Over the last few months I’ve been doing a lot of talking about the difference between a person’s sex and a person’s gender. Primarily to people on Facebook, which is a terrible mistake if I’m being honest. My talking to people about this was in part to the recent announcement by the POTUS that he is going to ban transgender military personnel from serving or enlisting to serve. So, as you can imagine, trying to educate in the midst of a heated debate usually ends badly for someone who shares an unpopular opinion on a thread.
But, if there’s any good that came from this, it’s that the topic on the difference between sex and gender is widely ignored. Many people don’t know that there is a difference between gender and sex, and they especially don’t know how they play very different parts into a persons life based.
I contemplated whether or not talking about this was smart, but I decided oh what the heck? Why not use this platform to discuss the differences between gender and sex, and talk about my own personal theories behind how and why this distinction is very, very important.
When you look up the definition of sex and gender, you will see that they say that these two are synonyms. This means that according to the dictionary, these are essentially the same thing and can be used interchangeably. But, if you look up the individual definitions you see something different.
Sex is defined as: “either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.”
Gender is defined as: “the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones).”
To me, those two definitions are the furthest from synonyms, but let’s just talk about it a little more in depth so we can understand how and why they are different.
Sex is your biological make up. It’s the DNA, the chromosomes, and the genitalia that you are born with. However, unlike the dictionary definition, in some cases you can have both male and female genitalia, meaning there are three sexes instead of two. Sex is what we use to understand what a mother is having in regards to a child. If you have a penis, biologically you are a male; if you have a vagina, biologically you are a female.
The assignment of this based on biological factors is what makes this distinct from gender, because unlike gender, your sex is based on evidence that is easily seen and measured. Based on the letters in your genetic make up, you are determined to be male or female, XX or XY. At this point, your sex is something that is determined long before you are born, and is something that, at a scientific level, cannot be disputed.
However, gender is quite different.
Gender, in simple terms, can be summed up by saying gender is how someone feels, but that may be too broad and too open ended to be a good descriptor. This is especially so because how someone feels is not something that is concrete or measurable in a standard, quantifiable way like our sex is.
Feelings, in general, are abstract and subjective and are based solely on the person who is experiencing them. You cannot tell someone they are not feeling something, because you don’t know what they are feeling or experiencing. You are not them, you are not in their mind, their body, their reality.
So, to narrow that scope, let’s explain it this way: Gender is used as a way to identify a feeling of masculinity or femininity, and does not have to line up with your biological sex or social/cultural norms. The dictionary defines gender as the “state” of being male or female, which is a very broad and very vague. It leaves the interpretation of femininity and masculinity wide open, but it allows for us to ask the important questions, like: What does it mean to be female, and what does it mean to be male?
Gender is a form of expression. Don’t believe me? Then let’s just remember what gender roles and gender norms are. They are a set of characteristics that were established to help us better identify as female or male, and take on a life that best exudes that sex. They are an expression of what we believe males and females are, and what it means to be that sex.
As the world has grown and become more accepting of those who don’t follow the standard binary, the definition of gender norms has also evolved. In fact, depending on who you ask, these gender roles and norms will vary immensely.
There are some people who believe that if you are born biologically female you should wear pink, and if you are born biologically male you should wear blue. That biological females should stay home, have kids, raise those children, cook meals, and look pretty; and that biological males should be the bread winners, should be strong, both physically and emotionally, and shouldn’t have to deal with chores.
But, there are others that say someones sex should not define how they portray themselves or how they act. That what you do, what you enjoy, and how you present your personality and identity shouldn’t be left to what you were born biologically. There are also people who, from the moment they are able to express themselves at any capacity, realize that their biological sex and how they feel internally are different.
But, what I think the biggest takeaway from this entire discussion is that gender is your identity, and based on how you feel internally on a feminine and masculine scale; understanding how you feel and how you identify is how you better express yourself.
Depending on who you ask, where you’re from, or what you believe, someone’s gender identity and the norms for a particular sex will not be the same. Gender and sex, while very similar, do have several fundamental differences.
Sex, by the most scientific definition, is something that cannot be changed because it’s part of your DNA. It’s something that was decided for you long before you had a choice in the matter.
Gender, however, is used to explain how someone should act, dress, speak, live, feel, in order to best portray their biological sex (in some cases) and to assert their identity. It’s something that is abstract, fluid and subjective, and doesn’t have to line up with typical societal norms or their biological sex.
If you think that gender and sex are the same, then that’s fine. If you think they are different, then that’s fine too. If you think it totally doesn’t matter and we should just be accepting of all people, no matter what or who they are, then that’s even better.
What’s important is that you are living your life in a way that makes you happy, keeps you healthy, and that you are being true and authentic to yourself. What you identify as, rr how you feel, does not need to be labeled to make it valid, but I understand the immense power and relief that can come from finding the word, the phrase, that helps you better understand yourself.
Just remember to always be true to who you are, and that your identity, no matter what it is, is valid. How you feel is how you feel, and no one can take that away from you.
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