Sex vs. Gender (Part Two)

To read Part One about biological sex, click here. 


Gender is a social construct, created largely by stereotypes of what is “feminine” and what is “masculine.” In our society, being feminine is usually synonymous with being sensitive, caring, and demure. Traditional feminine appearance includes dresses, high heels, and make-up. Masculinity, on the other hand, is measured in strength, ambition, and confidence. Masculine physical appearance includes a muscular build, facial hair, and tuxedos. Of course, this is a very simplified description of the gender ideals that exist, but most of us become well aware of them from a very early age. We quickly absorb messages about what toys are acceptable (trucks for boys/dolls for girls) and how we’re supposed to act (being ladylike/manning up).

Contrary to what many people believe, a person’s gender does not depend on their physical sex. Rather, gender is how a person identifies and expresses themselves. It is only because we live in a society that has a strong gender binary that we automatically assume a person born with a penis will identify with mostly masculine traits, while a person born with a vagina will associate with mostly feminine traits. When this is the case, and sex and gender do match, a person can be described as being a cisgender male or a cisgender female. (In Latin, “cis” means “on this side of.”)

When a person identifies as the “opposite sex” that person can be described as a transgender, or trans, individual. (In Latin, “trans” means “on the other side of.”) We often hear the phrase “born in the wrong body,” as that is how strongly many individuals in the trans community feel about their gender identity. For example, a person with a penis could identify as female and be a trans woman, while a person with a vagina could identify as male and be a trans man. (It’s important to remember that “transitioning,” or deciding to live as the gender that one identifies with, is not a “one size fits all” process. Some change their name and wardrobe, others may take hormones and have surgery. This is an individual’s personal choice and despite what some TV talk show hosts would lead you to believe, what’s under someone’s clothes is no one’s business.)

For a lot of people, both cis and transgender identities are fairly easy to understand: You either feel like a man or you feel like a woman. But what if you feel like neither — or maybe both? Earlier this year, Facebook began to allow a much wider range of gender options (at least 58, to be precise). Many of them were terms that people were unfamiliar with, as they challenge the idea that an individual has to be male OR female.

Here is a small sample, highlighting some of the most basic terms used to describe non-binary options. (Remember that because gender is a societal construct, these distinctions are labels that we have created to describe how someone subjectively defines their experience with gender.)  

Agender is used when someone has a complete lack of gender. Other terms may be “genderless” or “gender neutral.”

On the other hand, bigender individuals consider themselves both male and female. Their gender identity and/or expression may be fixed so that they experience both genders at the same time, or they may be gender fluid, where their gender changes or fluctuates over time. (Similarly, but more inclusive, pangender individuals identify as all genders, including the non-binary ones.)

Gender Nonconforming is a term that is used to describe someone who may primarily identify as one gender (man or woman) but does not abide by the stereotypical expressions for that gender. I would argue that many of us are gender nonconforming in some way as very few people follow societal stereotypes 100%. However, for a more clear-cut example,  consider a self-identified woman with short hair and men’s clothing or a self-identified man wearing make-up. Because of society’s gender standards, these people would be seen as not conforming to their gender in fairly obvious ways.

When a person is unsure of their gender, they may decide to identify as gender questioning. During this time, a person may experiment with different ways to express their gender by altering their appearance and/or behavior — or they may simply be inwardly considering which gender feels most true to their personality.

Finally, genderqueer is an umbrella term that is used to describe anyone who challenges the man/woman gender binary. This term is growing in popularity, especially by the younger generation who wishes to reclaim the word “queer” and give it a positive connotation.

Sex & gender are commonly considered to be some of the most straightforward characteristics about a person. However, as you can see, society’s insistence that everyone is strictly “male” or “female” ignores the more nuanced way that many people define themselves. As potential doctors, teachers, co-workers, family members, friends, or romantic partners of individuals who do not fit into the gender binary, it’s important to recognize that sex & gender are not always as simple as we’ve been led to believe.

Education can be a powerful first step in creating change because it challenges false beliefs in a rather objective, logical, and emotionally-removed way. But what more can be done in our daily lives?

Stand up against discrimination or hate when you see it. Refuse to accept behavior that makes a “freak” out of someone, whether that behavior is quietly staring or publicly asking about someone’s genitals. Remain aware that a person’s preferred name may not match their legal name and their preferred pronoun may not match the pronoun you might automatically assign to them. Remember that it’s always okay to ask what a person prefers, and when that’s not possible, aim for gender neutral language. (Changing your language can sometimes be difficult, but I’ve learned that most people are very understanding as long as honest effort is being made.)

