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Gender and Gender Identity

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More Than Just Physical


Sex and gender are terms that are often used interchangeably and frequently seen as synonymous. For purposes of a discussion that leads to greater understanding of human sexuality, let’s consider sex and gender as separate concepts. Additionally, let’s examine variations and aspects of sex and gender. And let’s further consider the notion that one’s sex and gender may not be defined in the extremes but instead along a continuum.

Sex and gender can be discussed and understood in terms of physical, psychological, social, and emotional perspectives. What do the various labels mean? What is meant by sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation? This is an attempt to delineate the differences and clarify the terminology.


SEX (Physical)
Male or Female

Sex is described with regard to physical elements and in terms of one’s biology and anatomy. A person’s sex is defined as his or her medical assignment as manifest through organs, genitals, hormones, and chromosomes.  A person might be male or female. Or a person might be intersex (hermaphroditic).

GENDER IDENTITY (Psychological)
Man or Woman

Gender identity is one’s psychological understanding of self. It is defined in terms of roles, perceptions, and self concept. A person’s gender identity can be described as the way in which he or she views him or herself. A person might be a man (boy) or a woman (girl). Or a person might be transgender, genderqueer, two-spirited, or third-gender.

Masculine or Feminine

Gender expression is a social construct. It can be defined with regard to societal expectations and interpretations. A person’s gender expression can be described as the way in which he or she communicates his or her gender to others. It is manifest through outward appearance, mannerisms, clothing, hair style, and speech pattern.  A person might be masculine (butch, top) or feminine (femme, bottom). Or a person might be agender, androgynous, or a transvestite.

Homosexual or Heterosexual

Sexual orientation is described as one’s emotional identity. It can be defined in terms of one’s romantic or erotic response. A person’s sexual orientation is described with regard to sexual behavior and is manifest through attraction, affection, relationships, and love.  A person who is attracted to persons of the same sex are homosexual (gay, lesbian) and a person who is attracted to persons of the opposite sex are heterosexual (straight). A person might also be bisexual (both sexes), asexual (neither sex), pansexual (all variations), or omnisexual (all variations).



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Gender Bender

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Sex and Gender Across the Spectrum


In an attempt to understand sex and gender, it is important to consider new perspectives and ever-widening definitions and understandings of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as they exist across a spectrum of experiences.


To that end, one of the key points is the concept of a non-binary understanding of sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.  There is a long-respected research-based view of an individual’s range of experiences along a continuum. Matters of sex and gender should not be defined in mutually exclusive dualistic terms, but in more fluid, sometimes ambiguous, terms. When thinking about sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, researchers have come to embrace a view that understands a range of experiences on a kind of broad-band spectrum.



When thinking about the sexual notions of male and female, we are asked to also consider a variety of definitions in between the two binary labels, including intersex presentations. 


When thinking about the gender identity notions of man (boy) and woman (girl), we are asked to also consider a range of definitions in between the two designations, including gender fluid, gender non-conforming, gender variant, and gender queer identities.  Transgender and transsexual persons fall within this spectrum.


When thinking about the gender expression notions of masculine and feminine, we are asked to also consider a variety of ambiguous or mixed expressions in between, including agender and androgynous expressions.


When thinking about the sexual orientation notions of heterosexual (straight) and homosexual (gay, lesbian), we are asked to also consider a range of definitions in between the two extremes, including bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, polysexual, and asexual orientations.



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Sex and Gender Definitions



Biological sex includes external genitalia, internal reproductive structures, chromosomes, hormone levels, and secondary sex characteristics such as breasts, facial and body hair, and fat distribution. These characteristics are objective in that they can be seen and measured (with appropriate technology). The scale consists not just of two categories (male and female) but is actually a continuum, with most people existing somewhere near one end or the other. The space more in the middle is occupied by intersex people (formerly, hermaphrodites), who have combinations of characteristics typical of males and those typical of females, such as both a testis and an ovary, or XY chromosomes (the usual male pattern) and a vagina, or they may have features that are not completely male or completely female, such as an organ that could be thought of as a small penis or a large clitoris, or an XXY chromosomal pattern.



Gender identity is how people think of themselves and identify in terms of sex (man, woman, boy, girl). Gender identity is a psychological quality. Unlike biological sex, it can't be observed or measured (at least by current means), only reported by the individual. Like biological sex, it consists of more than two categories, and there's space in the middle for those who identify as a third gender, both (two-spirit), or neither (genderqueer). We lack language for this intermediate position because everyone in our culture is supposed to identify unequivocally with one of the two extreme categories. In fact, many people feel that they have masculine and feminine aspects of their psyches, and some people, fearing that they do, seek to purge themselves of one or the other by acting in exaggerated sex-stereotyped ways.



