It’s arguably the most common question during pregnancy or after someone has given birth: “Is it a boy or a girl?” For centuries, those have been the options – male or female. You’re assigned a sex at birth, and there’s the answer.
Except it isn’t. As the voice of the LGBTQ+ community has grown stronger in recent times – in many parts of the world, at least – there is increasing awareness that, sometimes, someone’s gender isn’t the same as their biological sex.
There are new definitions, new guidelines, and if it’s new ground for you, no wonder you feel confused. However, as today’s children and young people have a significantly different understanding of what sex and gender entail, as parents it’s vital we try to understand.
What is sex?
Most people assume that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are the same thing, but they’re not. Your biological sex was assigned at birth – male or female, depending on your genitalia. (Australia, some US states and certain other countries offer a third option – non-binary. We’ll explain that later.)
Some babies are born with a combination of both male and female physical characteristics, which is called ‘intersex’. In some cases, a chromosome test is used to determine definitive male or female biology.
Once a sex is assigned, gender is presumed.
What is gender?
A person’s gender is determined by a combination of three different factors – body, identity and expression. For many people, all three match the ideas and assumptions that are generally associated with their sex. For others, it’s more complicated; their gender may be the opposite of their biological sex or they may even fluctuate between the two throughout their lives.
Think of gender as a spectrum. We all fall somewhere on it, just not necessarily in the same places. Some of us will stay in the same place all our lives; others will move around.
The three dimensions
Our own feelings about our bodies, how other people react to them and the assumptions society has about us is part of what makes up our gender. Even though a body may be biologically male or female, it can also have physical characteristics usually associated with the opposite sex – such as being especially muscular (generally viewed as a male trait).
Identity is our own internal sense of who we are and what our gender is – whether we feel masculine, feminine, neither, both or something else entirely. It’s where we feel we belong on the gender spectrum, whether we choose to make that public or not. Most people are aware of gender fairly early on in life and will know whether they feel comfortable (or not) with how they are perceived.
Expression is how we choose to present our gender to the world. For some people, that will vary according to their situation – for example their culture, where they live, or likelihood of acceptance by friends and family are all factors that can affect gender expression.
People tend to be most comfortable with their gender when all three elements are in harmony. Those who fit neatly into their assumed genders will rarely question it; those who don’t tend to have a tougher time. Pressure to conform, fear of prejudice and worries about rejection can all cause a person to hide their true gender. Sometimes this can lead to depression, self-harm and a range of psychological and physical conditions.
Some common terms and their meanings
If you’re trying to understand differences in gender, these are the definitions of some frequently-used words and phrases.
- AFAB/AMAB – Assigned Female (or Male) At Birth. The biological sex a baby was given.
- Bi-gender – refers to those who identify as two genders; some people may also identify as multigender
- Binary – describes the traditional male/female genders
- Cisgender – a non-trans person who identifies and presents as the sex they were assigned at birth
- FTM – a female-to-male transgender person
- Gender dysphoria – a diagnosis that describes the distress and unhappiness transgender people feel about the mismatch between their physical bodies and gender identities
- Gender-fluid – someone whose gender expression and identity may change over time; they may feel male on some days, female on others, neither or both; a gender-fluid person may also identify as genderqueer
- Gender neutral (or agender) – an umbrella term for people who do not identify as a particular gender
- Genderqueer – a term for someone who identifies as neither male nor female; their identity lies outside the traditional binary genders
- MTF – a male-to-female transgender person
- Non-binary – someone whose gender expression doesn’t fit the traditional male or female categories; a non-binary person may identify as neither exclusively male nor female, as both, or as between/beyond genders
- Stealth – the phrase used for someone who is transgender but doesn’t present openly as such in most or all social situations
- Transgender – someone whose gender identity/expression is other than the biological sex they were assigned at birth
- Trans man – someone who was assigned female at birth but who identifies as male
- Trans woman – someone who was assigned male at birth but who identifies as female