What is Gender?

“Gender” is a difficult term to accurately define. Essentially, it’s an identity that determines one’s experiences and their feelings about those experiences. There are many misconceptions about gender, and in order to understand what gender truly is, it’s important to know what it’s not. The first thing to note is that gender is not physical, nor does it have any basis in physical factors — that’s sex. It’s a common misconception that the two terms are synonymous, but they are actually quite different.

“Sex” is physical. It is more or less defined by your genitals and chromosomes. Almost everyone understands this concept; the problem arises when people think gender can be defined the same way.

This misconception is why, when someone explains that they are transgender, the argument “but you have (genitals), that means you’re (sex)” makes no sense. Pretend you tell someone your gender, and they say to you, “No, you don’t have gills, you can’t be that gender.” In response to telling the person what your gender is, they gave you a completely irrelevant fact about your biology. Whether or not you are a fish has no more relevance to your gender identity than what you have for genitalia. If you’re pointing to something physical to define gender, you aren’t defining gender.

What else is gender not? Gender is not binary, and cannot be represented like this:

This is not gender. This is what is referred to as “the gender binary,” which is an incorrect depiction of gender. Gender exists on a spectrum, and looks more like this:

It’s important to note that, since gender is such a complex subject, it can’t really be summed up with a line, or any other visual diagram. However, for the sake of educating, I have chosen to use basics visuals like the one above in order to convey the concept of gender existing on a spectrum. I’ll come back to this later though, because I still haven’t given much of a definition for “gender.”

As I mentioned, gender is difficult to define. It’s an abstract concept, so of course the answer is somewhat abstract as well. For some help defining the term, I asked my cousin Elby, who is transgender, how he would define it. He said:

“Gender is socially constructed, assigned at birth. You get set on little conveyor belts where you learn particular skills, you’re given certain opportunities, and you’re treated certain ways.”

Describing gender as “socially constructed” is common in the LGBT+ community. At some point in history, gender was invented; a group of people, intentionally or unintentionally, decided to create certain societal roles for people depending on their sex, and it has been the norm ever since. This relates to the second half of Elby’s quote. In our society, gender has a huge influence on the opportunities one has. From birth, gender determines what you’re “supposed to” do and like, and it determines how others treat you.

Someone assigned “male” at birth is likely to be given toy construction vehicles, plastic dinosaurs, or a remote-controlled car. The sheets purchased for their crib might have cartoon trucks on them. The clothes picked out for them are likely similar, and much of it is blue. As they get older, they are dressed in jeans and t-shirts before being released to the outdoors, where they will probably be encouraged to engage in a sport — maybe playing catch with their father or starting up a game of kickball with the neighborhood boys. When they go back home, if their clothes are dirty it’s no big deal. As they grow up they are taught not to cry. Rules are probably more lenient, especially when it comes to dating. Eventually they are expected to find a woman to marry, ideally one who can take care of the things no one was overly concerned with teaching them, such as cooking and cleaning.

Someone assigned “female” at birth is likely to be given dolls, costumes for dress-up, or one of those plastic toy kitchens. Sheets purchased for their crib might be decorated by images of princesses. The clothes picked out for them are likely similar, and much of it is pink. As they get older, they are dressed in skirts or dresses, and if they do go outside — where they are encouraged to play make-believe with the neighborhood girls — they had better be careful not to dirty their clothes. As they grow up they are taught how to sit, because they have to sit “like a lady.” It is suggested they learn certain skill-sets, like cooking. Rules are probably stricter for them, especially when it comes to dating. Eventually they are expected to find a man to marry, ideally one who can provide for them.

Of course, some people deviate from these paths. Girls who follow more closely with the “boy’s” path are labelled “tomboys.” Boys who follow more closely with the “girl’s” path are usually looked down on as being weak due to the misogyny that has been internalized by society (but that’s a topic for another time).

In addition, these two experiences are not exact for everyone, but it’s likely that anyone could identify with at least a segment of one of the above “conveyor belt” paths.

All of this is part of the incorrect view of gender — the binary view, which was depicted above. In that concept, there are two genders, and most would say they directly correspond with sex. You’ll also remember this from before:

This is a more accurate depiction of gender, which is, as mentioned, a spectrum. The two binary genders are clearly labelled, but what’s all the stuff in the middle? That represents non-binary genders. There are many different gender identities that fall under the umbrella of non-binary — more than I could list in this article, since anyone has the right to identify their gender in any way they want. As a result, I will cover only a few.

The first is transgender. More than likely you are familiar with this term. Transgender can be an umbrella term, as well as a specific identity (so can non-binary, by the way). It refers to anyone who identifies with a gender aside from the one they were assigned at birth. This can be from one binary gender to the other (i.e. female-to-male or male-to-female), but it can also be from one of the binary genders to any non-binary gender identity.

Next is genderqueer, which can be either another umbrella term or, like transgender, a specific identity. Genderqueer describes anyone who is anywhere on the spectrum besides one of the two binary genders.

Now there’s a new point on the spectrum. This point represents someone who identifies as bigender. Someone who is bigender identifies with both binary genders, one binary and one non-binary gender, or two non-binary genders simultaneously (they could also identify with more than two). This point could be at any point on the spectrum depending on how heavily the individual identifies with one gender over another. For example, the point could be halfway between the center point and the female point. Someone at this location on the spectrum would identify mostly with being female, but partially as male as well.

Next up is genderfluid. To visualize this on the spectrum, take the bigender point but move it back and forth. It could go all the way from male to female and back again, or it could move more along the middle without touching either of the binaries. It could also stay more centered around female, but sometimes drift out to somewhere else on the spectrum. It could do the same thing around the male side. It could move around very rapidly, moving from one place to the next on a daily basis, or it could stay put for months or years at a time, only to move again later on. Someone who is genderfluid experiences fluctuating gender identity, and where on the spectrum and how fast it fluctuates varies from person to person.

The last gender identity I will cover is agender. Someone who identifies as agender is right about here:

Agender is the absence of gender. There’s nothing special about the placement of that last point, the idea is that it’s not on the line — not male, female, or anywhere in between. Someone who identifies as agender feels no strong connection to any gender.

Non-binary genders often come under fire for being “fake” or “made-up” (newsflash: all genders are made up), but that is not true. In my conversation with Elby, he talked about the friends he has who identify with a non-binary gender identity. I have many friends and family members who identify outside of the gender binary as well. These people are not “confused” or “faking it,” they simply feel differently than those who are cisgender. The problem lies not in people “making up” genders, but in a culture-wide misunderstanding of gender, and equating it with biological factors.

Basically, if someone explains their gender identity to you, listen to them and be respectful of how they want to be identified and referred to. If they ask for a specific set of pronouns, such as he/him, she/her, or they/them, be sure to respect those wishes and do your best to make sure they are comfortable. No one deserves to be disrespected for such a fundamental aspect of who they are.

(Note: As I mentioned, the visuals used are not an accurate depiction of gender since it is a complex concept that simple visuals cannot illustrate. However, the diagrams I used are also not the best possible diagrams that could have been drawn in order to do the optimal job of depicting gender. To the best of my ability, I write my articles so that anyone, regardless of prior understanding, can grasp the concepts I write about. Because of this, I simplified my diagrams to the point where they can be understood by those who, before reading this, knew nothing about the topic. In this process, some of the deeper understanding of the gender spectrum was lost. Once the concepts explained in this article are firmly understood, I encourage readers to find other sources where gender is more deeply explored, and maybe better depicted as well.)