Beyond binary sex and gender
Among the first questions that pregnant people get when they tell others that they are expecting are "what is the baby's sex" and “is it a boy or a girl?” However, sex and gender are a lot more complicated than just the binary sex that is assigned at birth.
What is sex?
Sex is an individual’s biological status as a male, female, or something else. Sex is usually, but not always assigned at birth and is associated with physical attributes, such as the baby’s anatomy (penis or vagina). In addition, it can also be based on a person's chromosomes. The elements that determine the baby’s assigned sex start as early as the fertilization phase:
Each sperm has either an X or a Y chromosome in it. All eggs have an X chromosome.
When a sperm fertilizes an egg, its X or Y chromosome combines with the X chromosome of the egg.
A person with XX chromosomes usually (but not always) has female sex and reproductive organs (eg vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries), and is therefore usually assigned biologically a female based on the reproductive organs at birth.
A person with XY chromosomes usually (but not always) has male sex and reproductive organs (eg penis and testes), and is therefore usually assigned biologically male based on the presence of the penis and/or testes.
- However, there are some individuals with vaginas that have XY or other sex chromosomes and some persons with a penis that have XX or other sex chromosomes.
A female sex is usually assigned to a person at birth who has a vagina
A male sex is usually assigned to a person at birth who has a penis
Individuals born with any variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones or genitals that, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, "do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies".
What is gender?
Gender is different from sex. Gender is a legal, social status, and societal expectation regarding behaviors and characteristics. Notice how we are not talking about body parts when discussing gender — as it more about how one is expected to act by society. Think of gender as a fluid expression that can change each day for some people.
Gender identity is how one feels on the inside, and it may also be how a person chooses to express themselves through clothing, behavior, and appearance. This is a feeling that may occur very early in a person’s life or later.
Here are some key terms of gender identity:
When a person’s gender aligns with the societal expectation of their assigned sex at birth
This term used by a person that does not identify as a woman/man or male/female they identify as ‘gender-neutral’ or ‘non-binary,’ meaning that they do not identify with the binary gender terms. Some people don’t identify with any gender and some people’s gender can change over time.
Set of behaviors and attributes that are aligned with the societal expectations of a female individual
Set of behaviors and attributes that are aligned with the societal expectations of a male individual
When a person’s gender identity falls outside the binary understanding of gender (neither male nor female)
An umbrella term used to describe people whose gender identity and/or gender role do not conform to what is typically associated with their sex assigned at birth. While the term “transgender” is commonly accepted, not all transgender individuals self‐identify as transgender.
While gender and sex might seem confusing at the moment just remember that sex is a biological term used at birth and gender is a form of societal expression that can change with time. It is essential to understand the difference between gender and sex in order to use the appropriate terms when discussing them. Doing so helps in the normalization of this language and discussion surrounding gender fluidity.