Last night while indulging in a bedtime scroll of Reddit with my partner, I zeroed in on an “Explain Like I’m 5” post asking about gender determination (that naturally, I now cannot find). I wanted to read it, because I wanted to see what kind of answers people would give.
Every answer did one particular thing that made me want to put my head through a wall: the people answering the question all conflated biological sex and gender.
Since I’ve been having some interesting conversations with friends and family members who are genuinely curious and open minded about trans issues and gender issues, I thought it might be nice to put some 101-level info in a single place. I’m not going to go super science on you, but I do want to clear some things up for people who want to be inclusive and compassionate humans, but who may not be part of social circles where they hear the language that goes along with the ever-evolving GLBTQIA movement, specifically the T, I, and wherever we agender/genderfluid/gender-nonconforming folk fit because I don’t even know, and I’m one of them.
Biological sex versus gender: a primer by your friendly neighbourhood Emmie
What is Biological Sex?
First off, biological sex and gender are two different things. This is important. That’s why I italicised it. Sex and gender are not synonymous, nor can they accurately be used interchangeably.
Your biological sex is determined when a sperm meets an egg. Each sperm and each egg is what’s called a haploid cell, which means it has half the chromosomes needed to make a fledgling human go. Spermy-sperms and eggs are also called gametes. To make a baby happen, you need the chromosomal tangle of DNA that exists in these gametes tangling together to make a new diploid cell, called a zygote! (Unless you’re a science-wizard and can make a zygote out of two sperm cells. Which is apparently totes possible. WHEE.)
Sex is determined by an X chromosome or a Y chromosome. In very oversimplified terms (you’ll see why this is an oversimplification in a bit), XX ends up biologically female, XY ends up biologically male, bada-bing, bada-boom. Poof. Each egg has an X, because it comes from a biologically female mother who has XX chromosomes, and each sperm can have either an X or a Y, because Pops over there has XY instead of XX. When gametes happen, the cell reproduction splits the DNA from a diploid cell into a haploid cell, and you end up with one or the other. (Gross oversimplification, awooga.)
Each zygote starts to multiply into a multicellular embryo that starts showing distinguishing sex characteristics several weeks into gestation. Depending on the coding of the DNA, signals will be given off trigger development of testes and penis or not. Basically, the presence of the Y chromosome is what tells the embryo to make a penis.
Biological sex, as we currently understand it, is determined by those little chromosomes being XX or XY and telling the embryo how to develop. We tend to think of it as irrefutably binary.
Our bodies are amazing machines full of organisms, cells, and all the bits and bobs that make us human. They are endlessly complex, and while we may classify bodies as biologically male or female for the sake of brevity, there are plenty of examples and naturally-occurring instances where that’s not correct in its binary form.
Sometimes the chromosomal messaging isn’t the simple code we perceive as “normal,” and an embryo develops aspects of more than one set of sex organs or reproductive systems.
Intersex people exist in our population, and they always have. People tend to think in the extreme when they think of intersex identity, but biological sex is better classified as a spectrum than a binary (and not a Point A to B spectrum at that). A basic definition of what it means to be intersex is that either your genotype (chromosomal makeup) or phenotype (how that chromosomal makeup expresses physically) does not equate tidily with one of the following: XX -> vagina, uterus, labia, clitoris only; XY -> penis, scrotum, testes only.
People who are born with a phenotype outside the expected binary (meaning visible sex organs like a vaginal opening present with a penis, the presence of ovaries in someone born with a penis, etc.) are almost always then assigned a sex and gender according to the opinions of doctors and parents. Not all intersex people are born with a detectibly different phenotype — some intersex people do not know they are intersex until much later in life.
Genetic sex complicated enough yet? Sometimes intersex people assigned to a particular sex and gender at birth or early in childhood experience serious gender dysphoria or body dysmorphia, which means they feel a dissonance between who they are and the sex and gender applied to them.
Due to an enormously ingrained social pressure and structure, intersex people are seldom allowed to keep their bodies as their bodies are — they are expected (and often this decision is made without their input in infancy) to have their bodies changed to suit the binary we see as so immutable: male or female, with no in between, both, all, or none.
