Conventional wisdom tells us that there are boys and girls. Boys and girls then invariably grow into men and women. Very simple.
Nope, sorry! Sex and gender is way more complicated than that. Let’s unpack it a bit.
Categorising people into one of two biological sexes is probably one of the most significant ways we divide up our society. Think how “gender reveal” parties, birth certificates, boys and girls sections in stores, and the vast majority of popular culture (not to mention law…) encourage us to think that any individual is either a male or a female. This binary view of sex is heavily politicised, and enforced through various institutional, cultural, and linguistic mechanisms.
However, there are many variations in sex and gender that don't fit neatly into this binary.
This post is a bit of extra information on some sex and gender identities and expressions introduced in our previous LGBTQIA+ explainer; including Intersex, Nonbinary, and Trans. Keep in mind that gender, identity, and sexuality is hugely complex, and that these are not exhaustive or complete explanations. We hope you find these helpful.
There is huge variation in human sex characteristics (and a bunch of other animals). Whether we’re looking at morphology, chromosomes, hormones, or other characteristics, an accepted estimate (although data in this area is complicated) from Intersex Human Rights Australia is that around 1.7% of the population is intersex - that is, their sex characteristics are not entirely male or female. For reference, 1%-2% of the Australian population have red hair; intersex people are not as rare as we might assume. Intersex people face an array of issues that the wider community is likely unaware of, particularly the subjection of intersex infants and children to forced interventions such as surgery to make their bodies conform to medical norms of male and female bodies.
One high-profile case of intervention into intersex bodies is that of athlete Caster Semenya, whose testosterone levels are higher than the average adult female, and who has been required to take medication to lower her (naturally produced) testosterone to be allowed to continue competing in women’s athletics.
There is also huge variation in human gender expression. While ‘sex’ might refer to chromosomes, physiology, and hormones, ‘gender’ refers to the ways in which a person experiences and expresses their identity. This might be through physical appearance, name, or pronouns.
‘Nonbinary’ is an umbrella term adopted by many people whose gender identities are not exclusively masculine or feminine. Nonbinary or ‘gender fluid’ people may also change their identities over time, or depending on context. Related terms you might have heard are 'Gender Diverse' and 'Genderqueer'. Although slightly different, these are identities in which someone might identify as nonbinary, both male and female, neither male nor female, or any number of variations.
‘Cisgender’ is an identity in which someone whose gender identity matches their (male or female) sex. ‘Transgender’ or ‘Trans’ refers to someone whose identity does not match their sex characteristics assigned at birth.
Trans people may identify as male or female, nonbinary, or simply ‘trans’. Trans people may or may not elect to undertake medical intervention to change their bodies through hormones or surgery - this is an intensely personal and private matter for most people.
For people whose gender matches their assigned sex (that is, a cisgender person), the experience can be difficult to understand, but there is a wealth of information on Trans experiences available. I recently watched Disclosure, which is an excellent Netflix documentary outlining the long relationship between films, popular culture, and transphobia. I highly recommend it as a place to start for anyone who wants to build more understanding on Trans identities and issues.
‘Preferred pronouns’ refers to the pronoun or pronouns an individual prefers to identify with. In English, this is she, he, or they. An individual may be comfortable with one pronoun, although many nonbinary people use one or more (such as he or they). Someone’s pronouns may change over time, because gender (as a set of expressions and identities) can change over time. Intentionally or repeatedly using the incorrect pronouns (referred to as ‘misgendering’) can be extremely upsetting and traumatic. We should all take care to respect the pronouns with which people identify.
A very simple way for cisgender people to demonstrate allyship to nonbinary, trans, and intersex people is to include your own preferred pronouns in your email signature, or when you're introducing yourself. This normalises sharing preferred pronouns, and demonstrates that you are aware of, and sensitive to the importance of pronouns as central parts of identity.
Sex, gender, and identity is extremely complex and sensitive to discuss. We are all going to make mistakes with the details on this conversation, which is rapidly evolving. What matters most is our ability to be kind, compassionate, and respectful to others, even if we don’t fully understand their identity.