If you are also among the millions who do not understand the difference between different sexes and genders and the primary difference between gender and sex, then this article is just for you. Its not just black and white and humans definitely form the shades of grey. Humans or homo sapiens as they say are one of the most complex creatures to have walked the earth and so its only natural that their defining characteristics are also not simple either.

Everyone is different. Everyone is unique. This has been taught to us since the day we join a school. We are taught to accept people for their differences and love them for who they are. But we can’t really love and accept till we understand the differences. So, lets understand these differences and form a healthier society.

The Gender Unicorn - Source: Trans-Student Educational Resources

Understanding Gender vs Sex

During the prenatal care, at birth, new-borns are assigned a sex- either male or female- based on the external genitalia. In some cases, the babies present more than one type of sexual characteristics. These children are categorized under the umbrella of intersex. The parents however chose a sex and it is assigned to them. A more offensive term for intersex is Hermaphrodite. People who identify as intersex have a difference of sexual development (DSD).

Different Sexes - Source: Center For Gender Sanity

DSD is used to describe chromosomes, anatomy or sex characteristics that can’t be categorised as male or female. They may have 1 chromosome known as Turner’s Syndrome or three or more known as Klinefelter Syndrome and this affects the degree to which their lives vary. Regardless it is important to refer to people in the manner of their preference.

Now let us look at the factors that are responsible for determining the sex of a person

  • Genitalia- Many believe that genitalia help in determining the sex of a person- males have penises women have vaginas. But this excludes those individuals who refuse to have a bottom surgery done. For example, a Transgender female who was assigned male at birth and identifies as a woman is a female with penis.

  • Chromosomes- We all have 23 pairs of chromosomes in our body. Males have X with Y and females have X with X. But again, this doesn’t account for trans-people with DSD. For example, a Transgender man can be male with XX chromosomes.

  • Primary Sex Characteristics/Hormonal Influence- When a foetus is conceived, it starts as a female and it is only later that the genitalia are formed. That is why regardless of your sex, you have nipples. So, it is almost natural to have all three types of hormones- oestrogen, progesterone & testosterone. In males however, testosterone is dominant and in females it is oestrogen and progesterone that dominates. And so, dividing on the basis of hormonal influence isn’t also fool-proof.

  • Secondary Sex Characteristics- The likes of these include facial hair, breast tissues & vocal range. These are used to make quick assessments and are not really used to differentiate. For example, some females may go onto develop facial hair and some males might not grow beard at all.

Gender per say is a bit complicated. But let’s start with defining the term. Gender goes beyond one’s genitalia and denotes the societal and cultural role of each sex in the society. It includes the person’s perception, understanding and expectations of themselves and their inner sense of who they are, who they are meant to be and how they want to interact with the world. While sex of a person can be changed with surgery, changing one’s gender is not that easy as it symbolizes them as an individual and is their identity.

Gender can refer to either of the sexes (male or female), both or none. It is a very personal characteristic as it shows what one feels like on the inside and usually isn’t outwardly expressed. Gender in its entirety comprises of-

  • Gender Identity- how one identifies oneself

  • Gender Expression- the physical manifestation of one’s gender through clothing, hairstyle, body shape etc.

  • Gender Norms- how other perceive someone and how they expect them to behave

  • Gender Relations- how one interacts with others

Gender Identity

As time progresses and babies become adults, their inner sense of self also grows. This is called gender identity. It encapsulates how they see themselves, how they want to express themselves and how they want the world to view them. It is a person’s self-concept as a male, female, both or neither. The gender identity of a person can align with the sex assigned to them at birth or it may not.

Here we stop and discuss the different types of gender identities-

  • Cisgender- A person whose sex given at birth aligns with the gender they identify with. For example, if a female assigned at birth identifies as a woman, she is a cisgender woman. It is the opposite of Transgender.

  • Transgender- A person whose gender identity doesn’t conform to their sex assigned at birth. For example, if a person was assigned female at birth but identifies as a man is called a Trans-man. They may or may not chose to undergo surgery to align their identified gender with their sex. Individuals who desire to permanently transition to their identified gender are all Transsexual. They form a subset of Transgenders.

