Gender. Sex. Pronouns.

Gender and Sex: What’s the difference? And what are pronouns anyway?!

Whether it’s in conversation or attempting to fill out official forms, it seems like these terms are often confused or used interchangeably. The fact of the matter is they are indeed two very different things. So, let’s take some time to pop the lid and have a look the difference.

The simplest way I have found to think it is this:

Sex = what’s between your legs (physical sex)

Sex is a label (male, female or intersex) that you’re assigned by a doctor at birth based on the genitals you’re born with and the chromosomes you have. It does not necessarily match someone’s gender/gender identity.

Gender = what’s between your ears (gender identity)

Gender is much more complex. It’s a social and legal status, and set of expectations from society, about behaviours, characteristics, and thoughts. Gender identity is the internal perception of one’s gender, and how they label themselves, based on how much they align or don’t align with what they understand their options for gender to be.

And remembering that… Sexuality (who you have sex with) is not the same as Gender (who you are) either! Sexual Orientation is an emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people. This may be of the same gender, different gender or multiple genders.

I also find it helps if you start thinking of gender as a spectrum, and not two opposing binary positions, and that people are free to occupy a place (either fixed or fluid) anywhere along that spectrum, as it feels right for them. Being a good ally means we have respect for all gender identities.

Here are some terms you may want to understand better:

Agender:

An agender person does not have a gender. The body of an agender person does not always correspond with their lack of gender identity. They are frequently unconcerned about their physical sex but may strive to appear androgynous. An androgyne is a person who identifies as neither man nor woman and/or physically appears as neither.

Cisgender:

Many people identify as cisgender; this means that you believe your biological sex, or the one you were assigned at birth, corresponds to your gender identity or how you perceive yourself. It is a common gender in society, but being a good ally means we should never simply assume this to be true.

Genderfluid:

A genderfluid person does not identify as male or female but rather as one or the other depending on the day. This refers to being flexible with one’s gender expression, which is distinct from one’s gender identity. Gender expression refers to a person’s physical characteristics, behaviours, and appearance that are associated with masculinity or femininity. Individuals who are genderfluid may express one gender through clothing or interests one day and then identify as another the next.

Gender nonconforming:

Gender nonconforming refers to a person who either by nature or by choice does not conform to gender-based expectations of society. This identity goes along with a lot of the ones above. Think of all gender stereotypes out there such as pink for girls or guys having muscles. This person chooses to not conform to these or may identify as the opposite sex such as transgender individuals.

Genderqueer:

This person may identify as male or female, as between or beyond genders, or as a mix of the two. These people frequently question gender stereotypes and the male-female binary system. They frequently exhibit gender fluidity. Genderqueer is another term for someone open about their sexual orientation. They may or may not identify as heterosexual or same-gender-loving. This phrase is becoming more popular in society.

Intersex:

Intersex refers to a group of medical conditions in which a person is born with chromosomes, genitalia, and/or secondary sexual characteristics that contradict the traditional definition of a male or female body. Individuals are not always aware of their condition, but it is an identity that some choose to share. It’s estimated that nearly 2% of people are intersex, which is the same number as people with red hair!

Non-Binary:

People who identify as non-binary don’t identify as either male or female and reject the idea of a gender binary being applied to them. They may use pronouns such as they/them or a combination of pronouns like he/she/they.

Transgender:

Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from the one assigned to their physical sex. Transgender people can be straight, gay, bisexual, or of any other sexual orientation. Some people may prefer the abbreviation trans, and although there are other terms which have been historically used to describe this identity, many are now seen as slurs by the trans community. So, unless you know an individual is comfortable with an alternative term, I recommend always using transgender or trans. It’s estimated that nearly 2% of people identify as trans, which… you’ve guessed it… is also the same number as people with red hair!

Which brings us to… Pronouns!

So, what is all the fuss about pronouns anyway?

You may not be familiar with the word “pronoun,” but you use them all the most often when referring to someone without using their name. In English, our most commonly used pronouns specifically refer to a person’s gender (i.e. she/he). However, we really can’t assume a person’s gender based on their appearance, which is why for queer, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and transgender people, these pronouns may not fit, can create discomfort, and can cause stress and anxiety.

Pronouns people may go by are:

  • she/her
  • he/him
  • they/them
  • ze/zir
  • she/they
  • he/they

But this is not a limited list, so if you want to know how to address someone the very best way to know is to simply ask.

Here is a great article I found by Duolingo, explaining the linguistic “ins and outs” of gender-neutral language, and how pronouns may be used in other languages, not just English.

Respecting people’s identities, and referring to them correctly, makes spaces like offices, workshops, and meetings more inclusive. Pronoun sharing is important to ensure we know how to respectfully refer to people in the third person. BUT, we must be respectful of the spaces we are in, and honour that not everyone will feel comfortable disclosing their pronouns in every setting. I will always be proactive in disclosing mine (she/her) in any spaces I am in, as a signal that I wish to offer safety to anyone else who wishes to do the same. But I will never make it mandatory, as it is up to others to decide how safe the environment is for them and make their choices accordingly.

To read more about why optional pronoun sharing is important, read this brilliant article by The National Center for Institutional Diversity.

Wow! What a lot of ground we’ve covered here…

  • The difference between gender and sex
  • Gender as a spectrum, and identities that people may hold
  • Pronouns and how to use them

But the big question now is, what will you do differently now you have this knowledge?

And a personal note just for you…

If you’re having a tough time with your own gender identity or sexuality, there is lots of help and support out there for you — you are not alone.

I am always available to anyone who needs a friend in this community, and there are more links below for you to access too.

You are special, you are valued, and you are loved.

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