Gender Vs. Sex

Recently I had a conversation with my in-laws about a “Gender Revealing” party they saw on television. The expectant couple had the ultrasound technician find out the sex of the baby, write it on a card, and the couple didn’t peek at it. (Now that’s self-control!) They gave the card to a bakery, and a special cake was made based on what the card read.  At the “Gender Revealing” party, when they cut it open, a pink or a blue cake was discovered, thereby revealing the “gender” of the baby to be. My response? “I went to a party like that! Except they called it a ‘Sex Party’, which is what it was… they were revealing the sex of the baby, not the gender.  The true gender won’t be revealed until the baby is much older.” The blank stares I was met with weren’t surprising. So few people ever think of the distinction between gender and sex, but due to my work and experiences with loved ones, I understand how important this distinction is. Do I need to be educator at every turn, or explain the distinction any time someone mentions something like this? Probably not. But, the reason I do it is this: the more people in society who understand the distinction between sex and gender, the better off gender nonconforming people will be.

To be perfectly clear… sex refers to genitals and sex organs; either male or female genitals/sex organs make one biologically male or female.  One’s gender identity comes from the brain, and may or may not align with one’s sex.  I believe gender identity is something that is formed in the womb along with the genitalia; sometimes they just don’t match.

Gender is in reference to what a person feels like as a result of having a male or female brain.  If one identifies as having a male gender, he is most likely going to be comfortable with being called a male name, having male pronouns used for him, and will want to present as male. If one identifies as having a female brain or gender identity, she is going to want to be referred to by a female name, female pronouns, and will want to present as female.  Often I simplify this so-not-simple concept with this question: “When you check out at the grocery store, do you want someone to say ‘Thank you, Ma’am’, or ‘Thank you, Sir”?  I say this because it relates it to an everyday experience which we all can relate to. It just wouldn’t feel right to ANY of us if someone addressed us with the “wrong” title. In these everyday experiences, sex organs don’t matter, but brains certainly do. And yet transgender individuals have to deal with being referred to by the “wrong” gender (due to their sex) often for years before transitioning.

So when a baby is born and the parents hear, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”, that is a statement of what sex the baby is. One’s true gender (may match the sex, or may not) is revealed much later when the individual becomes old enough or aware enough to express the gender identity of their brain.

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. To be fair, I tend to think of a “Sex Party” as something completely unrelated to babies (unless you’re making them). I do think it’s important to make sure people understand the distinction between sex and gender, but in a case like this I don’t really blame the parents for trying to equate the two, if only to use the less racy word…

    • Ali,
      I completely agree… I should have mentioned the original party I was referring to was thrown by a fun couple who who were *trying* to name it something racy and attention-grabbing. To those who are a little more shy, “Find out the Sex of the Baby Party” should suffice. 🙂
      Thanks for reading!

  2. Thank you for making these distinctions….. so many people are simply not able to understand the fact that sex and gender are different nor do some care… any thing that makes one uncomfortable is to be avoided….. I wonder how these same people would feel if they were gender different themselves……. I knew a little girl who played on my husbands soccer team when she was about 5 or 6 yrs… A lovely human being with an older sister and 2 wonderful parents – who were having the hardest time accepting their daughters desire to be considered a boy…. My husband and I allowed her to go by the name she chose to be called and penciled it in on the roster we received…. but others were less than kind to this sweet innocent kid…. I am certain Life is hard enough when one is gender different than one feels, I just wish people did not fear that which or who is different and allowed kids to be free to be themselves……

    • Lyn, thank you… it’s people like you and your husband who make life easier (and happier) for gender-variant individuals!!

    • You might want to start by calling him by correct pronouns when you talk about him. Misgendering him right now kind of defeats the purpose. I do think it’s great that you are supportive of him though, and I wish more people could be like that.

  3. A concise explanation. Yes, I do wish all parents would realize that the gender of their baby is revealed not at birth, but a few years later.

    I always wonder though why parents get so excited at finding out the “gender” (sex) of their baby. When someone says “it’s a boy/girl” they cry for joy as if they got the “right” answer, when most of the times they don’t care either way. But now that they “know” they pigeonhole and build up all these expectations for this little person who is not even born and has no concept of gender yet.

  4. […] not their sex.  (For a more detailed explanation of these two concepts, please check out my Gender Vs. Sex […]

  5. Reblogged this on Talk About Gender and commented:
    Gender Vs. Sex, well written piece on the very important difference between these two!

  6. I love your blog, and I agree with the spirit of this post, but I wonder if sex is more complicated, more nuanced, than simply the genitals we are born with. What makes one the “male” or “female” sex seems to be the average anatomical product of genetics and hormones. How, then, do we define non-normative anatomical variation, from genitals to the larger body to the brain? Male and female definitions aren’t quite adequate, so we use the term “intersex”… a word that seems to be limited exclusively to conditions of genital or genetic variation.

    Sometimes I wonder if what we call “gender” is not the outward expression of a form of intersex that research has hinted at, but which we still don’t fully understand… one involving the anatomy of the brain. I would speculate that the anatomy of the brain is just as vital to a normative male or female outcome as the anatomy of the genitals, and that, perhaps, transgender people are a form of intersex (not simply male or female). If this is true- and there is some research out there to suggest it is- perhaps transpeople are not expressing their “gender”, but rather their unique anatomical sex.

    Just a thought. Thank you for all you do. Your blog has been very helpful to myself and my family!

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