What Even Is Gender?

A quickish guide to thinking and talking differently about gender.

What Even Is Gender?
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, K. Luhman and T. Esplin (Pennsylvania State University), et al., and ESO; Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America)

This has been adapted from a presentation first given November 19, 2021.


Thanks for joining me today for What Even Is Gender? Or, A Quickish Guide to Thinking and Talking Differently About Gender.

I wanted to preface this presentation with some rather important notes.

  • While I am passionate about this and it is something that very directly impacts me and my lived experience, I’m not an expert and this isn’t my job.
  • Also, I get this stuff wrong sometimes, too. But I keep trying and learning.
  • A lot of trans and non-binary folks have very different experiences and perspectives on this. We’re not a monolith and can’t speak for anyone but ourselves.
  • Language is always evolving.
  • Different people use different terminology for themselves, and you should always be sure to use the language that someone uses for themselves.
  • And most important of all – and this may seem obvious, but is important to say – don’t make assumptions.

And one final addendum… this is a quickish guide, meaning it’s going to miss out on a lot of important aspects. I strongly encourage folks to check out the additional resources that I’ll mention at the end, as they will add a lot of depth and nuance and history that can’t be captured in this very limited presentation. Please don’t just rely on trans folks like myself to educate you. Be curious!

Before we dig in, I also thought it was extremely important to point out this lesser known piece of history around our binary understandings of sex and gender.

And that is that, yes, those binary understandings are rooted in eugenics and white supremacy. Sit with that for a moment.

I wanted to share this because when we name things, when we can see their true origin and history, it makes it easier to challenge those ideas and to change the way we think. And doing that work truly benefits everyone in the end.

I recommend checking out artist & speaker ALOK’s blog and Instagram as they are not only an amazing artist and poet, but they have been working on a wonderful book report project on the history of sex and gender, where they analyze and summarize books on the subject.

But wait, why am I talking about this?

Well, how we talk about gender often comes up in life, and especially in any sort of social spaces. And while much may be done with the best of intentions, the impact is what really matters. And if we don’t know or talk about the impact, how do we do better?

And right now is also a really fraught time to be transgender and non-binary. While there has certainly been progress over the years, that progress also brings visibility, for better and worse. The “worse” part of that being an escalation of attacks by public figures and politicians on the trans community. Trans-exclusionary media coverage and deeply harmful & discriminatory legislation have been dramatically increasing.

Here’s just one data point on that: from January to April of 2021, 33 states in the US had introduced more than 100 bills that aimed to curb the rights of transgender people across the country. And it hasn’t slowed down or stopped.

And that hyper-visibility – especially for Black and brown trans women and transfemmine folks – often directly translates into violence and even death. Unfortunately, 2021 is on pace to be the deadliest year in America for trans people since they first started recording the numbers.

In fact, tomorrow, November 20th, is the annual Trans Days of Remembrance. The observance is meant to honor the memory of the transgender people whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence.

And so, that is why this is an important conversation to have.

OK, so let’s talk about some terminology. Buckle up… it’s going to be a journey.

I thought I’d start with this because false binaries is very much a theme. Sometimes binaries can be helpful, but often enough they are untrue and worse yet, harmful. They over simplify more complex data and experiences.

And at the same time, they are an incredibly common framework that people use today. In fact, it's one we're about to dive into.

I thought this might be helpful to kick off the gender journey so we all have shared understanding. Of course, this is yet another binary and this is a simplistic definition that does not reflect everyone’s experience – for example, some folks that don’t subscribe to a specific binary gender also do not necessarily consider themselves transgender. And that’s OK!

This is an imperfect framework and set of terms that exist in our current context. It’s in common use right now, though, so we’re going to roll with it for the moment.

But remember my preface… use the language people use for themselves and don’t make assumptions!

Before we can talk about gender, we have to talk about sex. The reason for this is that with our ideas about gender expanding, people tend to fall back on sex as a way to continue to divide and categorize people that they no longer can in a way that feels easy and familiar.

The two are frequently conflated in everything from documents to sign-up forms to everyday conversation.

But sex isn’t gender (though they can and do overlap), and it’s a lot more complex than the overly simplified version we are taught in school. Nevermind that for most people, their sex assigned at birth is based on nothing more than the external appearance of their body. When you think about that, it puts so-called gender reveal parties in a different light, right?

And most importantly, the idea of sex (and especially the phrase “biological sex” or “legal sex”) is often weaponized against marginalized folks, such as intersex folks and trans folks, and it can also be very racialized. The phrase “biological sex” is very often a warning that the person using it is, in fact, trans exclusionary.

