Sex vs Gender

Athan Massouras, Editor

Sex and gender can be such nuanced yet important topics, that it can be difficult to talk about either. In order to participate in the discussion, we have to start with defining some terms.


Sex and gender are often used interchangeably, but have very different definitions. Sex is entirely biological: like most other animals, humans can be broadly categorised into male and female. These are distinguished by their genetics, primary and secondary sex characteristics, and some minor differeneces in their hormones and some of their organs. 


Gender, on the other hand, is a vague group of social characteristics that societies associate with the two sexes. Gender is therefore a bit like money: important, but basically made up. While all human societies ever have had two sexes, different people across different times and places have had different ways of expressing their genders. Most have two, but some have three or even more. In many places, people who are born female (in terms of their sex) have taken on the social characteristics of men, and have therefore effectively changed their gender.


None of these are more “correct” or biologically accurate than others, because again, it’s all just made up. Today, it might seem as though having two genders, with the social roles that we commonly associate with men and women to be the default, in the same way that the three genders in many Indian societies (that are recognised as such by the Indian and Pakistani governments) might seem to them.


What actually makes people a certain gender is a bit stranger. Being a social construct, it’s definitely based on how other people perceive you and how you express yourself (sometimes called your gender expression). However, it also definitely has something to do with how you perceive yourself (sometimes called gender identity). 


It’s very clear that when people’s expression doesn’t match their identity, it can cause severe mental trauma: a Canadian boy named David Reimer, after a botched circumcision, was brought up and lived as a girl, but never became comfortable as this gender. Such was the psychological pressure that, after finding out about the surgery, he chose to express himself as a man, but ultimately ended up committing suicide. 


Cases like these go the other way too: many people born either as male or female often experience the psychological pressure, today classed as the medical condition of “gender dysphoria”, and choose to change their gender expression to alleviate this pressure. To be clear, this isn’t the only reason someone might choose to change their gender expression, but it tends to be the most common; since gender is all made up anyway, they are as much the gender they take on as I am a cisgender man. People who change their gender expression to match their identity (for any reason) are often referred to by the umbrella term “transgender” (this is the “T” in LGBT).


All this still doesn’t answer the fundamental question of what gender itself is. To that question, different people have different answers, which usually come in some combination of gender expression and identity, and are often based on personal experience. Ultimately, which one you personally believe is more important doesn’t change the fact that transgender people are valid in their identities, or that some people may choose to identify and express themselves as neither of the two traditional genders we have in Western societies. Since gender is socially constructed, there’s no reason to suggest that I’m more “correct” in my identity than they are, because there is no objectively right way to be a certain gender.


This is reflected in the experience of trans people themselves: when they change their expression to match their identity (referred to as “transitioning”), they tend to report greater levels of satisfaction with their lives, and rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide decrease drastically (according to a literature review done by Cornell University).


Generally speaking, recognising the existence of trans people as the gender they identify and express themselves as, both socially and legally, seems to have basically only upsides. It makes the lives of trans people who are already out easier, gives implicit confidence and support to those still in the closet, and makes it easier for them to access the healthcare they need to be comfortable in their own bodies. There is absolutely no evidence that allowing, for example, trans women to enter women’s bathrooms or prisons, leads to an increase in any negative activity, and the idea that people change their gender just for fun (or to murder women, as some might fear) doesn’t exist outside of bad murder mysteries or episodes of South Park.


The recognition of sex and gender as different is therefore not only correct (according to the Wikipedia article I skimmed before writing this), but also genuinely helps a significant number of people, and hopefully allows us to have more productive conversations about LGBTQ+ rights in the future.