What is Gender?

By Edwin Bai, 17-years-old

In many conservative political spheres, people often hear that one’s gender is determined by their chromosomes or whatever’s between their legs. Not only is this claim completely devoid of any scientific backing or evidence but it pushes a harmful notion that targets those who do not conform to traditional ideas of gender. 

With the increase in non-binary youths and transgender youths, according to Time and Bloomberg, the idea that there are only two genders and that gender is equivalent to sex has become very outdated.

When discussing gender, it is important to make a distinction between gender and biological sex.

The World Health Organization (WHO) makes such a distinction, stating that gender refers to social constructs, including behaviors and roles associated with biological sex and that the concept of gender varies from place to place and time to time. They explicitly say that gender is different from sex, which refers to biological and physiological characteristics of a person.

However, gender does interact with sex, Human Kinetics says that most biological males tend to be physically stronger than females, and thus their gender tends to correspond with this characteristic, which is best exemplified by the gender difference in sports; boys tend to play more aggressive and physical sports, such as football and boxing. This is a demonstration of how one’s gender stereotype coincides with one’s sex.

Gender is not based on one’s chromosomes or genitals. This notion completely denies the reality of how society assigns gender to people and objects despite not knowing their chromosomes or genitals on a regular basis.

One such example is bathroom signs. Many of them are labeled male or female, but what about those who only have an icon? Usually there are generally rectangular humanoids representing a bathroom for males and a triangular shape for females.

Despite not having labels saying which is which, it’s pretty obvious which one’s for the males and females and there’s generally never any mix-up between the two. Although we don’t know the chromosomes or genitals of what these characters possess, we still understand what they represent, illustrating how society perceives gender as something other than just one’s biological features.

If the idea that gender was chromosomes and genitals, then we would all be referring to everyone as non-binary, since we usually don’t look at the chromosomes of another person, nor their genitals on first encounter. Given the fact that we don’t address everyone by they/them, it’s clear that society comprehends gender as something separate to sex, despite what mainstream conservative pundits may say.

We commonly refer to individuals using gendered pronouns, barring exceptions, demonstrating how we assign genders to others based on their expression of their gender and what we as a society defines as men/women. This example is further proven by transgender individuals.

According to the University of Oxford, transgender individuals are people whose gender identity or gender expressions are different from the sex they were assigned at birth. People identifying as transgender may choose to alter their body hormonally or surgically, with the latter most often being used to alter the genitals as part of a sex change. They may have a completely different expression of gender or gender identity than the one commonly assigned to them at birth, and more importantly, their gender often has no correlation with their genitals.

The National Institute of Health states that less than 13% of trans individuals undergo genital surgery, despite changing their gender identity into something that doesn’t match their assigned sex. Yet, when interacting with trans people, we still refer to them by their gender expression regardless of what’s between their legs, demonstrating how we refer to people by their gender expression rather than biological characteristics.

The perception of gender extends into the world of language of literature as well. One prominent example is our references to countries by female pronouns. Evident in the Nigerian national pledge and the well-known American folk song, “God Bless America.” In the latter, Americans sing, “stand beside her, and guide her,” with “her” referring to the US.

This is evidently perplexing to people who believe that gender is based on your chromosomes, because the US, and other countries, clearly don’t have any chromosomes. We can also extend this example to ships. The Imperial War Museum describes a common tradition to describe ships as female, in reference to the idea of a female figure guiding and protecting the ship and its crew in battle. The idea here is important to understanding how society views gender; the tradition uses the gender norms and protective behavior of a female and applies it to a ship, despite the ship not being a biological entity. Yet despite the fact that neither countries nor ships possess genitals or chromosomes, we still assign these things a gender, making it clear that gender isn’t just restricted to biology.

Not only is gender not sex, it’s also not restricted to a binary as most people traditionally believe. As mentioned previously, perception of gender differs from society to society, and some genders exist without a sex that normally corresponds to it, unlike traditional western thinking.

Harvard Divinity School explains that in Hindu society, there exists a nationally and culturally recognized “third gender” called Hijras: people who are born male but look and dress traditionally feminine. This third gender is comparable to transgender, an individual born a certain sex chooses to identify with a gender often associated with the opposite sex. Though the ideas of a third gender and non gender conforming identities are relatively new to American society, cultures all around the world have been practicing this way of life for centuries.

Though traditionally, Americans view gender as a binary and connected to biological sex, further examination proves that this is not the case. Gender is far more complex than a simple binary based on what’s between one’s legs and as the American concept of gender evolves, so too must its definition.

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