Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gender and Sex

What do you think of when you hear the words gender and sex? You probably think of yourself and how you identify yourself into the categories of male and female. Do you consider gender and sex to be the same thing? Well, they are not the same thing. Many people assume that they are, but they simply aren't. In addition, while Western society usually groups both gender and sex into a binary system, this binary system has many issues.

Many of these women have Androgen insensitivity syndrome and are genetically XY despite appearing as "normal" women. All of them have disorders of sexual development and as such are on the intersex spectrum.
What is sex? Your sex is determined by what genitalia you were born with. These are designations that everyone is familiar with: boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. The development of these parts is determined by hormones that are present in the womb and this is usually controlled by your twenty-third chromosomal pair. Girls are XX and boys are XY. However, even these seemingly simple definitions can be complicated. For example, there are girls who are actually XY. Individuals who fall into the gray area between the usual male/female binary are known as Intersex, though the older term of hermaphrodite is also sometimes used. An estimated one out of every one hundred births is believed to result in an intersex individual. It's difficult to know exact numbers, however, as many cases go unreported thanks to the lack of societal acceptance of the intersex.

Treatment of intersex individuals is controversial, with the old method being immediate surgical assignment of a single sex at birth based on the appearance of the genitals. This is not only traumatic to the child, but can cause serious psychological issues if the individual does not identify with that gender as an adult. Modern methods still involve assigning a gender, but assignment surgery is not recommended until the individual can make a decision for themselves what (if any) surgery they want. The only surgeries that should be done are necessary, some even saving a child's life. Assignment is also not based on external anatomy, but rather tests such as hormone panels.

A transwoman (male-to-female) who's in the Spanish legislature
What is gender? Your gender is how you identify yourself. The majority of people will indeed identify themselves as the sex they were born with. However, as before, there is far more than just this simple binary. There are the transexual/transgender individuals: women who were born male and men who were born female. There are the genderqueer/androgyne/bigender: people who identify somewhere in between what is culturally considered male and female. There are even agender: those who identify as neither gender, and numerous other gender identities. It is often very difficult for people who fit outside of the socially accepted gender binary since being different can be seen as unacceptable. However, it is usually easier for a woman to be outside of the gender norm than a man, as, for example, a woman dressed in men's clothing is far more accepted than a man dressed in women's clothing.

A transman (female-to-male)
Just as gender has nothing to do with sex, it also has nothing to do with sexual preference. Someone could be born male, identify as female, and have preference for men. Someone could be born female, identify as neither gender, and be bisexual. Someone could even be born female-appearing intersex, identify as male, and have a preference for women. The possibilities are endless. Also, those that identify as a gender other than what coincides with their birth sex don't always want to change their own sex.

The reasons given above are why, in many ways, sex and gender should be defined on a spectrum. This is especially true of gender, since gender categories are far fuzzier and more numerous than sex. There are some cultures that are more accepting of people who are outside of gender norms, including those who accept more than two genders. Hopefully, the cultural trends toward acceptance will continue.

Sources are Intersex Society of America, CNN, TransGenderCare, Transgender Law and Policy Institute, Psychology Today, and All Mixed Up. Images are from Wikimedia Commons and are under Creative Commons licenses or are copyright free: one, two, three, four.


  1. This post came at a convenient time, as I litetally just finished reading an article about a Canadian transwoman who was disqualified from the Miss Universe pageant.

    1. That's very unfortunate. I don't see what would be so wrong about letting her compete.

    2. I wholeheartedly agree. Apparently one of the rules is that competitors must be "naturally born" females. But that's incredibly vague (c-sections? artificial insemination?). She's speaking with lawyers, so it will be interesting to see what comes out of it.

    3. I think it has more to do with genitalia. Since she's a transwoman, she wasn't born with "normal female genitalia."

      Anyway, apparently they're now letting her compete! Great news.