The Differences Between Sex and Gender

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Joseph Ward, Contributor

During the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Senator Marsha Blackburn asked her to define the word ¨woman.¨ This interaction is only a small part of the massive cultural battle in the United States around the issue of trans rights and, to an extent, the very validity of trans identities. Much of the debate revolves around whether or not your gender can differ from the sex you were assigned at birth, with prominent federal representatives claiming trans people are simple pretending, hence Blackburn’s question on the definition of “woman.” Before we get into that though, definitions for gender and sex are necessary. Gender, or gender identity, is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female,” and sex is, as defined by Merriam-Webster as well, “either of the two [groups] that occur in many species and that are distinguished… especially on the basis of their reproductive organs.” The debate essentially is centered on the question of whether your gender can differ from your sex. Many like Blackburn insist that its simply not possible for your gender to differ from your sex, but historical precedent, the scientific community and of course myself all say that sex and gender are different. 

The questions of “what is a woman” or “what is a man” are seemingly simple to answer. We have been taught that, by definition, a man is anyone born biologically male, and a woman is anyone born biologically female. These simple definitions start to fail us though when they are contrasted with the realities intersex people. Intersex people are people born with sex characteristics that don’t fit fully within the contemporary sexual binary. In these cases, contemporary doctors will simply decide for the child what sex they are “supposed” to belong to, and parents will then raise the child to fit into society in accordance with that decision, resulting in the child’s gender matching that assigned sex. Given what we are typically taught about sex and gender in the contemporary world, it seems like that’s entirely rational, but that is far from how society has treated intersex people in the past. In Colonial-era America for example, the case of Thomas(ine) Hall, an intersex person born in England, and raised as a woman, is a very telling historical example of how intersex people clash with our current conception of gender and sex. Hall served in the British army as a man before moving to Virginia, where they claimed to be both a man and a woman. They were subjected to multiple anatomical examinations by the people of the town in which they lived, all of which concluded that they were biologically a man, not on the basis that they had a penis and testicles, but rather that there was any growth at all where a penis should be. The matter was not settled there, though, and instead was taken before the court in Jamestown, Va. where the justices opted instead to ask Hall what they remembered of their experience with their gender over their lifetime. The fact that this court did not pursue another anatomical examination underlines the fact that the difference between sex and gender has been understood by humanity in the past, giving the new push to detach the two concepts from each other.

The sex and gender debate not only affects intersex people but also trans people. In the case of trans people, one of the more common methods of claiming their gender is still connected to their sex is to claim that they are simply mentally ill, in an attempt to explain their experiences while not admitting a disconnect between sex and gender. This counter-narrative seems to make sense at first, as until 2019 the World Health Organization classified gender dysphoria as a mental illness. The WHO, however, did not keep this classification. The declassification of gender dysphoria as a mental illness was done as Dr. Lale Say of the WHO explained because “we had better understanding that this wasn’t actually a mental health condition.” Dr. Say also explained that the decision to no longer classify gender dysphoria as a mental condition was not made due to demands from trans people and their allies. Instead, she specified that the decision was made because “all available evidence was reviewed and…together with the scientific basis of [gender dysphoria] and [feedback] from the professional community…[to form] the basis of the decision,” then comparing it to the removal of homosexuality as a disorder as well. In short, the science did not agree with classifying gender dysphoria as a mental illness, thereby refuting the position that trans people are mentally ill, meaning that their experience of gender being disconnected from sex is both legitimate and scientifically accurate.

For a final point, let us just assume that the sex and gender are connected, that despite the evidence to the contrary your gender is always the same as your birth sex; I would then raise one question. Why would it matter? Such a position would be terrible for society, as even if it were more scientifically accurate, which it is not, embracing sex and gender being connected would only cause harm. According to a survey of transgender adults conducted by UCLA 98% of respondents that had on average one transphobic experience every 3 months had contemplated suicide. It is important to remember that the very usage of a model of sex and gender that does not allow for them to be separate factors is inherently transphobic, as it would not have an explanation for transgender individuals. Existing in a society that uses a model of sex and gender that is inherently transphobic is obviously going to net a lot more than 1 transphobic experience every 3 months. Of that 98% of respondents, 51% had attempted suicide. That means 50% of transgender adults who experience only 1 act of transphobia every 3 months will attempt suicide. We know that the root of these suicidal thoughts is the treatment of trans people by broader society. A study in BMC Psychiatry concluded that “Suicidality [of trans people] is associated with desiring gender affirming surgery in the future, gender based victimization and institutionalized cissexism.”  “Desiring gender affirming surgery” can only really be solved by giving trans people access to gender-affirming surgery, but the other two, “gender based victimization” and “institutionalized cissexism” are on us as a society to fix. The former is simply respecting their identities and not being transphobic but the latter, institutionalized cissexism, is what I would like to focus on, as it is most pertinent to the discussion of the sex and gender binary. The phrase is big and complicated, but it really just means, means transphobia (cissexism) established within society (institutionalized), and as established before that is exactly what a model of sex and gender that does not differentiate the two is, as trans people have no place within it. The idea that your gender is always the same as your sex invalidates the gender identities of trans people. If we continue to not differentiate between sex and gender do you think those trans people would only be facing incidences of transphobia once every 3 months? The idea that sex and gender are the same is dangerous.

With all this in mind, sex and gender are definitely separate. That fact isn’t part of an “ideologically driven agenda,” and it really is not anything new, as it was known 400 years ago in Colonial America. It is the scientifically accurate position, as transgender individuals reports of gender dysphoria can no longer be written off as “mental illness”, and so can be treated as observable evidence of the disconnect between sex and gender. Add to both of those the fact that it is simply dangerous to conflate the two, and there is no real reason to continue acting like these two concepts should be treated the same.