Queer Corner: Sex & Gender

Not the same thing. Crazy idea, I know. Time to break down some heteronormative walls.

So let’s get something out there before we start this: we live in a heteronormative society. This means it’s ASSUMED that people are straight and that women are feminine while men are masculine. Anything else is seen as unusual. It’s definitely a narrow view of such a broad range of people, but recognizing it is part of the battle.

Now to get into the heart of the matter: what is the difference between sex and gender? Basically, sex is what you’re rockin’ between your legs – biological and physiological characteristics. Male and female genitals are the most common, but there are others. Intersex and hermaphroditic people are two examples. Sexual identities are probably the most easy to define since they are literally based on what you physically have down there. Gender, on the other hand, is a whole other matter.

Gender is a tougher concept for most people because it is typically so closely linked to sex. For example, a female (sex) is usually thought to be a woman (gender). Gender is a socially constructed role. As you might have guessed, gender is more than just the binary of woman and man. Some examples of this include gender fluid, transgender and agender. Someone who is gender-fluid typically “flows” between genders. They may feel like a woman at one time, a man at another or possibly genderless. Gender fluidity is just that: fluid. There’s not a time limit on how long someone may identify with one gender or another, and it can change rapidly or gradually. Like most things, it depends on the person. Keep in mind that sex and gender have very little to do with sexual orientation (such as gay, bisexual and asexual).

Alright, you made it through some tough concepts, but that’s honestly just the tip of the iceberg. It’s difficult to understand some of these ideas. Heck, I’m an LGBTQ Intern, and I still get confused sometimes. No one’s perfect, and you can’t expect to be. In a perfect society, we would never assume anything about anyone, but we’re far from ideal. So while we’re working on that utopia, we need to recognize the importance of being sensitive to others’ identities. Sure, we’ll mess up sometimes, but just apologize, clarify and move on.

Speaking of moving on, I’m going to delve a little deeper into gender. So what I talked about before was gender identity. It’s how someone internally feels about who they are. Now, gender expression is how the person presents themselves publicly. A person may feel like a woman, but prefer to dress in big shirts with short hair and snapbacks. That person may express themselves in a way our society deems manly, but identify as a woman. Gender identity is the relative masculinity/femininity a person identifies with, while gender expression is based on how that person presents themselves. These don’t always “match up.”

As I mentioned before, we live in a heteronormative society. Of course, I wish that wasn’t the case and that people weren’t pre-emptively judged. But it is. What frustrates me is how difficult it is to break past these assumptions. Before I came to Colgate, I had no clue that sex and gender were even separate things! And to this day, I still catch myself assuming things about people. I hate having trouble with this, but I’m trying to fight against what I learned for the first 18 years of my life. So expect it to be hard, expect mistakes and expect others to question you. Being conscientious of other people’s lives is a good start to living by the number one life rule. To paraphrase: Don’t be a jerk.