Gender expression is everything we do that communicates our sex/gender to others: clothing, hair styles, mannerisms, way of speaking, and roles we take in interactions. This communication may be purposeful or accidental. It could also be called social gender because it relates to interactions between people. Trappings of one gender or the other may be forced on us as children or by dress codes at school or work. Gender expression is a continuum, with feminine at one end and masculine at the other. In between are gender expressions that are androgynous (neither masculine nor feminine) and those that combine elements of the two (sometimes called gender bending). Gender expression can vary for an individual from day to day or in different situations, but most people can identify a range on the scale where they feel the most comfortable. Some people are comfortable with a wider range of gender expression than others.



Sexual orientation indicates who we are erotically attracted to. The ends of this scale are labeled "attracted to women" and "attracted to men," rather than "homosexual" and "heterosexual," to avoid confusion as we discuss the concepts of sex and gender. In the mid-range is bisexuality. There are also people who are asexual (attracted to neither men nor women). We tend to think of most people as falling into one of the two extreme categories (attracted to women or attracted to men), whether they are straight or gay, with only a small minority clustering around the bisexual middle. However, Kinsey's studies showed that most people are in fact not at one extreme of this continuum or the other, but occupy some position between.


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Scientific American: New Science of Sex and Gender

Psychology Today: Sex Differences and Gender Differences


The Sociology of Gender

The sociology of gender is a prominent subfield of sociology. Social interaction directly correlated with sociology regarding social structure. One of the most important social structures is status. This is determined based on position that an individual possesses which effects how he/she will be treated by society. One of the most important statuses an individual claims is gender. Public discourse and the academic literature generally use the term gender for the perceived or projected (self-identified) masculinity or femininity of a person.

The term “gender role” was coined by John Money in a seminal 1955 paper where he defined it as "all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman."

A person's gender is complex, encompassing countless characteristics of appearance, speech, movement and other factors not solely limited to biological sex. Societies tend to have binary gender systems in which everyone is categorized as male or female. Some societies include a third gender role. For instance, the Native American Two-Spirit people and the Hijras of India. There is debate over the extent to which gender is a social construct or a biological construct.



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Pink & Blue: Communicating Gender to Children

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Scarleteen: Sex Ed For The Real World

Ted Talk: Why is Gender Identity so Important?

Is Gender a Social Construct?


Romantic Attraction


Consider these terms used to describe romantic attraction:


Attraction to men, males, and/or masculinity


Attraction to women, females, and/or femininity


Attraction to non-cisgendered people, including genderqueer and transsexual people and expressions


Sexual Orientation Defined

Gender Identity Defined

Gender Expression Defined

Gender Queer Defined

Queer Defined

Gay Stereotypes

Drag and Cross Dressing


Sex and Gender Categories


Consider these sex and gender categories and the related terms within each category:


Biological Sex:

Male / Female / Intersex


Gender Expression:

Masculine / Butch / Feminine / Femme / Agender / Androgynous


Gender Identity:

Cisgender Man / Cisgender Woman / Transgender / Trans Man / Trans Woman / Genderqueer

Sexual Orientation:

Straight / Gay / Lesbian / Bisexual / Pansexual / Polysexual / Asexual


Romantic Attraction:

Aromantic / Androphilic / Gynephilic / Skoliophilic


Sex and Gender Intro: A Beginner’s Guide

APA: Understanding Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Planned Parenthood: Sexual Orientation and Gender

Wikipedia: Sociology of Gender

Medical News Today: Difference Between Sex and Gender

Scientific American: New Science of Sex and Gender

Psychology Today: Sex Differences and Gender Differences


Teaching Sex, Sexual Orientation, Gender Expression, Gender Identity


A Binary System


A significant barrier to creating fully inclusive schools is the presumption that sex, gender and sexual orientation fit neatly into a binary model.


This binary world is populated by boys and girls who are viewed as polar opposites. This world conflates biology, gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation, relegating people to rigid categories: male or female, gay or straight.


Schools have a history of reinforcing binary perceptions of sex and gender. Even before children enter most schools for the first time, parents or guardians are asked to check male or female boxes on registration forms. On the first day of school, teachers might shepherd students to class in boy and girl lines. Restrooms are designated for boys and girls. Everywhere there are expectations about what kind of imaginative play and dress-up is appropriate for whom, about who is naturally rambunctious and who is predestined to quiet studying. As students get older, they are subjected to gendered expectations about extracurricular activities, dating and dress—even what colleges and careers they’re encouraged to pursue after graduation.


If we truly want to include all students, we need to look beyond binaries to create practices that include school communities’ diverse representation of biological sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.



Biological Sex


Sex refers to a person’s anatomy, physical attributes such as external sex organs, sex chromosomes and internal reproductive structures.


