What's The Difference Between Gender & Sex?

Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.
There’s a good chance you’ve come across “gender reveal” videos while scrolling through the internet — the stunts have a tendency to go viral whenever they’re especially epic, or when something goes horribly wrong. But if you read about “gender reveal” parties on Refinery29, you’ll notice that we don’t talk about the parents revealing their unborn child’s gender. Instead, we say that the parents revealed the baby’s sex.
That’s because gender and sex, though sometimes connected, are two separate things. The most basic difference is that sex is something a doctor assigns a person when they’re born, while gender is how a person experiences and/or presents themself.
Moments after a baby is born, doctors look at their genitals and declare that new little person's "sex" as either male or female. In cases where a baby is born intersex and their intersex status is detected (not all intersex people's differences are visible to the eye), doctors have often recommended "normalizing" surgeries to make their bodies typically male or female in an attempt to maintain a binary sex system. These surgeries have been found so harmful that more and more medical associations and human rights organizations have joined intersex activists in calling for a ban.
But as the child grows, they might begin to experience themself as something different from what the doctor decided, based on cultural understandings of gender. So someone who the doctor decided was a boy might feel intrinsically that she’s actually a girl. For that person, sex and gender are two different things (she was assigned male at birth, but her gender is a woman).
“Doctors and parents project their understanding of who that child is going to be, and what gender they’ll know themselves to be, based solely on physical characteristics,” says Daye Pope, organizing director at Trans United.
The problem, she says, is that so many people believe those “physical characteristics” (i.e. what a baby’s genitals look like) come with inherent personality traits that won't change throughout the baby’s lifetime. But a person’s gender doesn’t always match the personality traits we ascribe to their sex.
That’s a problem, Pope says, because “it gets people started with a fallacy.” The fallacy lies partly in the expectations society puts on someone based on their sex assigned at birth — that a person born with a vulva will always act and dress like a society's notion of a girl, for example — but also in the idea that only two biological sexes exist.
For intersex people, Pope says, “there’s just a physically inaccurate problem with categorizing people as either one of two polar opposite genders.”
There are many different ways someone can be intersex — the word is an umbrella term to describe people who are born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads, and chromosome patterns) that don't fall within strict definitions of "male" or "female," according to the United Nations for LGBT Equality.
Although intersex is sometimes conceptualized as a "third sex," some intersex people oppose that framing.
"Almost every time people talk about gender and gender identity, they forget to mention that people are actually born male, female, and intersex," says Hida Viloria, an intersex activist and author of Born Both: An Intersex Life. In fact, Viloria says that about 1.7% of the population is born intersex — roughly the same percentage as people who are born with red hair.
Like people born with male or female bodies, people who are born intersex can grow up to experience and present their gender in any way. Someone could be intersex and identify as a man, or identify as a woman, or as a non-binary person, and on and on.
"Essentially, gender doesn’t boil down to our sex parts for anyone," Viloria says. "We’re born with certain bodies, but they don’t even matter until we start having a perception of who we are." That's why you'll never hear us talk about a baby's gender, because until that baby can grow up and start expressing how they really feel, all we know is their sex.
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Welcome to Gender Nation, where gender is defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.
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