For a recent example of how flawed and racialized ideas of sex are weaponized against Black women in particular, I recommend looking-up the racist disqualifications of several Olympic athletes who are Black women in the 2020 Olympics due to their completely natural testosterone levels being deemed “too high”. Remember, our ideas of sex and gender are based on eugenics and white supremacy, and this is a very direct example of how that plays out in the world.

And if you’re not yet aware of the vital work intersex activists are doing to end non-consenual surgery on intersex children, please check out the additional resources at the end for some organizations you can learn from and support.

OK, so now what even is gender?

It’s not someone’s pronouns, legal sex, perceived sex, or even perceived gender expression.

But then what is it?

At the core, gender is a sense of self. It might be static, but it can also change over time or be naturally fluid. It is a social construct, but that doesn’t make it any less important or influential in our lives. It shapes who we are, it shapes how we exist in the world, and the perception of our gender (and sex) shapes how the world responds to us.

And most importantly, you can only know someone’s gender if they share it with you.

After exploring the ideas of sex and gender, I thought it was important to compare the terms for them. I very strongly encourage people to steer away from using the medical terms for sex in referring to groups of people without their consent. The consent part is key there.

If people use the terms for themselves, follow their lead. But don’t make assumptions about someone’s sex – be that the past or present.

Likewise, don’t assume someone’s gender based on their presentation, their pronouns, or physical characteristics. And when they share any of this information with you, be sure to respect it.

You may have come across these terms before, but in case you haven’t, “assigned sex at birth” – shorted to AFAB (assigned female at birth) and AMAB (assigned male at birth) respectively – have been helpful to some folks.

But also, it’s important to point out that while in common use, there are problems with the idea of grouping people by assigned sex at birth, one of which is that it creates yet another false binary. These terms try to distill much more nuanced and unique experiences into two binary buckets, which does everyone a disservice, and very well may be reinforcing cissexism and transmisogyny. But that is a much more complex topic I’m not going to delve into right now.

But wait a second… are sex and gender just another harmful false binary?

Well… kind of, actually.

I wanted to share a few points from an excellent Twitter thread by Alexandra Erin about how sex and gender are in fact another false binary, how they are different, how they overlap, how it’s a big messy thing that’s not binary and we keep trying to force these concepts into narrow definitions and ideas of them to the detriment of everyone, and specifically addressing how trans exclusionary arguments weaponize a false idea of “biological sex”.

Here’s what the tweets say:

The social construct that they dub ‘the immutable fact of biological sex’ is a practice of making assumptions about gametes, chromosomes, and organs based on appearances, superficial body features, and social identifiers, then applying social roles to those assumptions.
This construct of a binary ‘biological sex’ that is supposedly simple and obvious is *not* a completely unworkable way to interact with the world, but it is only workable because it overlaps with gender, and only to the extent that it does so.
Like, approximately none of us are going through life navigating by what chromosomes and gametes we clock from the people we interact with. The ‘biological sex’ people are relating to others as men and women, without any actual input from biology. It’s gender!

This equally excellent Twitter thread by Florence Ashley is something I also recommend checking out. I know we just went through this binary breakdown of what sex and gender are and are not, but surprise: it’s both simpler and more complicated than that, and by considering the two distinct from each other, we force medicalization of transness and perpetuate transphobia. These are just a couple of points I cherry picked from the thread, so please be sure to check it out for full context.

Here’s what the Tweets say:

People, stop teaching and arguing that ‘sex and gender are different; sex is biological, and gender is psychological’. That’s just transphobia with extra steps.
I find it far more useful to think of sex/gender as a multifaceted and flexible construct that incorporates references to appearances, identity, demeanour, anatomy, etc. - and which should be attributed at the individual level by reference to identity.
From a purely descriptive standpoint, there is no truth to the matter as to a person’s ‘sex’ or ‘gender’. We are all uniquely situated in the complex social web of sex/gender. The question then becomes how we can ethically attribute sex/gender. The answer is consensually.

So what do we do with this now?

In the words of Henry Crabgrass from Critical Role’s Campaign 2… “consent, please!” And specifically, if gender is a part of something, make sure it’s handled consensually.

Florence Ashley already pointed that out, in fact – we must practice consent in any sort of situation where gender or sex come up. We need to learn to practice it for ourselves as much as other folks. We must stop non-consensually gendering others. And most importantly, we must truly believe people when they tell us who they are and how they want to be spoken about. We should never try to guess or make assumptions.

