Sex and Gender in the 21st Century
As society learns to accept people for who they are, the variety of terms used by people to describe themselves has grown. The terms "gay", "transgender", "lesbian", or "bisexual" drift through our media and conversation. But to the average John or Jane Doe, what do these words mean? How are they different from what we know? How are they similar to what we know? What are sex and gender in the 21st century?
Sex v.s. Gender
To begin, we need a base understanding of sex and gender. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, sex is:
1 : either of the two major forms of individuals that occur in many species and that are distinguished respectively as female or male especially on the basis of their reproductive organs and structures("Sex." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.)
2 : the sum of the structural, functional, and behavioral characteristics of organisms that are involved in reproduction marked by the union of gametes and that distinguish males and females
So the term sex refers to a person’s biological and anatomical characteristics. So far, so good. Moving on, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, gender is:
2 a : sex
b : the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex
That’s the definition we’ll use here.
Let’s Talk About Sex
A person’s sex begins at conception with the 23rd chromosome pair. A sperm fertilizes an egg to create a zygote. For the first six weeks, a zygote remains undifferentiated sexually, preparing for the upcoming changes by creating two gonads. Around the 7th week, the gonads of a fetus with XY sex chromosomes transform into testes, releasing androgens to begin the journey to becoming male. Androgens are hormones related to the development and maintenance of male characteristics in mammals; the most well-known androgen is testosterone. The release of androgens causes the fetus to grow male genitalia, male primary sex characteristics, and male wiring of the brain.
For a fetus with the XX sex chromosomes, the gonads transform into ovaries around the 12th week of gestation. The ovaries then release estrogen, progesterone, and other hormones to create female genitalia, female primary sex characteristics, and female wiring of the brain. In the past few decades, scientists have discovered that female is the default form for a fetus.
Around 99% of all live births are either male or female. The remaining 1% are born neither wholly female or male; these people are designated intersex. Currently, there is no consensus among the medical, scientific, and intersex communities as to an exact definition of intersex. What they agree on is the fact that some intersex people appear either male or female; some have unusually formed genitalia; some are a combination of male and female. The lack of a definition leads to a lack of consensus on what conditions fall under the category intersex. But there are some intersex conditions that all agree on:
- Klinefelter Syndrome: A condition where a fetus has XXY sex chromosomes. Typically, someone with Klinefelter Syndrome presents as male with secondary female sex characteristics (e.g. breasts).
- Turner Syndrome: A female with only one functioning X chromosome, which leads to underdeveloped sex characteristics.
- Swyer Syndrome: A fetus born with the XY chromosomes but non-functioning gonads known as gonad streaks. The baby appears to be female but stops maturing at puberty without hormone injections because there are no gonads to produce estrogen or androgens.
- Ovo-testes: A condition where a fetus has both male and female genitalia. This is one of the rarest forms of intersex, and historically, people with ovo-testes were called hermaphrodites. But the term hermaphrodite is considered at best a misnomer and at worst a pejorative and, therefore, should not be used.
- Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS): AIS is a condition where a fetus is genetically male with XY chromosomes but is biologically resistant to androgens. Please note that a fetus with XX chromosomes can have androgen insensitivity syndrome, but as the fetus does not rely on androgens for development, AIS has little to no effect here. There are three levels of AIS:
- In mild AIS, a fetus mostly responds to testosterone, developing male genitalia with full masculinization but lacks the ability to make sperm.
- In partial AIS, a fetus has limited response to testosterone, developing male genitalia that are under masculinized and infertile.
- In complete AIS, the fetus does not respond to testosterone. The person never goes from female to male, instead outwardly looking female but with no working reproductive organs.
- Aphallia: A person born without a penis but with the other male genitalia and sex characteristics.
- Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH): A condition where fetuses with XX chromosomes undergo a masculinization effect on the genitalia. This change causes the clitorus to grow large enough to be a small penis while the labia can resemble scrotum. In male fetuses, CAH does not change much at birth but causes complications during puberty.
