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November 20, 2023

Sex and gender as terms have often been used interchangeably in the English language since at least the 14th Century. For the past 80 years in academic settings, the two have generally been used to describe two very different and distinct aspects of the human experience, with sex and gender being designated as biological and social categories respectively; which I’ll attempt to break down below.

Biological sex is typically characterized by a person’s sex chromosomes (usually XX or XY) or reproductive organs, and a sex is often assigned to a person at birth based only on their external reproductive characteristics.

However, there are often times when these factors don’t align, such as when people are born with fewer or extra sex chromosomes, which can be expressed in a number of different configurations, such as X only (Turner syndrome), XXY (Klinefelter syndrome).

Such people are often considered biologically intersex, and it is estimated that up to 1.7% of the human population may be biologically intersex; which for comparison, is roughly the same as the percentage of people with naturally red hair.

Most intersex people may be completely unaware of their condition due to a lack of obvious signs, while with some others it may be more apparent and may physically express itself in a number of ways. Even some XX and XY people can be biologically intersex, being born with reproductive organs that don’t match their sex chromosomes.

All of this is to say that even biological sex isn’t always as easy to pin down as some may initially think.

Gender is even broader still, and refers to a spectrum of socially constructed expressions of masculinity or femininity, which can vary and evolve greatly over time, and between cultures.
As such there really is no definitive “correct” way for a person to express their gender, as this is often a deeply personal experience.

While for many, their gender will align with the sex that they were assigned at birth (known as being cisgender), many others identify with genders that are different from their apparent biological sex, sometimes more than one gender, or no gender at all; examples of these are transgender, agender, nonbinary, and genderfluid people, though there are many others.

While still considered new as a concept among much of mainstream Western society, examples of more than two genders can be traced to cultures on just about every continent on Earth except Antarctica; including but not limited to Sistergirls and Brotherboys of the indigenous Australian communities, Two-spirits of many native North American cultures, Muxe of Mexico, Quariwarmi of Peru, Calabai, Calalai, and Bissu in Indonesia, Hijras in South Asia, Mashoga in East Africa, and the 6 nonbinary genders listed in the Jewish Talmud.

Final thoughts

Gender is a spectrum and biological sex is complicated, but being kind to others is simple.


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