Gender, Sex, and Genitals

Cis people, we have work to do. I’m calling you in with me to do this work of dismantling the systems that hold us all down, and I want us to do this by starting with educating one another.

Today, let’s talk about gender, sex, and genitals–what they are and what they aren’t. I know a lot of us are confused, because we’ve been taught by our binary-loving system that gender and sex and genitals are all the same things. We’ve been taught that genitals come in exactly two forms–either penis or vagina–and that sex and gender necessarily follow that format, as well.

We’re wrong. We’ve been taught wrong.

Don’t panic.

We can fix this.

Let’s start with genitals. This probably seems both the most and least confusing all at once–because of course it’s always penis or vagina, right? Except no. Intersex people exist. And some intersex people have genitals that aren’t clearly ‘penis’ or ‘vagina’. (This is not the case for all intersex people.) And even when a person’s outer genitals look a certain way, their inner anatomy may not match. Or their chromosomes may not match. Their hormones may not match. So–even our genitalia doesn’t fall on a strict binary.

Okay, so what about sex, then? Isn’t sex a biological thing? Yes, and no. Mostly, we assign sex based on genitals. We ‘sex’ people and animals based on what we observe their outward genitals to be. So this can only be as biological as our constructed categories. That is: we’ve made some categories to describe what we’ve observed. And what we’ve observed is that biology–genitalia–doesn’t follow a strict binary. It follows a continuum. So sex can’t be a strict binary, either. If we are going to insist that sex be assigned based upon genitalia, then we must allow that sex exist as a continuum, as well–and recognize that it is a category we’ve made up to describe something we’ve observed.

Moving on to gender, then. Gender has two parts: identity and expression.

Gender identity is a person’s inward self-definition. You can try this yourself, at home, on the bus, or wherever you’re reading: I am ________. A woman? A trans man? Non-binary? Agender? Genderfluid? All of these, and many others, are valid answers here. This is completely detached from anything else about a person–what genitals a person possesses, what sex/gender a person was assigned at birth, etc.

Gender expression is a person’s outer presentation of self. This could include clothing, hair style, make-up or lack thereof, shaving or not, handbags or briefcases or none at all, bow ties or hair ties, or just about any other thing one might use to outwardly indicate a sense of self. Gender expression may or may not hinge upon one’s self-defined gender identity, one’s sex, and/or one’s genitalia. For example, I am a cisgender (identifying as the gender I was assigned at birth) cissex (identifying as the sex I was assigned at birth) woman who often presents in a feminine manner, but who often presented quite masculinely in my undergrad days. I’ve always self-identified female regardless of how I’ve expressed.

Figuring out that these things are all actually separate things is huge. Realizing how much of our lives exist on continuums as opposed to in strict binaries is amazing.

If we start here, educating one another with this information, we can begin to set ourselves and our transgender siblings free.

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