I am currently teaching several classes of high schoolers whose native language is not English. The other day, while were discussing cultural perceptions of beauty, I paused and asked them if anyone could tell me the difference between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’. After the unavoidable snickers and one girl saying, “You HAVE sex, you don’t HAVE gender!” I realized that I was being presented with a great ‘teachable moment’. We proceeded to have a whole discussion around the issue, and by the end, I was fairly satisfied that all of them understood the difference. When I got home, I thought some more, and realized that I hadn’t even learned the difference until I took a women’s studies class in college, and that many native-English-speaking adults confuse the two all the time.
Most people use the two terms interchangeably, when in fact they have different meanings. In the dictionary, the definitions sound similar, but are actually quite distinct.
From the New Oxford American Dictionary:
The state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones): traditional concepts of gender | [ as modifier ] : gender roles.
Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions: adults of both sexes.
• the fact of belonging to one of these categories: direct discrimination involves treating someone less favorably on the grounds of their sex.
• the group of all members of either of these categories: she was well known for her efforts to improve the social condition of her sex.
So, ladies and gents, when you want to talk about a biological category, you say sex.
When you want to make reference to the category in which a person places himself or herself, you say gender.
From here, we enter into the realm of gender identity, which is: With what gender does a person identify himself or herself? A boy can be born with a penis, but feel that his identity is actually female (making that person transgender). Whether or not this will eventually result in that person having gender reassignment surgery is another issue; they have elected, in this case, to change their gender, not (yet) their sex. If that person did have gender reassignment surgery, they would be referred to as transsexual.
Does this mean that that boy is gay? Not necessarily. Does it mean he is straight? Not necessarily. Gender identity is not to be confused with sexual orientation or preference, which refers to the pattern of attraction to the same sex, opposite sex, or both sexes. For instance, someone who feels that their true gender is female, despite being born with male genitalia, would be considered heterosexual if she were attracted to men (and homosexual if attracted to women).
It can feel like a complex field to navigate, word-wise, but if you want to know more, check out the American Psychological Association website for up-to-date info and frequently asked questions.
Another great resource, this time in the world of fiction is the wonderful young adult book called Luna by Julie Ann Peters. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2004, and rightly so. It explores the complications of a young male-to-female transgendered high school student through the eyes of her younger sister. Although it is on some lists of banned books in schools due to the fact that it revolves around the topic of transgender identity and refers to homosexuality, Peters has done quite a remarkable job of treating the subject carefully and with respect. If you’re looking for a way to start a conversation with your teen, or to simply better understand gender identity, look no further!
National Center for Transgender Equality, Transgender Terminology, May 2009. Retrieved on 11/20/12 from: