Separating Sex and Gender

By OBOS Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Contributors | April 10, 2014

Sex? Gender? These two words are often used interchangeably, but there are distinct differences.

Sex is commonly understood to be based on a person’s genitals and reproductive organs; these anatomical details are thought to define a person as male or female. Gender is often understood to refer to gender identity, meaning your internal sense of yourself as female, male, or other, regardless of biology.

(Some people born with external genitals and/or internal reproductive organs that are not exclusively male or female. For more information, see Disorders of Sexual Development.)

Gender also commonly refers to gender roles or expression, most often to behaviors and physical characteristics considered masculine or feminine in a particular culture.

In American culture, gender is believed to follow directly from one’s biological sex, so a baby born with a vagina is considered female, called a girl, and expected to grow up to be a woman who acts, dresses and talks in a manner considered by the culture and her community to be feminine. A baby born with a penis is considered male, called a boy, and expected to grow up to be a man who acts, dresses and talks in a manner considered to be masculine. In this binary way of thinking, our genitals, not our internal sense of self, are the deciding factor.

Many people challenge the expectation that our biological sex should dictate our physical, emotional and psychological attributes. What if being a woman isn’t about having a vagina (or not having a penis)? What if people don’t fit neatly into male/female and masculine/feminine boxes?

How we see ourselves and how others perceive us in the galaxy of masculinity, femininity, and the countless points swirling between cannot always be constrained within the two simple categories of man and woman.

Moving beyond the concept of two fixed gender identities is a new challenge for some of us, and a very personal story for others. Some of us grapple with and analyze our gender; others take it for granted, especially if our gender expression fits society’s conventions based on the sex we were assigned at birth.

Where does gender come from? Its source is not entirely understood and may not be the same for everyone. The formation of gender identity is likely established by hormonal influences in the womb, but it may also be affected by social and cultural factors, including the messages we receive from the media and from our families and communities. Our gender identity and/or gender expression may shift over time.

An increasing number of feminists and other activists are advocating for the expansion or elimination of either-or gender norms, in order to allow for a full range of human behavior and expression. Knowing that gender is separate from sexual anatomy enables us to express ourselves in ways that may conflict with how society dictates we should look and act. One woman writes:

When we live in a world that leaves only the tiniest sliver of room for the least complicated among us, it’s difficult to find a place for all our complexities. I am afraid that it pushes us to leave our genders unexplored, and I am pretty sure that it does not allow us to express them in all the ways we would prefer. As it goes with many things, it’s easy to be afraid of genders that seem dangerous, unusual or even merely new.

At the same time, some of us want nothing more than to have our gender identity respected:

As a trans woman, in a couple of my relationships with [non-trans] partners, I felt like I was being objectified — they would often talk about how “cool” it was that I was trans, like I was somehow “above” gender and this super-radical person. They even felt “subversive” for dating me. In reality, I was just being myself, and I am definitely not outside of gender, and I didn’t even really want to be. My gender doesn’t make me radical, it just is who I am. I didn’t want to be seen as “beyond gender.” I just wanted to be seen how I saw myself, which was and is as a woman.