Sex vs. Gender: What LGBTQ+ Allies Should Know

Abigail Silvis

The difference between biological and identity is something that is still misunderstood, even among + allies. Many people continue to use the words “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, but an individual’s understanding of gender is multidimensional and someone’s gender may or may not align with the sex they were assigned at birth.

The Trevor Project describes sex as “the classification of a person as male, female, or intersex,” based on genitalia and other biological factors such as chromosomes and sex hormones. On the other hand, it describes gender as “our internal understanding and experience of our own gender identity.” 

It’s common to hear people insist that there are only two genders, which is a misconception in Western societies. Not even sex is a binary concept, as some people are intersex or have a difference of sexual development (DSD). Individuals with a DSD have chromosomes, anatomy or sex characteristics that can’t be categorized as exclusively male or female. Intersex is a term used to describe individuals born with any of the several variations of these characteristics. This means that there is a range of possibilities and, as Gender Spectrum explains, “this biological spectrum by itself should be enough to dispel the simplistic notion that there are just two sexes.”

Gender may be described as a spectrum as well, but organizations such as Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights find that it’s more appropriate to use the phrase “gender galaxy,” as this better encompasses the vast number of possibilities regarding gender. This description may feel more inclusive of all identities and doesn’t limit gender to a linear spectrum. 

Gender Spectrum breaks down the multidimensional interpretation of gender as a complex interrelationship between three dimensions: body, identity and social gender. First, the body dimension deals with one’s experience of their own body, how society genders bodies and how others interact with someone based on their body. Our brains play a crucial role in how we experience our gender, but bodies themselves are gendered in the context of cultural expectations, and masculinity and femininity are equated with certain physical attributes. Our perception of ourselves as well as how others perceive and interact with us is significantly influenced by the gendering of bodies. 

Second, the identity dimension deals with the way we convey our gender based on our deeply held internal sense of self. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most children have a stable sense of their gender identity by the age of four. However, the naming of one’s gender can be complex and “it may take a person quite some time to discover, or create, the language that best communicates their internal experience,” Gender Spectrum says. Gender Spectrum adds that “as language evolves, a person’s name for their gender may also evolve. This does not mean their gender has changed, but rather that the words for it are shifting.”

Lastly, the social gender dimension is centered around gender expression, gender roles and expectations, and the way people in society try to shape our gender. Gender Spectrum describes gender expression as “the way we communicate our gender to others through such things as clothing, hairstyles, and mannerisms.” 

The way people express themselves often leads others to automatically assume things about their gender even though expression is independent of gender identity. For example, wearing a skirt or having short hair can’t indicate whether someone identifies as female, male, nonbinary or any other gender. 

“Our perceived gender is based on other people’s evaluation of our bodies, which unlike our gender expression, we cannot control,” says the Trevor Project.

Given the prevalence of the gender binary in many families and communities, expectations are still very rigid, and there is pressure to express gender in ways that conform to traditional roles. According to Gender Spectrum, “Expectations regarding gender are communicated through every aspect of our lives, including family, culture, peers, schools, community, media, and religion. Gender roles and expectations are so entrenched in our culture that it’s difficult to imagine things any other way.”

Regarding the language of gender identity, there truly is a galaxy of labels that can make individuals feel most comfortable and potentially help others better understand the ways in which gender transcends the binary. The following are some common terms regarding gender as defined by the Trevor Project: 

  • Cisgender refers to people whose gender identity aligns with the one they were assigned at birth.
  • Transgender refers to people whose gender identity differs from the one they were assigned at birth. Many transgender people will transition to align their gender expression with their gender identity through physical and social means. However, this is not required in order to be transgender.
  • Nonbinary refers to “people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as outside of the male-female gender binary.” This may include terms such as genderfluid, genderqueer, polygender, bigender, demigender or agender. These identities are not interchangeable.
  • Two-Spirit is a term created by Indigenous peoples whose sexual orientation, gender or sex exist in ways that challenge colonial constructions of the gender binary. This term should not be appropriated to describe people who are not Indigenous. 

The vocabulary of gender continues to evolve and some terms can be interpreted differently from person to person. For a useful and informative working list of terminology, Gender Spectrum has a guide called “The Language of Gender” available on their website. 

AJ Leu, the diversity director in the College of Communication and Information at , offers a unique perspective regarding the labeling of gender. Gender identity at its core is less about labels and more about being one’s self without the limitations that a label can often bring, but as Leu explains, “our entire society is structured on labels and categories, and the labeling of gender is kind of a necessary piece of the puzzle right now.” 

Leu mentions that the LGBTQ+ community is perceived as being obsessed with labels by the general population. These many labels may be the community’s way to make the experience of gender more familiar to others. However, it should be noted that some individuals prefer not to label their gender at all. 

With this, the first piece of advice for LGBTQ+ allies is to honor people’s labels or lack thereof, including their pronouns. This includes letting go of any preconceived notions you may have about what characteristics are associated with specific gender identities. For example, if someone comes out to you as nonbinary, they are nonbinary, even if their gender expression does not correlate with what you typically imagine as the appearance of a nonbinary person. It’s essential to not make them feel like they have to check off certain boxes to be accepted as that gender. 

Leu also highlights the importance of not guessing what someone’s gender identity and pronouns are based on your assumptions and explains that “there is a linkage between sex, gender identity and pronoun usage, and people draw automatic connections between those, but they are completely unique and individual things … People are so rooted in heteronormativity and cisnormativity, so distinguishing these as completely separate parts of a person can be difficult, but it will help people to stop automatically overlapping them.” 

This is why respectfully asking questions is another one of the most emphasized tips for allies, as it shows that you care about the person and their understanding of their own identity rather than how it can be made easier for you to understand. You can’t assume someone’s gender identity based on observable characteristics, so practices such as sharing your pronouns when you meet someone and asking about theirs are great for showing respect without asking too much or getting too personal. Avoid asking questions about a person’s birth name, genitalia, surgical procedures or hormones, and other very personal subjects. 

These types of information should only be shared if the person themselves brings it up and feels comfortable discussing it. If you bombard someone with nosy questions, it could make it seem like you see their gender identity as the only thing about them or that you can’t respect them until you have all the answers. Having tons of questions is a natural response and you may have the best of intentions, but you can explore new information without being invasive. It’s important to care about the person themselves and not become fixated on the physical aspects, and “you technically don’t need to know anything at all to show respect for someone,” Leu explains. Knowing all the ins and outs of someone’s identity and the history of their experience is not a precursor to respect. 

One more consideration for allies that Leu points out has to do with the word “transgender,” or trans for short. Leu says that their advice to people is that the full word “transgender” never changes. So, don’t say things like, “He’s transgendered,” which implies that this is something that happened to someone in the past, or, “She’s a transgender,” which could dehumanize someone and centralize their gender as the sole indicator of who they are. The word itself is not a noun, and by leaving it unaltered, you ensure that you are using it appropriately. 

A central aspect of being an LGBTQ+ ally includes having an understanding of what differentiates biological sex from gender identity in order to better honor the diversity of the community. Focus on respectfully developing insight into the personal and complex dimensions of gender, and try to unlearn gender stereotypes and expectations that may be part of your experience. It is impossible to know someone’s gender identity or pronouns by looking at them, and by keeping an open mind and making no assumptions, you are helping contribute to an accepting environment in which all identities are validated and celebrated.

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