ahunter3 (ahunter3) wrote,

Sex vs Gender: A Working Definition?

For an organization's position paper, I was asked to come up with definitions for "sex" and "gender".

SEX is whatever biological built-in differences distinguish people as being male, female, or in some cases a different value from either of those two.

GENDER is any and all notions about differences between the sexes that are not directly based on things biologically built in.

I've written about it pretty extensively over the years. The distinction between my identity and situation and that of the mainstream narrative describing transgender people is that whereas they transition visually (and perhaps medically) so as to be perceived as the sex that matches their gender, I present to the world as a person with a mismatched sex and gender and press for acceptance as such. So the distinction between sex and gender has been useful to me. I've blogged about it often, for example here, here, and here. But like most people discussing such things, I've seldom defined the terms and instead have described them, like listing a batch of individual characteristics and saying "etc" at the end and saying "that's sex" and doing the same for gender.

Here's what I like about the definition at the top of this page: it leaves plenty of room for people to dissent about what things belong in each box.

A person with traditional, socially conservative views, for example, might believe that the socially shared and historically established views about the respective natures of men and women reflect how they really are. For them, gender is an example of an "empty set" -- you remember empty sets from that math class we were in back in school, right?

A person who considers the belief in the biological differentiation of male and female to be all ideological hype, and says sex is a social construct the same as gender and says that real science disproves that there's any clear distinction or division into two sex categories... that person basically views sex as an empty set, it's all gender.

Transgender men and women often speak of having something biologicallly different in their brains that makes them inherently trans, that they were born this way, and hence all the matrix of behaviors and desires and nuances and personality characteristics that they share in common with cisgender people of the same gender are built in for them. If it's built in, it's sex. The bodies with which they were born have other physical characteristics, making for an inconsistency, an apparently contradiction, but that's natural -- there are people with XY chromosomes who have androgen insensitivity and hence the morphology of the female body, which is also an inconsistency. Nature does that. Sex isn't binary except as a generalization.

Gender is a word that often followed by the word "role". I've tended to wince at the reduction of gender to social roles, as in "Joe goes to the office to work and Sue stays home watches the kids and cleans the house, those are gender roles". But there's a less klunky way to think of the term "role" -- movie and stage and television acting, where the actor brings a role to life.

We see a professional actor on the screen or stage rendering a character. He's sardonic, world-weary, casual in a mildly insulting way, easily familiar and a whiff dismissive, yet caring when he can be effectively caring without making himself vulnerable. He evinces wry amusement. He saunters when he walks. The actor's portrayal fits in with our prior experience of such people and resonates for us if the portrayal is done well, and some of us identify with that character and think he's like us; we may carry that performance around in our heads afterwards and aspire to be more like him, even, seeing in that role a model for how we want to be.

In that sense of the word, then, yes, gender includes and is largely composed of roles, a great many of them, ways of being a woman or a man that are embued with their own forms of dignity and strength, vulnerability and concerns, sexiness and spark, and forms of expression thereof. Our gender identities are significantly composed of juxtaposing our self-image against the backdrop of these and embracing the ones that validate us and inspire us as, well, role models.

Gender also is about being perceived. In other words it's not limited to the interior world of self. Other people gender us, they see us the same way we see the actors on the stage, looking from the outside at our performance and from it attributing characteristics to us, believing things about us, that may or may not match up well with the self-image we carry around inside us.

In our society, one of the very first people attribute to us when they encounter us is a sex category. Transgender people often speak of being assigned female at birth (AFAB) or assigned male at birth (AMAB); this is that same process although it's not "at birth", it's "at first encounter" and people do it to us generally while we're fully clothed, and it relies on social cues and clues (such as a given garment being considered women's clothes or mens' clothes, or the style of one's haircut being considered men's or women's hair style), so the act of attribution is at best only partially on the basis of biological characteristics. But the belief that they are forming is a belief about biological body structure nonetheless, so let's call it a sex attribution.

In our society what happens along with that is a gender attribution, of course, the projection of whatever that person tends to think about the sex they just assigned us that isn't necessarily built-in as part of our biology.

And therein lies the social problem. To whatever extent the people "sexing" us are also "gendering" us with a large batch of beliefs and attitudes that interpret our performance of ourself through the lens of a role we aren't considering ourselves to be playing, that's misgendering.


You're secluded in quarantine, and all the performances and events have been cancelled, so it's a good time to read a book!

My book has been published by Sunstone Press. It is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in paperback and ebook, and as ebook only from Apple, Kobo, and directly from Sunstone Press themselves.

Links to published reviews and comments are listed on my Home Page


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comment count unavailable comments at Dreamwidth -- https://ahunter3.dreamwidth.org/63716.html#comments
Tags: altercasting, dysphoria and misgendering, gender invert, intersex, roles & rules, sex v gender, transgender
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