Sex and gender aren’t the same thing

The White House says its move to erase the civil rights of 1.4 million transgender Americans is "grounded in science." No it bloody well isn't.

Trump is having a problem with sex, and it’s not exactly what you might think. There are no Russian tapes, spankings with magazines, or confessions of grabbing anyone this time around.

Specifically, it’s a problem with sex and gender.

Sex and gender aren’t the same thing, though many people mistake them for being synonymous.

I was mistaken too, until I began studying social science. I was born with two X chromosomes and all of the body parts that come with them. So I was classified as female (my sex) and raised as a girl (my gender). Since my sex (determined by chromosomes, body parts, and hormones) and my gender (all of the non-biological components of what makes you a man or a woman) matched, the two felt synonymous.

Nothing about my chromosomes or genitalia created a biological need to do the behavior associated with my gender: playing with dolls, wearing dresses, polishing my nails. But, as I was taught as a child that girls do those things, they felt right.

Social scientists say that gender is something you do, not something you are. We also talk about something called the “gender binary.” This is the false yet pervasive belief that there are two, and only two, sexes and genders.

It’s a lot more complicated than that, and not just when it comes to gender. Did you know that being intersex—having both male and female sex characteristics—is actually as common as having red hair?

I’ve always loved being a girl. But not everyone’s sex lines up with the gender they’re assigned. A transgender person is someone who was assigned one gender at birth based on their body parts, but identifies as the other gender. A non-binary person is someone who may not identify as having either gender.

I’ve never personally experienced what it feels like to be treated as the gender I’m not. That’s my good fortune. Trans people describe the experience as incredibly painful. Trans man Trystan Reese described it as a matter of life or death: If he couldn’t live as a man, he couldn’t go on living.

Yet Trump is now looking to define gender as the sex assigned as birth, supposedly because that’s “grounded in science.” No it bloody well isn’t, and I say that as a scientist.

Here’s what is grounded in science: Unless this country stops discriminating against transgender people and starts protecting them, more transgender people will die.

Four in ten transgender people attempt suicide. The list of reasons includes bullying, rejection by friends and family, violence, discrimination, and more.

Trump’s move—if he makes it—will serve to erase the civil rights of 1.4 million transgender Americans. An already vulnerable population will needlessly suffer more.

On the other hand, research shows that transgender people who are supported in their transition—that is, allowed to live openly and authentically as themselves, without harassment, violence, or bullying—have better mental health, life satisfaction, and even job satisfaction.

That shouldn’t be surprising: It’s true of all people. Why would the government want to do the exact opposite?

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson writes about food, agriculture, the environment, health, tolerance, and well-being. Currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, she’s the author of “Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.” Distributed by

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One Response to Sex and gender aren’t the same thing

  1. Some people believe that they are what they do. Their social role is their primary identity.

    Others, in a post-gig economy, keep their day jobs but as survival needs, not as primary identities. They may think of their day job persona as what they do, but not as what they are.

    In patriarchal societies, the primary social role is the gender role, designed to embellish males and diminish females. A historically more recent hierarchy, based on race, used a different “scientific” justification, the “drop of blood,” where ancestry determined if one were a full or only a fraction of a person, or perhaps a nonperson. That doesn’t mean anything when half of one’s ancestors are male and the other half female.