  • Non-binary- People who fall in this category do not identify themselves as exclusively masculine or feminine but are outside the gender binary. It simply means not identifying as either of the sexes. It includes people having two or three genders- Bigender & Trigender respectively, having no gender- Agender or Genderless, having a fluctuating gender identity (not necessarily binary)- Gender Fluid, those who identify partially or mostly as one gender and at the same time with another gender- Demi Gender and those who do not name their gender- Third Gender.

Different Sexes - Source: Center For Gender Sanity

Gender Expression

As mentioned above, it explains how one chose to express one self. It usually reflects a person’s gender identity but that might not always be the case. It is completely different from sexual orientation. One may choose to express themselves as any or both or none of the binary categories.

  • Masculine- These people take on roles and qualities which are deemed fit for a man or boy. It is not to be forgotten that women can also express masculine traits or behaviours. They are often called Tomboy or Butch.

  • Feminine- These people take on roles and qualities which are appropriate for a woman or girl. Many men can exhibit feminine traits and behaviours and they are called Effeminate or Femme.

  • Androgynous- It represents a set of people who express themselves as a mixture of both masculine and feminine. It may be expressed with regards to gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation or biological sex. When androgyny refers to biological sex, it is termed as intersex. With reference to gender identity, people may refer to themselves as non-binary or gender neutral. As a form of gender expression, it may be achieved using personal grooming or fashion.

Different Sexes - Source: Center For Gender Sanity

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation of a person refers to his/her/their sexual attraction to persons of opposite sex or gender, same sex or gender, both sexes or genders and neither sexes or genders. They are mainly-

  • Heterosexuality- It refers to romantic or sexual attraction to persons of opposite sex or gender. For example, a person who identifies as a male like someone who identifies as a female.

  • Homosexuality- It refers to romantic or sexual attraction to persons of same sex or gender. Commonly if a male is attracted to another males, he is referred to as gay. Females when attracted to other females are called lesbians. Although gay is a wider term and is applicable for both males and females.

  • Bisexuality- It is a romantic or sexual attraction towards one or more sexes or genders. A subset of bisexuality is pansexuality which can be defined as romantic or sexual attraction towards people regardless of their sex or gender identity. Pansexuals are often called gender-blind.

  • Asexuality- People who lack sexual attraction towards others are termed as asexual. They lack or do not have any interest in or desire for sexual activity. They are called ace and the community is referred to as the ace community.

  • Androphilia & Gynephilia- It is usually used as an alternative to hetero/homosexuality. Androphilia is the attraction to men or masculinity and gynephilia is the attraction to women or femininity. Ambiphilia describes a combination of both androphilia and gynephilia.

Difference between Androphilia/Gynephilia & Homo/Heterosexuality - Source: Gender Expression & Identity

  • Bi-curious- It refers to a phenomenon in which people have some curiosity of sexual activity with person of sex they do not favour.

  • Grey Sexuality- This refers to the spectrum between asexuality and sexuality. Such individuals are referred to as gray-A or grace. This includes those who are sexually attracted to only those with whom they have formed a close emotional bond- Demisexual, those who have sexual desire but no intention of acting upon it- Semisexual, asexual-ish and sexual-ish.

  • Polysexuality- People who are attracted to multiple genders but not all. They encompass many different kinds of sexualities. It can be thought of as an opposite of hetero/homosexuality.

Sex, Gender & Health

We have known for a while now that sex affects one’s health. For example, females are more prone to Alzheimer’s but males have a higher chance of developing Parkinson’s disease.

But now with more research being done in this field, doctors and scientists are finding that biological sex might not be the only factor affecting one’s health. A group of researchers in Canada found out that it is not the sex but the gender of a patient that affects their recover form a condition known as Acute Coronary Syndrome.

Studies shows that there is concrete evidence to back up the fact that how a person identifies themselves in society is real and has a tangible impact on many factors, including health.

With so much information and scientific facts to back it up, it is clear that gender and sex are not to be used interchangeably and in fact have different meanings altogether. It is not as simple as two neat boxes and this complexity is what makes us human. Everyone is beautiful and everyone has a right to be respected equally in the society.