Let’s face it. Talking about gender and sex is uncomfortable and confusing.
It makes grown adults squirm in their seats while others go their whole lives avoiding it. But, it’s a necessary discussion to have to better understand ourselves and the people around us. In order to understand the changes that the Department of Health and Human Services is attempting to make regarding gender assignment, a clear understanding of gender and sex is required.
According to The New York Times, a proposed new definition would define gender as determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”
The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any question or confusion about someone’s sex would be determined by genetic testing.
The change in definition would roll back civil rights protections created under the Obama Administration, such as protections against discrimination at work or schools for transgender people. The change in language and definition intensifies the shroud of confusion already surrounding the meaning of gender and sex.
While there is overlap between the definitions of the two terms, they are two different things. The Shippensburg University Pride Center defines sex as “a medical term used to refer to the chromosomal, hormonal and anatomical characteristics that are used to classify an individual as female or male or intersex.” Often referred to as simply “sex,” “physical sex,” “anatomical sex,” or specifically as “sex assigned [or designated] at birth,’” and gender as “the external display of one’s gender, through a combination of dress, demeanor, social behavior and other factors, generally measured on scales of masculinity and femininity.”
The most important difference is that gender is a cultural characteristic (for example, having a traditionally male name, wearing clothes from the men’s department, having a beard and deep voice would imply you are male) and sex is a biological characteristic (for example, having an XY chromosome combination implies that you are male). The changes to Title XI would essentially define gender as the same as sex and as a biological characteristic.
Part of this misunderstanding circles back to the fact that talking about gender and sex is uncomfortable. American society as a whole needs to do a better job discussing sensitive issues.
Dancing around topics like this not only harms transgender individuals, but cisgender individuals as well. Cisgender is defined by the Pride Center as “a person whose gender identity and biological sex assigned at birth align (e.g., man and male-assigned). A simple way to think about it is if a person is not trans, they are cisgender.”
Cisgender people are the majority, and it is their responsibility as the majority to educate themselves, and then educate others. This may seem like a large and unwanted responsibility, but with nearly 90 percent more cisgender people in the U.S. than transgender people, it is the least a person can do for someone who isn’t protected by the law.
The only way to make talking about gender, sex and transgender rights less uncomfortable is to talk about it, and talk about it often. Transgender people deserve to have their rights and identities protected, and we must help protect them.
Pride Center has a list of terms and definitions available to read at https://www.ship.edu/Pride/lgbtq_definitions/. All LGBT and pride related resources are available to read at https://www.ship.edu/Pride.