Deconstructing Gender, Sex, and the Gender Binary

Deconstructing Gender, Sex, and the Binary

Gender and sex are terms that in some cases are used interchangeably, and yet they mean completely different things. Sex refers to a set of biological characteristics found in both humans and animals. This includes a large number of characteristics, like hormones and chromosomes, but perhaps the most noticeable, especially at birth, are the genitals, which are the basis of the sex you are assigned at birth. Generally, people are either assigned male or female at birth. There are, however, some people that are born with intersex traits, meaning that they don't neatly fit into the categories of "male" or "female". According to Fausto-Sterling (2000), an estimated 17 in 1000 children are born with intersex traits - more common than one would think. A large majority of children born with these traits are made to undergo unnecessary and harmful surgical procedures to "correct" these characteristics, if they are visible. However, intersex traits are not always visible, and might manifest later on in life, especially during puberty.

Gender, on the other hand, refers to the social and cultural constructions imposed on people. It is gender that often influences how one acts, behaves, thinks, and relates with other people. Gender norms change throughout history and vary across cultures, and are by no means rigid or fixed.  In the past, gender was often seen as a binary - one was either considered a male or female. This belief is called gender binarism, and it separated people into two distinct genders, each with their own pre-existing roles and characteristics. Through time, our understanding of gender has changed. We now know that gender is a spectrum, and gender identities can lie anywhere on that spectrum. 

How do Sex and Gender Relate?

As we stated earlier, people are generally assigned "male" or "female", depending on the sex characteristics that are apparent at birth. Gender identities, on the other hand, can lie anywhere on the gender spectrum. When a person's assigned sex at birth matches their gender identity, they are known as cis gender. On the other hand, when there is a mismatch between a person's gender identity and their sex assigned at birth, they are transgender. For example, if someone assigned female at birth identifies as a man, they would be transgender (or specifically, a transgender man). In the same way, if someone assigned male at birth identifies as a woman, they are a transgender woman. 

Some people's gender identities do not neatly fall anywhere on the gender spectrum - sometimes they fall in many places at once, or jump around from time to time, or fall outside the spectrum. The umbrella term for people with these gender identities is "non-binary". Non-binary still falls within the transgender umbrella, since their gender identity doesn't match their sex assigned at birth. 

Regardless of people's sex or gender, it is important to respect them and to be sensitive of their needs and experiences. One of the easiest ways we can do that is to respect their pronouns and their identity. Understanding the differences between sex and gender, as well as the nature of both allows us to gain a deeper understanding of our lives, and the human experience as a whole. We now know that neither sex nor gender exists in a binary, and hopefully today we finish reading this article a little wiser. No matter where you lie on the gender spectrum, remember, it's whats on the inside that counts!