ahunter3 (ahunter3) wrote,

A Short History of Distinguishing Gender from Sex

Around the middle of the 20th century, a psychologist named Madison Bentley wanted to discuss the socially shared notions about sex apart from the actual biology, and is typically cited as the first person to use the word "gender" in this fashion, defining it as the "socialized obverse of sex". An obverse is a front, the outward-facing or presenting surface of a thing.

Other folks (psychologists, feminists, sociologists, "sexologists") found it useful to make that distinction. They could talk about how having the biology wasn't enough to satisfy expectations -- as a person moved beyond infancy, they were expected to learn what the world considered appropriate for a person of their biology, and to aspire to match those descriptions and measure themselves against them as a standard.

Or they could discuss how some people deviated from the norms of sexual practice -- by developing an outward presentation that would lead others to classify them inside their heads as being of the other sex, they could signal their interest in performing that role within sexual activity.

Or they could analyze the unfairness of the expectations and roles, pointing out that, contrary to popular belief, they did not inevitably or directly result from the facts of biology, but constituted a type of propaganda about how people of that sex had to behave, in order to keep them in line.

It would be hard to have any of those discussions using language that used the same words to refer to the physical facts of biology and also to the social expectations and beliefs about how people of that physical configuration were, or how they ought to be.

Also present around the middle of the 20th century was Christine Jorgensen, who was the first prominently public trans person in American culture. Jorgensen was born with the physical configuration designated "male" but felt that the person she was, the self that she was, did not mesh with that and transitioned medically and socially to female, and in doing so and being the public face for this phenomenon, gave us our first social understanding of what it means to be trans: that some people are born in one type of body but that who they are inside makes them actually a member of the other group, and so they get what, at that time, was called a "sex change operation", and such a person, in that era, was called a "transsexual".

The use of language and terminology has not always been consistent, but the concepts of sex being one thing and gender being another are fundamental to explaining how a person can have the biological construction of one sex but that "who they are" is a different identity, one not defined by their physical parts.

Some words and phrases in our language get challenged and become regarded as problematic not because they designate things wrongly but because the way people have started to use them gives offense. In the early part of the 21st century, it is often considered offensive to use the terms "transsexual" or "sex change operation", the preferred terms being "gender reassignment surgery" (or even "gender confirmation surgery") and "transgender" instead.

But why is "sex" -- and any precise effort to speak of the physical, the biological, the anatomically structural -- so quickly marked as offensive?

Using the separate terms "sex" and "gender" as the psychologists and feminists originally did, Christine Jorgensen had a gender that was not the one expected or socially affiliated with her sex. She did not change her gender. She changed her sex. Her gender may have been transgressive, her experiences may have been "trans" (i.e., crossing the lines of) gender, but she did not transition from one gender to another. She transitioned from one sex to another. The medical interventions she opted for did not reassign her gender, they changed her sex and brought it into alignment with her gender identity. The old terms, in other words, are more accurate, less confusing, less misleading, and it is highly unfortunate that the trend has been to shy away from using them.

One thing that the social narrative about being trans in Christine Jorgensen's era did not explain well to the general public was that a person's gender identity is valid regardless of their body.

What I mean is that many people accepted the concept that some people are born in a body of one sex but that "who they are" inside means they need to transition... but their acceptance was partly tied to the explanation that such people would, indeed, transition. This would make a person who had not as of yet obtained a medical transition as somehow "incomplete". It would make a person who could not afford to obtain a medical transition some sort of "trans wannabe", someone who aspires to be trans but hasn't "done it yet". It would make a person who simply does not choose to, or wish to, obtain a medical transition -- perhaps because of the limitations of the medical science, perhaps because they don't feel like their body needs any modification and they're fine with it as it is -- but who presents appearance-wise as a typical person of their gender as some kind of "fake" or "trap". And it would make a person who neither seeks a medical transition nor configures their visual presentation to match expectations of their gender, but who nevertheless claims that gender identity despite their sex, into some kind of "transtrender" or "special snowflake".

I fall into that latter category. Using the nomenclature of Madison Bentley and those who followed, I am male, that's my sex; my gender was not "boy" growing up and did not develop into "man" when I became an adult, but instead has always been femme, that "who I am inside", my gender, has always made me one of girls, but my body isn't wrong and in need of fixing nor do I wish or need to be mentally assigned by observers to the "female" category, since I'm not female. I'm a male girlish person. And yes, definitely received my share of "transtrender" and "special snowflake" and "fake" and other dismissive epithets.

I call myself a gender invert, and I prefer genderqueer to transgender because of the still-omnipresent expectation that trans people transition, socially if not medically. I'm not a transitioner. I have a sex and a gender. Both are valid.

Resisting any mention of sex, as distinguished from gender, is not the way to prevent folks from invalidating a person's gender identity. Christine Jorgensen's gender identity was valid both before and after she obtained medical transitioning. Referring to her anatomy before medical transition as "male" does not invalidate her gender identity. If our gender identities do not depend on having the physical equipment that matches up with the anticipated value for our gender, then, by definition, our gender identities are not invalidated by having our physical anatomy perceived and recognized.


My book, GenderQueer: A Story From a Different Closet, 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.

My second book, That Guy in Our Women's Studies Class, is also being published by Sunstone Press. It's a sequel to GenderQueer. It's expected to be released in early 2022. Stay tuned for further details.

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


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Tags: communication, dysphoria and misgendering, feminism, gender invert, language, roles & rules, sex v gender

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