There’s a lot more to being male, female or any gender than the sex assigned at birth. Your biological or assigned sex does not always tell the complete story. Sex and gender have historically been used interchangeably, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the same thing.
Sex refers to biological differences between males and females, such as genitalia and genetic differences. When a person is born, they are given a sex based on their external genitalia. People with penises are assigned male at birth, while people with vaginas are assigned female.
Some also refer to chromosomes as markers of sex. Typically, but not always, peoples are born with either XX or XY chromosomes which determine their physical anatomy, and are assigned a sex based on these characteristics. Essentially, the methods used to assign sex are based on a person’s body, however assigned sex doesn’t always accurately determine gender identity.
You may also be familiar with the fact that some people are intersex, or have a difference of sexual development (DSD). DSD is used to describe chromosomes, anatomy or sex characteristics that can’t be categorised as exclusively male or female.
Society has traditionally taught us that there are two genders: man and woman. We’re told that those who are assigned male at birth are men and those who are assigned female at birth are women. But gender isn’t an either/or scenario: it’s a spectrum.
Gender is seen as a more personal, internal perception of oneself, that cannot be limited to biological characteristics. There are plenty of women who have penises, men who have vaginas, and non-binary people with either genitalia. A person’s body and genitals are their own business.
In most parts of society, assigned sex is used to assume a person’s gender. Sometimes this is incorrect, and some people grow up feeling a disconnect between their assigned sex and their true gender.
Others identify as bigender, meaning that they identify as both men and women at varying points, or agender, meaning that they don’t identify as any gender. Many non-Western cultures have a long history of welcoming third gender, non gendered and transgender people in society. This includes the Two-Spirit folks from Indigenous American cultures and Hijra in South Asian cultures.
Your gender identity is how you feel inside and how you express those feelings. Clothing, appearance and behaviors can all be ways to express your gender identity. Most people feel that they’re either male or female. Some people feel like a masculine female, or a feminine male. Some people may feel neither male or female. These people may choose labels such as ‘gender-queer’, ‘gender variant’ or ‘gender fluid’. Your feelings of your gender identity begin as early as age 2 or 3.
Some people’s assigned sex and gender identity are pretty much the same, or in line with each other. These people are called cisgender.
It’s easy to confuse sex and gender. Just remember that sex is about biology, anatomy, and chromosomes. Gender is about society’s set of expectations, standards and characteristics about how men and women are supposed to act.