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Sex vs. gender

| Kallie Friede

"Ladies and gentlemen and everyone in between."

Ruby Rose added four simple words to a phrase that every one of us has heard numerous times in our lives. Although the change was simple, the significance was massive. In the mere seconds it took Ruby Rose to address the crowd at the MTV Europe Music Awards, she continued the conversation about sex and gender that has, in recent months, increased in frequency.

Before we start to look at the different aspects of gender, it is essential to differentiate between sex and gender. Your sex is largely determined at birth. You can be biologically male (penis and testes), biologically female (vagina and ovaries) or biologically intersex (genitalia are either ambiguous or fall somewhere along the continuum between male and female). But that is all sex is: a biological expression of one’s chromosomal makeup.

Gender, on the other hand, is different. Our culture operates on a gender binary — that is, a system in which there are only two options, usually polar opposites. One or the other (i.e. black/white, fat/skinny, rich/poor, man/woman). For gender, we have cultural assumptions that, based on someone’s assigned sex, they are either a man/masculine or a woman/feminine, leaving many people feeling marginalized. And, much like the intersex community, those whose gender defies these cultural assumptions (those in the trans* community) are left feeling excluded and unrepresented. Importantly, even those whose assigned biological sex fits on the binary might identify with a gender that defies that binary.

So what is a gender identity? Someone’s gender identity is how they identify on the spectrum of gender: man, woman, transgender, genderqueer, etc. Some people feel that they identify as a man, others identify as a woman, and some people feel that they identify with neither or both at the same time. What is important to note with gender identity is that it is an innate feeling. You don’t choose how you relate to gender or where you fall on the spectrum; where we fall on the gender spectrum is an internal sense. Another important point to make when talking about gender identity and sex is that you cannot assume either of them by just looking at someone.

Gender expression, on the other hand, is something we can see. Gender expression is how you choose to express your gender identity; it is an external manifestation of being a man, woman or trans*. Although it’s not always the case, for many people their gender expression is an outward extension of their gender identity. This can be how we do our hair, if we wear makeup and how we wear it, what clothes we wear or even how we stand. For example, I am biologically female, my gender identity is a woman, but my gender expression varies depending on the day. Some days I’ll do my hair in what I feel is a more feminine way or I’ll wear makeup. Some days (although they are rare), I will wear a dress. Most days, however, I’m in leggings, a sweatshirt and Crocs. Every day when I wake up, I am choosing my gender expression for that day. However, just because someone’s gender expression might give you clues as to what their gender identity might be, you still cannot determine someone’s gender identity or sex based on their gender expression.

When they are laid out on paper, these concepts seem relatively straightforward. You are born with a certain anatomy and assigned a sex, you innately identify with a particular gender and you choose how to express that feeling with what you wear on any given day. However, in our society, we like to think that each of these things influences the next. We would like to think that when we are assigned a biological sex at birth, we will have the same gender identity and we will express that gender identity in a similar way day in and day out. However, that is simply not true. Although that happens to some of us, it isn’t the case for every individual. You can be assigned a sex at birth based off your genitalia and have a gender identity that does not align with the social stereotypes for that gender. Ruby Rose is an excellent example of this. She was born biologically female but has had many interviews in which she talks about her gender fluidity, saying that although she was born biologically female, her gender identity is not that of a man or woman — it’s fluid.

So what can college students do to create a college campus where people of all sexes and gender identities feel welcome and included?

  • First, we can ask our peers what their personal pronouns are. The feminine pronouns are she, her and hers. The masculine pronouns are he, him and his. There are also a variety of neutral/inclusive gender pronouns, the most commonly used being they, them and theirs. The only way to know what pronouns someone uses is to ask.
  • Second, when someone tells you what their pronouns are, use them. Using someone’s pronouns shows that you respect their identity.
  • Third, ask questions. The Women’s and LGBTQ Resource Center offers several training programs and numerous events and programs throughout the academic year. If you’re in a class and the discussion of sex and gender comes up, don’t be afraid to ask any questions that you have. We are here to learn and to grow and we can’t do that if we aren’t asking questions.
  • Finally, be supportive of our fellow Blugolds. We all came here for an education, and we all deserve to be in a safe environment regardless of our identities.

Always remember: Humans are not meant to be put on a scale to measure who we are or what we should be. Whether it is the career we choose, the friends we surround ourselves with, what color Crocs we wear, what our gender expression is or, simply, who we are as a person. there is no right or wrong answer. At the end of the day, I am human, you are human and we all deserve to be validated and celebrated.

Photo caption: Kallie Friede