We've put together some key definitions and information on gender and gender identity.
A lot of the conversation around gender focuses on the relationship between gender and sex, so let's start with the definition of these two words.
What is sex?
Sex is a biological label given to people by doctors when they are born, based on things like their genitalia, hormones and chromosomes.
Society often considers sex to be binary with only two options: male and female. In reality, not everyone fits neatly into these two categories. For example, some people have female-typical exterior anatomy but male-typical interior anatomy, and others have female-typical genitals but male chromosomes. People with these biological variations are called intersex.
Intersex is not just a third, well defined category to be added to male and female: doctors decide whether someone’s variations qualify as intersex, and they often disagree or use different definitions from each other. This is why some people prefer not to use the term ‘biological sex’ and might instead use the phrases ‘assigned male at birth’ (AMAB) or ‘assigned female at birth’ (AFAB). It recognises the fact that when it comes to people’s sex, a doctor is often making a decision, rather than asserting a fact.
What is gender?
Gender encompasses the relationship between a person’s body, their identity and expression, and how they and society views those elements.
It’s hard to define gender because it describes feelings and concepts rather than anything scientific. In fact, people sometimes say that gender is a social construct, which means it is a notion that was invented by society: gender was originally defined through the behaviours and attributes considered appropriate by society for each sex, and this can be called gender roles. There is another way to think about gender however, as something which is an internal, personal feeling, and this is called gender identity.
Again, society often views gender as a binary with two categories: man and woman. It might seem like we have only recently started being critical about these categories, but in fact many cultures have recognised more than two genders for centuries! Muxes are a third gender in the Zapotec cultures in Mexico, and the Bugis people in Indonesia recognise five genders. Even in cultures where gender is seen as a binary, there have always been nonbinary people: individuals who don’t recognise themselves in either category. For example, in 1778 in Norway, Jens Andersson was imprisoned and interrogated after he had married a woman but was found to have a female body. Jens said that he ‘believed he could belong to both genders’.
In general, ideas of gender are still heavily linked to what society views as acceptable behaviour for people of different sexes, and this leads to very narrow definitions. When we consider all the different ways that people can feel about who they are, and how they can feel outside of the traditional definitions, it makes sense to think of gender not as something that can be divided into separate categories, but as a spectrum, where different gender identities overlap and share characteristics with each other.
Gender and sex
Sex and gender are said to align when someone’s gender identity is the same as the gender that society expects them to be based on their sex - for example, if someone is female and identifies as a woman. Sex and gender align for a lot of people, but not for everyone. People for whom the two align can be called cisgender, and people for whom they don’t can be called transgender.
This is another discussion which might feel like it has only recently started happening, but there have always been transgender people. There are records of people living their entire adult lives as a gender not aligned to their sex in the 1800s, even when they risked being put in prison or in asylums if they were found out. You can learn more in our guide Understanding gender : trans identities.
Cisgender, frequently abbreviated to cis, describes people whose gender identity aligns with the sex that they were assigned at birth. Cisgender is an adjective.
Gender identity is the gender someone feels that they are.
Gender expression describes how someone displays their gender, for example through things like clothes or grooming.
Intersex is an umbrella term that describes the wide range of natural biological variations that do not fit neatly into the categories of male or female. Intersex as a noun refers to the biological variations and conditions. When talking about people, intersex is an adjective, for example: ‘an intersex person’.
Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, professor of Biology and Gender studies at Brown University, estimates that around 1.7% of the population is intersex (that’s about the same percentage as people who have red hair!). Doctors disagree on which conditions qualify as intersex, so the estimates vary. In addition, statistics about intersex people are difficult to come by for various reasons: when it is apparent at birth, intersex people are usually given surgery to make their sex fit in with the categories of male or female (this practice is only just starting to get re-examined, and some doctors have apologised for it), some intersex people might not know they are intersex until they reach puberty or get examined for other medical reasons, or they might never know it during their life.
Nonbinary is a gender identity that doesn’t fit in the categories of man or woman. There are other terms people use, like gender-neutral or agender. These terms have different exact meanings, but they all describe having a gender identity that doesn’t fit in these two categories. Some nonbinary people use neutral pronouns, which means they are referred to as they/them.
Transgender, frequently abbreviated to trans, describes people whose gender identity doesn’t align with the sex that they were assigned at birth. Transgender is an adjective.
Transgender often refers to a woman who was assigned male at birth or a man who was assigned female at birth, but it can also be used as an umbrella term which includes people who identify as a gender other than woman or man. When people use the word in that way, they sometimes write it as trans*.
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