So... that was a lot, but hopefully it was helpful and gave you some things to think about and build upon.

Switching gears a bit now, I wanted to talk about spectrums.

Spectrums are often referenced when we talk about sexuality and gender now, and has become the common model for thinking about gender outside of a strict binary. But what is a spectrum really?

When we tend to think about the gender spectrum, we talk about it in a very binary way still, conceptualizing it as a line between woman and man, with people who don’t strictly fit binary ideas of gender occupying space somewhere in the middle of those two points.

It’s “easier”, right? And it still largely conforms to our binary way of thinking we were taught and that society constantly reinforces.

But a spectrum is multi dimensional. It’s not a straight line between two points. It’s complex and aspects of it exist far outside those arbitrary binary points where woman and man exist. And most importantly, it’s going to look different for a lot of people. Culture can also play a huge role and can mean spectrums vary depending on the cultural context.

If you had to place yourself on a spectrum like this, where do you think you’d land?

But I also want to talk about this other model of thinking about gender: gender as a galaxy.

This is how I prefer to talk about gender, because I think it’s a lot more accurate. Each of us and our experience of gender is like its own galaxy. Our galaxies might have similarities (some of which may be real, while others are simply perceived or assumed), but they are all unique to us and made up of different components. They are complex and beautiful. They can change over time. Or simply, our understanding of them can change.

When we approach gender – ours and other people’s – with this kind of mental model, is begins to open up a lot of possibilities while not changing our own individual truths. It also gives everyone more space to just be themselves.

So we talked about terminology. Then we explored spectrums and the idea of gender as a galaxy. Now let’s jump into some key ways to use that information to talk more inclusively about gender.

A quick reminder that I’m not an expert on this, this isn’t comprehensive, and it could very well change over time... but it’s a place to get us started.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Don’t make assumptions.

This goes for people’s experiences as much as the language they use for themselves.

This is an important point, because of the complexities around sex and gender and how it’s weaponized against marginalized folks.

Unless you are a medical provider where it is medically relevant, someone’s “sex” – and I put that into quotes deliberately – does not matter.

And when it is medically relevant, it is MUCH more useful to talk about the specific aspects we conflate with a specific assigned sex, such as someone’s hormone levels or specific organs in terms of medical care and treatment.

Use inclusive language when talking about groups of people.

I’m going to get very specific with two examples here.

This is particularly relevant given the abortion restrictions being put in place in states like Texas. In the pushback against those restrictions, a lot of language is being thrown around that reeks of bio essentialism. But the reality is that not all people with uteruses are women. Likewise, not all women (including cisgender women) have uteruses or can get pregnant.

Another example I’ve encountered a lot as well is the term “female-identified” or some variation of that. I understand the intention of trying to communicate the assumed perception of people and a likely shared experience of misogyny, but it can be incredibly invalidating and exclusionary. It is more helpful to call out directly the experience itself that you are trying to talk about, be it misogyny, transphobia, or something else.

Be thoughtful about how gender and sex are intertwined in your language and the way you talk about different topics. Yes, gender and sex can certainly be politically relevant and important when talking about certain issues, but also, ask yourself if there is a better way to be more inclusive and to stop making assumptions.

Pronouns are the most relevant information you need to know to interact with others respectfully. And pronouns don’t tell you anything about that person’s gender.

I’m going to use artist & activist Chella Man as an example. He has taken some medical transition steps and uses he/him pronouns. Would you think his gender is “man”? Probably. But he’s genderqueer. And while the two aren’t mutually exclusive – he can be a genderqueer man – making assumptions based on his pronouns alone erase an incredibly important part of his identity and erases his unique gender experience.

Some cisgender people chose to use they/them pronouns for themselves for sociopolitical reasons.

Some non-binary and genderqueer people use binary pronouns because they feel fine to them or perhaps because it’s just easier or even safer for them socially. They even may change the pronouns they use based on the context they are in.

Pronouns are important, but they aren’t someone’s gender.

Here’s the thing… most of the time, you don’t need to know someone’s gender to respectfully interact with them and refer to them. Remember… pronouns aren’t gender!

But on some occasions, such as an employee experience survey, it can be helpful to give more dimension. But you cannot know anything about someone’s gender or gender experience without asking them.

And if you previously asked the wrong question, didn’t provide options that reflected someone’s actual experience, or don’t allow them to update their answers after you initially ask the question, you can’t know if someone’s past shared gender is actually true or not still. Gender and gender experience can and does change.

