The Difference Between Gender & Sex

I was asked a while back to do a blog post on the difference between gender and sex because, sadly, many people don’t know the difference between the two. Knowing the difference between gender and sex is crucial in understanding how and why many trans people identify the way they do. It’s important in being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. And, quite frankly, it’s important in staying up-to-date in modern times as our society continues to progress.

Up until recently, the terms “sex” and “gender” have been used interchangeably. For most people there were only two: male and female/boy and girl/man and woman. We now know that this is not the case. Actually, people have been challenging binary gender roles for hundreds of years. The Native Americans have what they called “Two-Spirit” to describe Natives who acted outside of their gender role, and there is even a documented person from the American colonies in the 1620’s, Thomas(ine) Hall, who dressed in both men’s and women’s clothing.

So this isn’t new.

But it’s only been in recent years that medical professionals have begun recognizing the differences between gender and sex. Though some can be easily confused by the two at first, the differences are actually quite simple (on the surface).

Sex, as explained by Medical News Today, relates to biological differences. This includes inner and outer genitalia. This includes the different amounts of hormones found between sexes (estrogen and testosterone). This includes the chromosomes that define each sex (XX and XY). The concept of sex is based mainly on scientific factthough some of it has been influenced by society, as discussed below.

It’s also important to note that sex itself isn’t necessarily binary either. Sometimes some men are born with a few X chromosomes and sometimes a few women are born with a Y chromosome. Intersex individuals should also be considered; 1 in 1500 children are born with both genitalia.

Gender is based more in society’s hands than science’s. It’s explained perfectly as so:

“Gender tends to denote the social and cultural role of each sex within a given society. Rather than being purely assigned by genetics as sex differences generally are, gender roles are adhered to as an (often subliminal) response to family interactions, the media, peers and education.”

In other words, gender is purely decided by society. Examples of the presence of gender could include: enrolling little boys in sports and little girls in dance; dressing boys in more “masculine” clothes that depict things like race cars or Bob the Builder while little girls are dressed in more “feminine” clothes with hearts or Barbie.

Gender is created by society and, because of this, over time, it has become correlated with each defining sex. The terms “feminine” and “masculine” are defined by society and, just like gender, really have nothing to do with the sex of a person. It’s all about how the sexes are perceived by society — that’s how gender was created.

But gender is also incredibly malleable. For instance, high heels were originally created for men, but are now perceived as a woman’s piece of clothing. The colors pink and blue were also flip-flopped for babies back in the mid-19th century. Baby boys wore pink because it was a “stronger color” and “more suitable,” while baby girls wore blue because it was more “delicate and dainty.”

Since gender is so malleable, it’s hard to say what is the “right” expression of a gender and what is “wrong.” Sadly, since our society has so closely related both sex and gender, it’s hard to see past what we already have: two genders that conform to our societal beliefs.

But, as I stated before, that’s never really been the case.

Taking a look back at science, though two sexes have been defined, people are beginning to question whether this is as straight-forward as we have believed. After all, some children are born with both a penis and vagina, some people have traces of chromosomes that they wouldn’t normally have, others have extra hormones that are unusual for their sex.

And this is okay.

But because society, for thousands of years, has put an extra emphasis on sex and gender (and, ultimately, tied the two together), we have created a norm — a standard that says all women must have vaginas and all men must have penises, all feminine people must be women and all masculine people must be men. But it’s hard to say if that’s the case anymore.

Gender is obviously ambiguous. Because, quite frankly, it’s just a creation of our imaginations. Gender wouldn’t be real if it weren’t for us. 

Sex has become more of an ambiguous object of discussion, though, in recent years.

So why is this important for the general public — even those who aren’t LGBTQ+ — to know? With our progressing society, it’s important to understand that it’s not “unnatural” to feel trapped within your gender or sex. It’s important to know that, for years, we have been placing, sometimes forcing, stereotypes and labels onto children that may not fit our mold. It’s important because times are changing and so are we, which means we need to make sure we’re doing everything in our power to understand the now to better the future.

But all of this can be the topic of another blog post to come.

Photo Courtesy of: Pexels

Editor’s Note: A huge thanks to Matt Gehring for his help with editing this article. Give him a follow on Twitter: @mattryanx.
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