Sex vs. Gender?


"A transgender man's sex is male and a transgender woman's sex is female."

In their lawsuit against the State of North Carolina, the United States Department of Justice laid out one of the clearest definitions for what it means to be transgender I've ever seen. 

In line 34, they said, "Transgender individuals are individuals who have a gender identity that does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. A transgender man's sex is male and a transgender woman's sex is female." 

It's simple, it's clear, and it's accurate. Most people understand the first line - that trans folks are those who were assigned a gender or sex at birth that's not accurate. The doctor looked at their genitalia, made a proclamation, and everyone went along with it until the person in question spoke up and said, "not so much."

It's the second sentence in that definition - that a transgender man's sex is male and a transgender woman's sex is female - that caught so many folks off guard, including many folks who proudly call themselves allies to the trans community.

This column is directed at them - the folks who, like me, are not transgender (you know, cisgender), but dedicate at least some part of our activism to raising up our trans friends and family. I've got a favor to ask of y'all, and I hope you'll come along with me here. 

We've all heard the trope that sex and gender are two different things, right? We may have even used it ourselves when we're out doing our thing. We've probably also gone so far as to use the phrase "gender identity," implicitly inferring that cis people have a gender but trans people have a "gender identity."

It's an easy idea to parrot, but it's really dangerous and we need to stop. I know, we feel like we're helping when we can get a fellow cis person to understand what it means to be trans, but in reality, we're helping spread the false and harmful narrative that trans folks are playing pretend and we're just humoring them. 

When we assert the idea that sex and gender are two separate things, we're perpetuating the myth that someone's "biological sex" is real but their gender is just an identity - a personality they're trying on. We're saying that, no matter how much someone changes their hair, their clothing, their hormones, or even their bodies - deep down, they'll never truly be who they say they are. That's harmful, and it's even worse when it comes from those of us who consider ourselves to be allies.

There are some things we're going to have to re-learn. (Yes, friends, we've got to do the work and change our thinking.) A woman who has a penis doesn't have a "male" body. She has her body. And since she's female, it's a female body. It's a female penis. Same goes for a man who has a vagina, or someone who's genderqueer and the genitalia they may or may not have.

Some people choose to have genital reconstruction surgery. Some don't. Even the thought-to-be-progressive terms "sex reassignment" or "gender confirmation surgery" assume that body parts have inherent genders or that something is wrong with a person that needs to be "reassigned" or fixed.

As the DOJ points out, "an individual's 'sex' consists of multiple factors...Among those factors are hormones, external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, chromosomes, and gender identity, which is an individual's internal sense of being male or female." All of those things together are what define our sex. Gender identity is part of that - it's not a separate concept, and that goes for all of us, both cis and trans. 

When we, as cis folks, continue to push the sex-isn't-gender paradigm, we're undermining our trans family and friends' abilities to control their narratives. Every time we use the phrase "male-bodied" or "female chromosomes" or any other gendered name for something physiological, we're claiming a power that does not belong to us. How is it that we all become scientists every time we talk about trans folks? If I'm not someone's doctor, do I really need to concern myself with what types of chromosomes someone has? Does anyone? No, we don't. (Besides, to repeat it one more time - if someone's female, they've got female chromosomes. Simple!) 

This idea certainly isn't new - trans and cis experts have been saying it for years. We just haven't been listening. That needs to stop, like, yesterday. We can't call ourselves allies if we refuse to listen to and learn from trans people

Allies don't concern themselves with someone's chromosomes or someone's genitalia. We focus on someone's happiness, safety, and well-being. We're here to support our friends and family in whatever it is they need from us - and that's different for everyone. We're the cheerleaders, the backup dancers, and the step-stool holders. Let's stop doing damage under the guise of being "helpful."



Robbie Medwed is an Atlanta-based LGBT activist. Follow him on Twitter: @rjmedwed


Image by torbakhopper via Flickr and a CC license

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