As you can see, being born intersex is not a walk in the park. However, the odds of a baby being born intersex are low, from 1 in 1,000 for Klinefelter Syndrome to 1 in 130,000 for Partial AIS.
Let’s Talk About GenderLike sex, gender begins in the womb. As hormones differentiate the body into male and female anatomy, they also change how the brain is wired. One study found that the neural connective tissue between the left and right hemispheres of the brain were thicker in females at 26 weeks of gestation. Another study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, discovered that female brains are optimized for analytical and intuitive thinking while male brains are optimized for motor skills and perception. But the physical differences in brain matter are the tip of the iceberg. Using MRI machines, scientist have shown that men and women use their brains differently. Men outperform women on tasks that require spatial ability, such as picturing objects in 3D and mathematical ability. Women outperform men on memory recall, verbal ability, verbal fluency, and reading emotions in others. These physical and neurological changes affect a person’s physical, emotional, mental, and behavioral characteristics, creating a person’s gender.
While gender encompasses more, we’ll focus on sexual orientation and gender identity here.
Sexual orientation refers to the enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction to another person; the term also refers to a person’s sexual identity. Some common sexual orientations include:
- Gay: A person who is attracted to someone of the same sex.
- Lesbian: A woman who is attracted to other women. Note that there is no male equivalent for lesbian.
- Bisexual: A person who is attracted to both men and women.
- Polysexual: A person who is attracted to multiple sexes and genders.
- Pansexual: A person who is attracted to all sexes and genders.
- Asexual: A person who is not attracted to either sex.
- Heterosexual: A person who is attracted to someone of the opposite sex.
- Homosexual: An outdated term for gay. The LGBT community views this term as derogatory and, therefore, should not be used.
Gender identity refers to how a person views their gender on the female-male spectrum. Some common gender identities are:
- Cisgender or cis refers to a person whose gender matches their sex. The following terms fall into the cisgender category:
- cis man
- cis woman
- cis male
- cis female
- cisgender man
- cisgender woman
- cisgender male
- cisgender female
- Transgender is an umbrella term that covers anyone whose gender does not match their sex. For example:
- a person with female genitalia who identifies as a man inside (female to male, or FTM);
- a person with male genitalia who identifies as a woman inside (male to female, or MTF);
- a person with either female or male genitalia who identifies as neither feminine or masculine.
- Trans-sexual refers to a transgender person who pursues medical intervention to change their sex to match their gender identity.
- Genderqueer is an umbrella term for anyone whose gender fluctuates between masculine, feminine, agender, and ambiguous regardless of their sex.
- Agender or Neutrois refers to a person who identifies as neither feminine or masculine regardless of their sex.
- Bigender refers to a person who identifies as both feminine and masculine regardless of their sex.
- Trigender refers to a person who identifies as feminine, masculine, and agender regardless of their sex.
- Pangender refers to a person who identifies with all forms of gender regardless of their sex.
- Androgyne refers to a person with both masculine and feminine traits. The difference between someone who is bigender and someone who is androgynous is that a bigender person switches between genders at various times while an androgynous person has a single gender that is a blend of femininity and masculinity.
- Gender Fluid refers to a person who does not identify as a specific gender or set of genders.
- Gender Questioning refers to a person who is currently undecided upon their gender.
Putting it TogetherThe vast majority of people are heterosexual and cisgender, whether male or female. But there are also gay, bigender men; bisexual, cis women; hetero, genderqueer women; bisexual, gender fluid men; etc. Just about any combination of sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex exist somewhere in the world. According to a Williams Institute study published in 2011, 3.5% of the population in the United States are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and 0.3% are transgender. Or for every 100 people you meet, on average 3-4 people will be gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and for every 300 people you meet, one will be transgender. Chances are you know someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender.
ResourcesYou'll find more information about the LGBT communities at the following websites:
- The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center
- LGBT Rights at the American Civil Liberties Union
- GLAAD (Originally the Gay and Lesbian Association Against Defamation)
- National Center for Transgender Equality
- American Psychology Association