In the end, it all boils down to one little word: Respect.

Sex vs. Gender (Part One)

For many people, the words “sex” and “gender” are interchangeable. Scientifically, they are very different and much more complex than many people are aware of. Despite what public restrooms would lead us to believe, we simply cannot categorize people into two neat little boxes. A person’s gender and sex may or may not match. And, as we learned with sexual orientation, binaries (though socially ingrained) are much too restrictive for what occurs in reality.

Being aware of the possible variety in sex and gender not only allows us to better understand and express ourselves, but it also helps us to understand and empathize with others. The stories of transgender individuals like Brandon TeenaTyra Hunter, and Larry King prove to us that confusion, fear, and hatred all too often lead to death. Education on the matter is crucial for our society to live in harmony.


Sex is all about physical and biological characteristics: chromosomes, hormones, genital anatomy, etc. Before a child is even born, the focus is on one question: “Is it a boy or a girl?” Although people may assume that this answer will give them clues as to the gender of the developing child, it’s really a question of sex. We assign individuals with XX sex chromosomes, ovaries, and vulvovaginal genitalia to the female group. Those with XY chromosomes, testes, and a penis comprise the male group. But what happens when determining a person’s sex is not so black and white?

Individuals whose sexual characteristics do not match what our society (and medical professionals) consider “typical” can be described as intersex. According to the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), approximately 1 in 100 babies are born with bodies that “differ from standard male or female.”These differences can be visible at birth, make themselves known at puberty, or go unnoticed for a lifetime. They can be externally visible or internally hidden.

Not everyone agrees on what conditions qualify as “intersex,” but here’s a basic rundown of what sometimes gets included:

Klinefelter Syndrome occurs when a child who exhibits anatomically male traits is born with an extra X chromosome (XXY). This usually becomes noticeable at puberty, as individuals with Klinefelter Syndrome produce less testosterone. Physical traits may include less body or facial hair, less muscle mass, smaller testicles, and increased breast tissue. Infertility or reduced fertility is also likely.

Turner Syndrome occurs when a child who exhibits anatomically female traits is born with only one X chromosome. In addition to a short stature and other physical differences, Turner Syndrome can cause underdeveloped ovaries, resulting in the absence of menstruation and infertility.

Swyer Syndrome occurs when an individual with XY chromosomes has undeveloped gonads, or testes. Unable to produce testosterone and other hormones important for male development, the child is born anatomically female. However, during puberty, the lack of estrogen becomes noticeable in the absence of breast growth and menstruation.

Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome (MRKH) occurs when the Müllerian duct fails to develop in an XX chromosome fetus. This can lead to the absence of a uterus, cervix, and/or vagina. If a vagina is present, it may be shorter than average and cause painful intercourse. This condition may be noticed during puberty if menstruation doesn’t begin.

Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) is when a person’s body is unresponsive to androgens (hormones that are typically considered “male,” such as testosterone). This can occur at mild, partial, or complete levels. In individuals born with XX chromosomes, there is little noticeable difference. However, individuals born with XY chromosomes range in their genital appearance. In complete AIS, an individual externally resembles a female. However, they do not possess a uterus, fallopian tubes, or ovaries. (Their gonads are indeed testes, although they are likely undescended.) Again, this becomes noticeable at puberty with a lack of menstruation.

Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH) causes the body to create masculinizing hormones when attempting to create cortisol. In individuals with XX chromosomes, this may lead to an enlarged clitoris (clitoromegaly) and shallow vagina, or in extreme cases, an average-sized penis. Increased facial & body hair, a deeper voice, and trouble with menstruation and fertility are also possible.

There are also external sexual differences for which we do not understand the cause or for which there may be several possible causes. For example, XY individuals can be born with aphallia (the absence of a penis) or what is controversially referred to as a “micropenis” (a penis that is at least 2.5 standard deviations below average). Both XY and XX individuals can also have gonadal tissue which contains properties of both testes and ovaries, for which the external appearance varies widely.

Historically, doctors would rush to perform genital surgery on newborns whose genitalia did not match their male or female ideal. An assigned sex would often be decided without regard to a person’s actual, biological makeup — and the procedure itself would be shrouded in secrecy. For example, a XY newborn with an atypically small penis may undergo complete castration of both the penis and testes. Doctors would advise parents to raise the child as a girl, and not to inform the child of their birth as a boy. (And you thought your teenaged years were confusing.) Today, groups like the ISNA advocate delaying medically unnecessary surgical procedures, so that the individual has the power of choice.

To read Part Two about gender, click here.