Male and female brains are far more similar than dissimilar, and it is very important to note that the language of “male” and “female” applied to explain any observed differences is just that: applied. It is not innate to the subject, but an observation made within the context of society and all its baggage. Which brings me to the next bit: gender.
What is Gender?
Gender is a societally-dependent set of standards, rules, and expectations that govern masses of individuals. To say that gender is a social construct is a start, but it falls short of the nuance and complexity that an understanding of gender requires. Whenever we say little girls like princesses and little boys like superheroes, we are speaking of gender. Most of us can agree that someone’s chromosomes or genitalia (biological sex!) do not predict, dictate, or predetermine an individual’s tastes, aptitudes, intelligence, or desires. It sounds absurd. And yet as a whole, we behave as if they do because our society wrongfully equates and conflates biological sex and gender when those two things are discrete, yet interactive parts of being human.
Western society typically recognises only two genders: male or female. Or, as I think may be more helpful for increasing understanding of this subject, masculine or feminine. Society applies (there’s that word again) certain traits, colours, expectations, and predictions to people based on the gender to which they were assigned at birth.
Gender changes. What we classify as masculine or feminine changes and evolves, often drastically, over time. It is not stable from culture to culture. What we identify as feminine or masculine is not an innate aspect of humanity, but a dynamic set of ideas that shifts. Throughout history and on every inhabited continent, this is the case.
Even within American culture, we have seen dramatic shifts. You only have to look as far as the colours pink and blue. Less than one hundred years ago, pink was considered a masculine colour and blue was considered feminine. This doesn’t just pertain to colours and children’s toys, but behaviours, clothing, professions, and more. Long hair in men has been considered masculine for more of history than short hair has. What we classify as feminine or masculine is not an immutable fact, but a rapidly-shifting structure influenced by cultural popularity, economics, religion, marketing, and sometimes even direct action to establish certain things as gendered.
To start from the foundation that we A: live on a planet where there is an existing, usually binary structure of gender, and B: are humans who like to classify each other in understandable boxes, let’s talk about gender identity.
If you were born with a XX and the sex organs assumed to go with it AND you know in your core that you are female and a woman, you are a cisgender woman.
If you were born with a XY and the sex organs assumed to go with it AND you know in your core that you are male and a man, you are a cisgender man.
Let’s stop right there for a second. If you fit into one of those two categories (either of them) and you like to fish, enjoy glitter and/or makeup, have a black belt in a discipline of martial arts, love to cook, can build a house with your hands, are in the military, like pink, like blue, passionately hate rom-coms, rock out to Taylor Swift, like to paint your nails, scream at the TV in MMA fights, cry at Save the Kittens adverts, or any combination of the aforementioned traits: congratulations. You are still a cisgender woman or man. None of those things do anything at all to change your gender identity.
If you were born with a XX and the sex organs assumed to go with it BUT you know in your core that you are male and a man, you are a transgender man.
If you were born with a XY and the sex organs assumed to go with it BUT you know in your core that you are female and a woman, you are a transgender woman.
Cis is a prefix that simply means your gender identity (how you know your self in your selfiest self-ness) is the same as your biological sex and body.
Trans is a prefix that simply means your gender identity (how you know your self in your selfiest self-ness) is NOT the same as your biological sex and body.
This is another part where intersex folks get a bit left out in the lonely cold: they are often not given the opportunity to have their gender identity correspond with their biological sex and their bodies, but rather have the choice made for them, with the added layers of imposed shame, as if they and their bodies are somehow wrong instead of natural and human. “Invasive” is perhaps too mild a word for medically unnecessary surgeries performed on children too young to consent or understand. Because of our human compulsion to classify one another, intersex people are pushed into one of exactly two boxes, usually without their approval or consent. (You can listen to some of their own stories and explanations here.) In a binary world, we are uncomfortable with differences, and we are uncomfortable with intersex bodies (or make them into jokes). Intersex people are people. They and their bodies are as deserving of respect and agency as anyone else. Full stop.
