Gender vs. Sex: An Important Distinction

Gender vs. Sex: An Important Distinction

The following post is cross-posted from Teen Skepchick. It was written by Lux. If you’d like to comment on the post, please go to the original post to do so.

Many people use the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ interchangeably; it’s a little-known fact that they aren’t synonymous. The meanings might as well be identical to most people. I think it’s safe to say that a lot (maybe most) humans are cissexual or cisgendered.

Looking at the Latin terminology, cis- means “on the same side as”. Cisgender is a term which describes a person whose gender identity matches up with their assigned sex. Vice versa, trans- means “across” or “beyond”, so a transgender person’s gender identity is opposite to their assigned sex. The commonly accepted term used to talk about non-cisgender people is trans*, which I and most other Politically Correct activists will use.

Now that we’re up-to-date on some terminology, let’s discuss the actual difference between gender and sex: ‘Sex’ refers specifically to a person’s biological sex. It’s also referred to as ‘assigned sex’ because it was decided at their birth based on their genitalia. ‘Gender’ specifically refers to one’s perception and feelings regarding masculinity, femininity, and everywhere in between (and outside).

This cute graphic describes this pretty well, but I do take issue with a couple things.

The main problems I have with this graphic involve the sliding scales. The Gender Identity scale doesn’t address agenderism or anyone who is otherwise outside of the gender binary–rather than between the two like genderqueer. Similarly, the Sexual Orientation bar doesn’t acknowledge people who are asexual, or who are attracted to individuals outside the binary. (Nor does it encompass pansexuality, but that would be the entire sliding scale and then some.)

That being said, the graphic perfectly illustrates another point I’d like to bring up: The difference between the words ‘woman’ and ‘man’ from ‘female’ and ‘male’. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ are terms that describe one’s biological sex. (Sex is not defined solely by your genitalia, but in most states it’s the requirement for legally changing your sex.)

However, ‘man’ and ‘woman’ describe a person’s gender identity. That’s why I’m female but not a woman, since I’m genderqueer. When I write or speak about ‘women’s issues’ such as access to contraception and abortion rights, I will often use the word ‘female’ instead of ‘woman’. Not everyone who’s capable of getting pregnant is a woman, just as not every woman is capable of getting pregnant.

Now that I’ve stuffed you full of information, you might be wondering “Okay then, why do I need to know this excessively specific vocabulary?” Since you’re reading a Skepchick network site, you probably tread in lots of spaces which well cover the specific marginalization of women/females from the atheist movement. To a degree, this type of harassment and exclusion is also directed at LGBT+ individuals.

The Atheism+ movement was started by atheists who desire to work for social justice as much as they promote atheism. Even non-believers who don’t subscribe to that label can commonly agree that we need to open our doors to everyone–especially groups which are already marginalized, often with religious backing. To that end, we have to educate ourselves about the issues and struggles of LGBT+ people, women, racial minorities, and people with mental illnesses. By teaching ourselves and spreading the knowledge, we’re eliminating the stigmas attached to these groups.

It can also make a personal difference to people like me, who aren’t on either end of the binary, if you were to say ‘people’ instead of ‘men and women’. I’m neither of those, and while I recognize that this isn’t common knowledge and non-binary people are not numerous, it can still be unintentionally exclusionary. (Remember how everyone felt when Obama mentioned non-believers in his inaugural address? It makes a difference.)

It may be particularly important to reach out to youths in these minorities. LGBT+ kids are kicked out of their parents’ homes much too often. Atheist kids are sometimes ostracized by their families. There isn’t a surplus of support for these young people; we need to educate more people about these issues to eliminate ignorant discrimination and otherwise provide support to those affected.

Reasonable people don’t discriminate against other human beings for being themselves.

By Will
Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at facebook.com/anthrowill.