Understanding Sex, Gender and Gender Identities
Updated: Feb 6
Although gender and sex are sometimes used interchangebly, they are different!
What is Sex?
A person’s biological sex refers to the physical and chromosomal attributes that they have at birth. The 2 main sexes that are assigned at birth are male -- which is attributed to having male genitalia and XY sex chromosomes -- and female -- which is attributed to having female genitalia and XX sex chromosomes. There are also other, less common, chromosomal sexes that can be assigned at birth -- X, XXY, XYY, XXXY, and more. These karyotypes can be described as being intersex. So sex is something that is assigned at birth based on reproductive organs and chromosomes.
What is gender?
Gender is a more complicated and nuanced construct than sex because it includes the social norms of how certain genders are expected to act or interact with another. In society, it is stereotyped for girls to play with dolls and like the color pink, or for boys to play with trucks and like the color blue. These are very basic examples of gender roles in society, but there are many others that play a continual role in our lives -- women being more expected to cook and clean in the household, while men being more expected to be the financial support of the household. These stereotypes are not always true, but gender identity develops as we grow and learn these social constructs, even if it is in a subtle or subconscious way. A person may share attributes with the “norms” of both genders, which is why many people consider gender to be a spectrum rather than a binary, black-and-white construct.
What is gender identity?
Since gender norms play a large role in the way we are expected to act in society, gender identity is an important personal trait that is developed in response to these gender norms, and it can start developing as early as 2 or 3 years old! If a person identifies as a gender that is the same as their sex assigned at birth, that is called cisgender. For example, if someone who was assigned female at birth and identifies as a woman, they would be cisgender. Or, if a person identifies as a gender that is different than the sex they were assigned at birth, this is known as a transgender gender identity. For example, if someone was assigned male at birth but identifies as a woman, they would be transgender. Transgender does not always mean that a person identifies as the complete opposite gender than they were assigned, but it usually indicates some kind of difference in the gender identity that person feels most comfortable with and the one they were given at birth. There are over 50 different psychological genders, and gender identities can exist on a changing continuum that goes past the binary of male and female. If a person does not feel comfortable with either binary gender, or if their gender identity changes, they may identify as gender fluid, gender queer, or nonbinary.
Gender identity is a part of a human’s personal identity, and it can be very important since it can detail how a person fits into society -- just like their name, age, interests. So, it is important to be respectful of other people’s identities, but how?
Pronouns are one way that a person can display their gender identity. The pronouns of the binary genders are: he/his for the male gender, and she/her for the female gender. If someone is transgender in that they fully identify as the other gender, they may still use he/his or she/her pronouns. If someone is gender fluid or nonbinary, they may use they/them pronouns, or a combination like she/they or he/they. There are also pronouns that are separate from the male-female gender spectrum.
If someone comes out (expresses their preferred gender identity) to you and asks you to refer to them with a different name or pronouns, you should respect their wishes and try your best to accommodate them. Due to the great diversity in gender identities and pronouns, there may be times when you don’t completely understand a person’s gender identity -- or even your own -- but the best thing we can all do is to be respectful. Just like you may feel uncomfortable when someone calls you by a name that isn’t yours, misgendering someone (referring to them as a gender they don’t identify with) or deadnaming them (referring to a person with a name that they no longer use) can be mentally harmful and uncomfortable.
Transitioning is the physical, social, or physiological change that a person who is transgender may undergo so that their appearance, social roles, or body can align with their gender identity. Not all transgender people transition, and there are different aspects of transitioning. There is the social aspect of coming out to others and establishing the preferred pronouns. There are also physical aspects: wearing clothes that align with one’s gender identity, or undergoing sexual reassignment surgery where reproductive anatomy can be changed to align with gender identity.
In addition, transgender individuals may also choose to undergo hormone replacement therapy (HRT), in which the sex hormones estrogen (a feminizing hormone) or testerone (a masculinizing hormone) are given to the individual based on their gender identity. Hormones play a huge role in many aspects of our bodies such as voice, fat distribution, hair growth, emotions, and many more, so undergoing HRT can help a transgender individual to align their body’s physiological state to their gender identity. This can help to work against gender dysphoria, which is defined as severe distress or impairment related to the strong desire to identify as another gender or be treated as another gender.
Why does being educated on diverse gender identities matter?
Since the concept of different gender identities is not mainstream, many transgender or gender fluid people are discriminated against, misunderstood, and/or physically or mentally harmed. By building awareness of these issues, we can help to create an environment that is supportive rather than degrading. Throughout our childhoods we are taught to respect others, and respecting someone’s identity is one of the basic tenets of respectful relationships. People whose gender identity is something different than your own or something you don’t completely understand are still PEOPLE. They deserve to be safe, to enjoy the freedoms and rights of life, and to be accepted.
Whether you have a minority gender identity or not, it is extremely important that you stay open to other people’s gender identities so they can be accepted and respected. In India, there is a lot of stigma that surrounds different gender identities, partly because some refuse to understand or accept the concept of a gender identity that is separate from the sex a person was assigned at birth. By learning more about the differences between gender and sex, finding examples of different gender identities, become aware of gender stereotypes, and being open to perspectives other than our own, we can all become allies of the LGBT+ community and create a society that is progressive, safe, and understanding.
About the author
Hello, dear reader! My name is Aastha Chouhan and I am a student in the US studying in Chicago. I am planning on pursuing both medicine and women’s studies in the future. I love to discuss all things regarding sexual and menstrual health. You can find curated content related to the topics on my website.