. But, if someone starts to act along the guidelines of a gender considered “opposite” of their own, they will experience backlash, as that’s not “appropriate” for them.
Gender and sex are not inherently linked.
There are those who feel comfortable acting within the guidelines for a gender that society has created to “match” with their assigned sex; these people are known as cisgender individuals. Cis is a prefix to mean same, or alike, referring to how they present themselves and want to be received matches what society has been receiving them as since birth.
There are also those who feel more comfortable acting within the guidelines for a gender other than what would “match” their assigned sex. These people are known as transgender individuals. Trans is a prefix that means to cross. Most often, transgender people will transition from presenting as feminine to masculine, or masculine to feminine.
There are also transgender people who will transition from feminine or masculine to a non-binary, fluid, or agender identity. Most often, these people will make the distinction by referring to themselves with terms such as non-binary, genderfluid, and agender. These are not the only terms that are used, but are some of the more common ones.
For example, I refer to myself as non-binary. I do not feel comfortable presenting myself in ways only masculine or feminine, and instead choose to present myself in ways that evoke both masculine and feminine traits at the same time and in ways that evoke neither at all. The levels at which I do so will vary from day to day.
I often will say “gender is fake” in a sort of joking way, and it’s partially true. Gender is completely arbitrary, as the categories have been socially constructed, defined, and redefined for centuries. However, it still has very real consequences, especially since it’s been so heavily ingrained and reinforced in our societies for so long.
In my personal experience, I’ve dealt with a lot of backlash for not “acting the way I’m supposed to”. Even with pronouns, I’ve had some backlash. Due to a feminine figure and face, I’m often called she, her, miss, etc, even if I am actively presenting more masculinely that day. I’ve been told “but that’s not a real singular pronoun”, despite the fact that it is officially grammatically correct to use they as a singular pronoun. (Even if it wasn’t, all of language is made up and isn’t real anyway, so why should that matter so much?) If I choose to wear a dress or fitted pants, I’m still they. If I choose to wear loose cut pants and a t-shirt, I’m still they. Regardless of how I perform from day to day according to society’s categories, I still will want to be referred to with they/them pronouns.
Clothing and hairstyles shouldn’t be what defines a person’s gender, but in society today we still have to play along with that notion so that we don’t face misgendering, mockery, or backlash.
Want more information?
Want to know more about non-binary identities? There are some nicely written articles from The Radar and Shape.com that includes some personal definitions from individuals who identify as non-binary as well.
Confused about pronouns? Check out this article from Improving OUTcomes, “What’s The Deal With Gender Pronouns?”.
Want more information about gender overall? Check out this article, “Understanding Gender”, from Gender Spectrum.
Cover image found from MyPostcard.