A series of signs reading “How has your gender affected you today?” was recently posted in Seattle, and I think it’s a very thought-provoking and generally excellent question to ask. Judging from the responses I’ve read here and there, the signs definitely sparked some conversations, and these conversations highlighted something which I’ve been increasingly aware of lately: people do not understand the difference between sex and gender.
Now, I’m not entirely sure that this is their fault, because this issue doesn’t get discussed very often in mainstream society. But since I’m trying to teach you all about how to be an LGBQT ally (assuming you aren’t LGBQT or an ally already), I thought that I would take the time to discuss the difference between sex and gender.
I’d also like to offer an opportunity to ask me questions, because I know that LGBQT issues can get really confusing, and that sometimes, it’s hard to find a safe space to ask questions about things that confuse, because you’re afraid of causing offense or looking stupid. So I’m hereby declaring myself opening to questioning, in the comment threads to posts like this one, or through email (meloukhia at gmail dot com), if you’re feeling shy. I promise to answer your questions thoughtfully and honestly, without making you feel like an oaf or an idiot for asking them, and if I don’t have the answer, I will find someone who does. I always say you can’t learn if you’re afraid to ask questions, but you can’t learn if you can’t find anyone to ask, either. So, ask away. Remember, there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.
Now, on to the difference between sex and gender. Put simply, sex is the thing between your legs, and gender is the thing between your ears. (I know, I know, some people call that thing between your ears “your brain,” but that’s my point. Gender identity is in the mind, not in the genitals.)
Sex is a biological characteristic. Most humans are born with either male or female genitalia, although some humans have what is known as “ambiguous” genitalia, which makes them intersexed. Sex is not necessarily set in stone, as sex-change surgeries prove, nor is it black and white, as intersexed individuals prove.
Gender, on the other hand, involves your perception of yourself, as well as society’s perception of you. It’s a personal and social construct, rather than a biological fact. Many people who are sexed male also have a male gender identity, and many people with female genitalia have a female gender identity. But gender does not necessarily have to align with sex. And there are many more terms than “male” and “female” in reference to gender, like “transgender,” which usually means that someone has a gender identity which conflicts with sexual characteristics, or cisgender, in which gender identity aligns with sexual characteristics.
There are also genderqueers, like me, who do not define ourselves as male, female, or transgendered, but rather as an entirely different point along the gender continuum. You might also hear words like androgyne, boi, butch, femme, Amazon, bigender, gender fluid, neuter, agender, or eunuch in reference to gender identity. We won’t even get into pronouns today, because that’s an involved discussion, but let’s just say that there is a lively debate over whether English needs truly gender-neutral pronouns (uh, duh, yes), and, if so (see previous), what those pronouns should be.
Obviously, gender identity and sexual characteristics often intersect. I may be genderqueer, but my sex is female, and I definitely face specific issues and deal with particular things as a result of my sex. Separately, I also deal with things related to my gender identity.
If you happen to be cisgendered, the difference between sex and gender might seem subtle and perhaps not terribly important, but, in fact, it is important. And it definitely pays to remember the terms which someone uses self-referentially, and to use those terms as a mark of respect for gender identity. If someone looks like a woman but says he’s a man, he’s a man, because his gender identity is male, even if his sexual characteristics are not. If someone looks like a big beefy truck driver but says that ou* is neuter, that person is neuter, physical characteristics aside.
Discussions about gender identity can be confusing and awkward, and we all make pronoun slips or get turned around when trying to figure out what to call someone. That’s okay, really. Especially if you apologize, or politely ask for clarification. Sure, some people are going to be snotty about it, but you shouldn’t take their snottiness personally, because they clearly have some baggage they’re dealing with, and by staying polite and courteous, you set an example, showing that it is perfectly acceptable to be nervous and confused, and that it’s easier to be nice than it is to be mean. Eventually, enough courteous and relaxed interactions will scrub that snottiness right out.
So, how has your gender affected you today?
*Ou is my preferred gender-neutral pronoun, backed by no less than the Oxford English Dictionary, a source that usually knows that of which is speaks.
Note: I’ve had to close comments on this post, due to a deluge of spam.