If you truly need to know someone’s gender, ask them. And ask them in an inclusive way that also leaves room for them to opt-out if they aren’t comfortable sharing that information.

This may seem obvious, but this needs to be reiterated. Trans women are women. Trans men are men.

Being cis or trans is an aspect of someone’s gender experience, but it is not their gender.

For example, it may seem helpful to frame things in the context of cis men vs. everyone else, or to keep trans men grouped with other marginalized genders, but it can also be harmful and perpetuate transphobic ideas, including that trans men are closer to the “woman” bucket than they are the “man” bucket (and vice versa for trans women).

It also ignores the fact that a lot of people who are not cis men can also perpetuate misogyny and toxic masculinity (including trans men and cis women). It’s a complicated topic that I am in no way doing justice to in this brief moment, to be honest, but it’s important to acknowledge.

At the same time sociopolitical identity and alignment can be complicated, and I know some trans men who socially and/or politically do feel more kinship with women than cis men. Once again, it’s important to not make assumptions in either direction, and that includes in the language we chose to use.

But wait... how do you then talk inclusively about the group of people who are not-cis-men without saying not-cis-men? Personally, I’ve been increasingly leaning in the direction of the phrase “people of marginalized gender experience”, which leaves the door open for folks if they feel that rings true to them without forcing assumptions on them or their experiences.

This one is short and sweet. You can be a man or woman AND hold other gender identities as well, such as being non-binary or genderqueer. These identities aren’t mutually exclusive, so don’t treat them as such. And yes, that goes for asking gender in survey questions.

In an effort to be more inclusive, there has been a push to offer a “third gender” option in a lot of places. And as a non-binary genderqueer human, I appreciate deeply that I can get an X on my driver’s license and one day may be able to get one on my passport even. It’s better than being shoved into a false binary like I often am today, even though the heightened visibility brings risk with it.

And at the same time, it’s deeply frustrating how so often gender still gets boiled down to man, woman, and “other”. Just because someone isn’t a man or woman doesn’t automatically make them “non-binary”.

Remember: each of our genders and experience of gender is its own galaxy.

I’ve touched on this briefly on several other slides, and hopefully this presentation starts you on this path, but it’s important to call out explicitly. It’s incredibly important to learn to identify trans exclusionary language and arguments around sex and gender. Sometimes language missteps are innocent enough, but there can be malice behind them in the world at large and being able to identify that is critical.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of emboldened transphobes who are prominent media figures – reporters, comedians, authors, politicians – that are being more and more vocal about their hatred and erasure of trans folks. Especially right now.

They fall back on false ideas of biological essentialism. They argue that trans inclusion hurts cis women. They erase the existence of trans men and non-binary people, while also viciously attacking trans women. They push for incredibly harmful policies and exclusionary legislation. And the end result of their efforts is discrimination and violence against trans people.

Language is a tool, and it can be used for harm as much as it can be used for good. It’s really important to keep that in mind.

Finally, with all of that information, it’s important to reiterate that allyship requires action.

This means putting effort into unlearning harmful language and approaches.

This means speaking up when people say incorrect or harmful things.

This means taking action to continue to educate yourself and others.

This means making mistakes, learning to apologize, incorporating what you learned from those mistakes, and continuing to take action.

If you’re looking for what that means and how to put it into practice, I strongly recommend checking out the books I’ll mention shortly.

OK, that was a ton of information and quite the journey.

But here we are finally, and here are those frequently mentioned additional resources if you want to learn more.

First off, if you’d like to continue the conversation about gender, language, or just inclusion in the spaces you are in, I recommend getting engaged with any DEI work or groups that may be available. I encourage you to be brave and ask questions, share resources, and have conversations about how we can collectively be more inclusive in those spaces and in the rest of our lives – just make sure you’re not placing the burden of education on trans and non-binary folks.

All of these books are geared to be easy and accessible, and are complementary to each other.

And here are the earlier mentioned books on race & gender that are worth checking out.

InterACT and the Intersex Justice Project are two excellent organizations working on justice for intersex folks, and especially youth. Check them out and familiarize yourself with their vital work to end non-consensual surgery on intersex youth.

Finally, the Gender Unicorn is one model that may be helpful for exploring your own experiences on the spectrum of gender and attraction. Regardless of your gender or sexuality, this can be an interesting and introspective exercise if you take the time to consider it. You may even end up surprising yourself with your answers.

Thanks for coming along with me on this journey and hopefully this has left you with some useful information and things to consider around gender and how to be more inclusive when talking about it.