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What is gender?

You’ve likely heard the terms assigned gender, gender identity and sex, and maybe you're like me when I first started researching the meaning behind the words. I was thinking, "Are they all the same thing? What are the differences?" My motivations were probably a lot like yours, which was to learn how I can be a better ally to the trans and gender diverse communities.

But before we dive into the definitions of each term, let’s talk about the ways in which much of society has looked upon gender and sex, which is through the lens of the gender binary. The gender binary is the concept that there are two genders: male and female. In recent years, that idea has been challenged as more people come out about their assigned gender not matching who they really are (their gender identity). But even though assigned gender and gender identity are terms used more prevalently in the 21st century, the meanings—and, more importantly, the people living these meanings—behind the words are not a new concept. The existence of transgender and gender-diverse people has been recorded at least as far back as the Neolithic period.

Another challenge to the concept of only two genders existing is the intersex gender assignment. Sometimes people are born with a combination of reproductive and/or sexual organs that lead medical professionals to assign them the gender of intersex. Gender isn’t so simple that it can be divided into two categories depending on which body parts and chromosomes one has.

So what is gender? And what is sex? We need to discuss those before we can get into the differences between assigned gender and gender identity.

Gender and sex are often used interchangeably when we’re speaking about humans or about some animals. With the exception of those in medical fields, most people’s understanding of the two words is that they are interchangeable. We can see it in gender-reveal parties* (have you ever been invited to a sex-reveal party?) but pregnant people are often asked, “Do you know the sex of your baby?” People who are involved with someone who has the same gender identity as themselves might call their partnership a same-sex relationship, whereas the Black community often uses the term same-gender relationship.

As an aside, you can see why it’s problematic to lump all LGBTQ+ weddings under the label “same-sex weddings'' or “same-gender weddings.” Not everyone in an LGBTQ+ relationship is with someone who identifies as the same gender as they do.

So what does assigned gender mean? Assigned gender is the gender (or sex) label applied to a child upon (or before) their birth. This act of assignment is based on visible genitals, such as a vulva, labia or a penis. But just because someone has a vulva or a penis doesn’t make their gender female or male.

It only means that this human has a vulva, labia, a vagina, a penis, a scrotum, testes or perhaps a combination of any of the aforementioned. They also might have even more combinations of internal reproductive organs beyond what is typically assigned male and what is typically assigned female. There’s also the matter of chromosomes and hormones.

If you’re thinking to yourself that this is complicated and overwhelming, I get it! I don’t want it to feel too academic or text-book-y. Yep, textbook-y. That just made this concept a whole lot more approachable, right? But here’s the catch with trying to uncomplicate this: Gender and sex and our bodies are all complex things, and in order to understand them, we have to talk about science and biology as well as our humanness. Gender (and sex, if you’re using it in the way that we talk about gender) is now thought of as a spectrum. While our understanding of how many genders exist continues to expand, the current count is at least 75.

Which brings us to gender identity. How are gender and gender identity different? To me and many others, gender and gender identity are the same, and what’s separate is assigned-at-birth gender. Let’s take Laverne Cox, the fabulous actress who identifies as a transgender female and uses she/her pronouns. Laverne was assigned male at birth. That’s her assigned gender. That is not her gender. Her gender is female. While Laverne was growing up, she realized that even though society saw her as a male, she knew that she was female. Laverne’s gender, her sex and her gender identity are female. She uses she/her pronouns. Her birth-assigned sex (or gender) was male. But that’s not to say that she’s biologically male because it’s much more complex than that. When people use the terms biologically male, biologically female, genetically male or genetically female, what they’re (usually) getting at but don’t yet have the language for is assigned male at birth (AMAB) or assigned female at birth (AFAB). But you, my friend, now have the language and the power to use it respectfully to discuss and learn about trans rights and gender diversity while you continue on your journey to be more authentically inclusive and affirming of the LGBTQ+ community.

*Gender-reveal parties should probably be called assigned-gender-reveal parties, as they are more about revealing how society will be labeling the child until they can speak for themselves to reveal their own gender identity.

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