Also in gender identity are non-binary gender identities. These are people (like moi!) who do not identify as either male or female, but instead exist outside the binary as agender, genderfluid, or genderqueer (or other terms!). This is not dependent upon how we look or what chromosomes we have, but who we are. Cis people can appear gender-nonconforming or androgynous without being trans or having a non-binary gender identity. (More on that shortly!) Remember: what we like and what we wear is not the totality of who we are. To quote Wesley Snipes in To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, “When a gay man has far too much fashion sense for one gender, he is…a drag queen.” You can be a cis dude (and YES, a cis straight dude too) and love wearing makeup, dresses, and strappy heels.
Are non-binary identities considered trans? Depends on who you ask. For me personally, I see trans experiences like super snazzy cousins with whom it’s rad to hang out at barbecues. Non-binary folks often experience gender and body dysmorphia or dysphoria, just like other trans folks. Not all self-identified trans folks exist within society’s binary. I am agender, and I didn’t identify as trans at first (though I do now). I am not the only experience, and your mileage may vary!
To sum up, your gender identity is who you are in the context of our society and your own selfiest self-ness. It affects you every day. It affects some of us much more negatively than it affects others. If your gender identity is in the cis zone, you will face a world made for you. You may still experience oppression (because patriarchy and racism and other human-made structures of assholery) or prejudice and pain, but you will not have to face the additional compounded social, financial, political, and relational obstacles that are faced by people who are trans, intersex, etc.
We good so far? Last section.
Gender Expression: BUST OUT YOUR GLITTER
We already covered how biological sex and gender ain’t the same, and now I’m going to discuss an important distinction between gender identity and gender expression.
If gender identity is who you are, gender expression is how you do you. It’s what you look like in a binary gendered world, and there are as many ways to express your gender as there are stars in the sky. I am agender. I love makeup. I keep my hair long because I can pull it out of my face. I also wear my (cis male) partner’s clothing a lot of the time and am gravitating to more androgynous expression. To the world, I read female most of the time. That does not change my gender identity. My gender identity is the same whether I’m wearing a lace gown or a snappin’ suit and a top hat. (As it would be for anyone.)
Your gender expression is how you present to the world, which will gender your clothing and your body and your style because that’s what it does.
Some people want their gender to be ambiguous when they go out. I am one of those people sometimes. And hey, that’s cool. Before anyone panics about “ZOMG WHAT PRONOUN DO I USE”, here’s a handy tip: ask politely if you don’t know. “How should I refer to you?” is a rather lovely way. Kids might be blunter and go for “Are you a boy or a girl?” but as adults, let’s not (and let’s teach the younger generation how to politely inquire: “Should I call you Ms, Mr, or Mx?”). It’s never appropriate to ask someone what they’ve got in their pants. It’s not appropriate to police what toilet someone’s heading toward. (Unless that person has a gun, and in that case, maybe just call the police.)
You may notice I’ve barely touched on sexuality — mostly because for all intents and purposes, it’s a separate thing. But just to briefly mention it:
If you are a woman (either cis or trans) who is exclusively attracted to men, you are straight. If you’re exclusively attracted to women, you’re a lesbian.
If you are a man (either cis or trans) who is exclusively attracted to women, you are straight. If you’re exclusively attracted to men, you’re gay.
If you are a person (of any gender identity) who is attracted to people regardless of gender identity, you’re bisexual (or pansexual). Being bisexual is not trans-exclusive by definition, nor is pansexual.
I hope all this was useful! The understandings we have about our bodies, our brains, and how those two crazy kids interact with one another are evolving things. Science teaches us a lot, but we always filter science through our own biases and minds no matter how hard we try not to. Gender, in all its dynamics and evolutions, is something deeply ingrained in our culture. It affects us every day, from the language we use when speaking to children to the way people perceive Hillary Clinton. It is a pervasive aspect of society, and while this little primer is a start, it’s admittedly oversimplified for brevity and is Western-centric because that’s where I live and about which I am equipped to speak.
The point is: I hope the increasing understanding of one another and the recognition of people like me, my trans friends, and people struggling with a societal structure skewed away from our favour will lead to more compassion and empathy. I hope that in frank conversation we will find more humanity. I think visibility is important. Seeing friendly faces along with flags and think-pieces is also important. So here’s my face:
So…go forth and be human, humans.
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