For most people, the anatomical indicators of sex line up in a way that is typically understood as male or female. However, intersex conditions also occur naturally in all species, including humans. Intersex refers to a variety of conditions in which an individual is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical understanding of female or male bodies. 


In the past three decades, more than 25 genes have been identified that were once believed to be associated solely with male or female biology, but in fact exhibit more complex, nonbinary variations. With the advent of new scientific knowledge, it is increasingly evident that biological sex does not fit a binary model. Intersex conditions are increasingly being recognized as naturally occurring variations of human physiology.


Following years of organizing by intersex activists, momentum is growing to end what was once a standard practice of “gender-normalizing surgery” performed on intersex infants with ambiguous genitalia. In 2013, the United Nations condemned the use of this unnecessary surgery on infants, putting it in the same category as involuntary sterilization, unethical experimentation or reparative therapy when enforced or administered without the free and informed consent of the person receiving the surgery.



Gender Identity


Gender identity is an individual’s deeply held sense of being male, female or another gender. This is separate from biological sex.


Some children become aware at a very young age that their gender identity does not align with their physical sex characteristics, even expressing the disconnect as soon as they can talk. Other transgender and gender-expansive people recognize their gender identity during adolescence or adulthood.


Individuals whose biological sex and gender identity “match” rarely think about the alignment of biology and identity because they have the privilege of being considered normal by society. People whose gender identity and biological sex align are called cisgender. Cisgender is an important word because it names the dominant experience rather than simply seeing it as the default.


Individuals living comfortably outside of typical male/female expectations and identities are found in every region of the globe. The calabai and calalai of Indonesia, the two-spirit Native Americans found in some First Nation cultures, and the hijra of India all represent more complex understandings of gender than a binary gender model allows. At least seven countries (including Australia, Bangladesh, Germany, India, Nepal, New Zealand and Pakistan) recognize a third gender for legal documents. As people around the world use a growing variety of terms to communicate their gender identities, Facebook now offers its users 52 options with which to define their gender.



Gender Expression


Gender expression can be defined as the way we show our gender to the world around us. Societal expectations of gender expression are reinforced in almost every area of life. Even very young children are clear about the gendered choices that boys and girls are “supposed to” make in relation to toys, colors, clothes, games and activities.


Girls whose gender expression is seen as somewhat masculine are often considered tomboys. Depending on the context and the degree to which they transgress norms, tomboys might be seen positively, neutrally or negatively. For example, a girl who identifies as a gamer geek, cuts her hair short and wears clothing perceived as masculine may be labeled as a “cute tomboy” or met with words intended to hurt, such as dyke or freak.


Positive or neutral labels are harder to come by for boys whose sex and gender expression are seen as incongruent. Common words used to describe such boys tend to be delivered with negative (sometimes hateful) intentions, words like sissy and faggot. There also is little room for boys to expand their gender expression. Just wearing a scarf or walking in a stereotypically feminine way can lead to abuse from peers, educators or family members.



Sexual Orientation


Sexual orientation is about our physical, emotional and/or romantic attractions to others. Like gender identity, sexual orientation is internally held knowledge. In multiple studies, LGBT youth reported being aware of their sexual orientation during elementary school, but waited to disclose their orientation to others until middle or high school.


Students might identify as bisexual, pansexual, queer, asexual or use a host of other words that reflect their capacity to be attracted to more than one sex or gender or not to feel sexual attraction at all. This emerging language illuminates a complex world in which simple either/or designations such as gay or straight are insufficient.


The overlap and conflation of gender identity and sexual orientation can be confusing for individuals trying to make sense of their own identities as well as for those who are clear about their identities. It can also be complicated for anyone seeking to support them. In her book Gender Born, Gender Made, psychologist Diane Ehrensaft describes a teenage client who, over the course of a few weeks, identified in seemingly contradicting ways, including as androgynous, as a gay boy and—eventually—as a heterosexual transgender female. This young person was involved in a dynamic process that illustrated both the way sexual orientation and gender identity are intertwined and how they are separate.



Embracing a Spectrum Model


As we have seen, binary notions of gender, biology and sexual orientation exclude large swaths of human diversity. This diversity can be better understood by using spectrum-based models. Spectra make room for anyone whose experiences do not narrowly fit into binary choices such as man/woman, feminine/masculine or straight/gay. 


Gender-expansive and genderqueer are two of many terms used by people to describe themselves as somewhere on a gender spectrum—outside of the either/or choices relating to sex and gender.


A spectrum model not only makes room for people who are gender-expansive but for those who are perceived to be more typical as well. A spectrum provides an avenue to a deeper understanding of the separate yet interrelated concepts of biological sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. For educators, this understanding is a critical first step toward changing school-based practices and toward being advocates for all students—regardless of where they fit on any spectrum.


[Source: Teaching Tolerance]






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