Understanding Your Sex, Gender, & Gender Identity

by Andres Carrion | July 2020

Sex, gender, and gender identity, are all terms that are constantly used interchangeably, though all are different. Sex refers to a decision made by a medical professional as to whether a person was born male, female, or intersex. Sex has been used to describe a person’s biological characteristics that are associated with someone’s maleness or femaleness, though many argue that “biological sex” is also inherently socially constructed. The traits used to determine someone’s sex are their physical reproductive organs (e.g., penis and vulva) and their chromosomal composition.  

Gender is a culturally-dependent and socially-constructed term used to describe the roles, responsibilities, and expectations of behavior for someone of a specific sex. Gender is dependent on time and culture because gender looks different across cultures and across time. For instance, many cultures celebrate more than two genders, and the way gender is expressed today is not the way it was expressed in the past or the way it will be expressed in the future. Gender identity refers to the way you feel on the inside. Your sex and gender may “match up,” but it does not have to! Gender expression is how you outwardly present your gender identity through your behaviors, your attire, your voice, and so many others.

Like sexual orientation, there are many different labels people use to describe their gender identity. Some of the more common ones are cisgender male, cisgender female, transgender male, transgender female, gender non-conforming, gender queer, and gender non-binary. The term “cis” refers to “on the same side.” So, cisgender is when a person’s gender identity and their sex assigned at birth are “on the same side” or that they “match up.” In other words, a cisgender man is someone who was assigned male sex at birth and identifies their gender as a man. A cisgender woman is someone was assigned female sex at birth and identifies their gender as a woman. The term “trans” refers to “on the opposite side.” So, transgender is when a person’s gender identity and their sex assigned at birth are “on opposite sides,” or they do not “match up.” In other words, a transgender man is someone who was assigned female sex at birth but identifies their gender as a man.  A transgender woman is someone who was assigned male sex at birth but identifies their gender as a woman. Genderqueer, gender nonconforming, and gender non-binary are gender identity labels that refer to people whose gender identity is neutral, meaning their gender does not fall on the masculine-feminine binary. These people may feel as though their gender is in between the gender binary, they male feel as though their gender is composed of both male and female characteristics, or they may feel that their gender is not composed of male nor female characteristics. There are many gender identities, and like sexual orientation, the labels people use to describe their gender are constantly evolving to encompass more and more identities and expressions.

You may have questions regarding your own gender identity, as it can be confusing (and maybe jarring) to learn that there are more genders than just men and women. For some people, they say they have always known their gender, but for others, it can take time to figure out.  Taking some time to reflect and explore your gender is a great step towards understanding your identity. Your therapist along with a strong support network can also work with you as you explore and understand yourself.

Finally, gender (along with race) is one of the first things we notice about others, which is why gender is so important to many people – especially those who are so marginalized. So, even if you don’t understand someone’s gender identity or expression, it’s important to respect it.

Take-aways:

  • Sex, gender, and gender identity are all important parts of who we are but are all different.
  • Sex refers to a decision made by a medical professional as to whether someone is born male, female, or intersex based of biological characteristics.
  • Gender is a socially-constructed term that refers to the roles and responsibilities based off of someone’s sex assigned at birth.
  • Gender identity refers to how someone feels on the inside in regards to their sex assigned at birth and gender. You sex assigned at birth and gender identity may not “match up,” and that is okay!
  • There are many different labels used to describe gender identities, and like sexual orientation, these terms are constantly evolving.
  • Understanding your gender identity may be a confusing and long process, but your support network and therapist can help you through this process!