The Difference Between Sex and Gender, Explained
Eugene Ivanov

Opinion

The Difference Between Sex and Gender, Explained

On October 21st, The New York Times announced that the Trump administration, via the Department of Health and Human Services, is considering establishing a legal definition of sex under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs and institutions. A leaked memo obtained by the Times describes how the department is seeking to define sex on the basis of genetics, reversing the Obama administration’s previous guidance, which was to allow students to have access to bathrooms, locker rooms and sports teams based on the sex they identified as, as opposed to their birth sex.

In response, media firestorm ignited in defense of transgender people and their "right to exist," including a hashtag, #WontBeErased, and a petition calling for genetic testing facilities to refuse cooperating with Trump’s mandate. As much as I understand the public’s concern, it’s important to offer a fact-based approach to the issue.

In its memo, HHS suggests governmental agencies define sex as being “either male or female, unchangeable and determined by the genitals that a person is born with.” That left most of us with a half-hearted understanding of human biology confused exactly why people are outraged, as there is nothing factually incorrect with this definition. And yet, left-wing media has been treating it as bigotry.

The point of contention seems to comes from an inability to distinguish between the terms sex and gender. Biological sex refers to whether we are male or female, based on our reproductive functions and anatomy. Gender is how we feel in relation to our biological sex. For 99 percent of us, our sex and anatomy dictate our gender; they are essentially the same thing. But for the one percent of the population who are transgender or intersex, their sex and gender don’t align. What has complicated this issue is that some outlets have replaced the word sex with gender when reporting on the memo, particularly when making any references to anatomy.
The solution to ending discrimination against gender-variant people is not to adopt the position that biological sex doesn’t exist.
For example, per the Times piece, the memo describes gender as being “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth” that should be determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” Similarly, The Guardian reported that the White House was attempting “to define gender as unchangeable from birth.” Mistakenly conflating these two terms has only incited unnecessary outrage and fear, as it gives the impression—as activists are now claiming—that the Trump administration is saying that transgender and intersex people don’t exist.

Indeed, a single definition of sex should be instated across the U.S. governments’ agencies. This is basic demographic information that shouldn’t be seen as controversial or difficult to attain. Don’t get me wrong: acknowledging a transgender person’s sex at birth feels insensitive, especially for those of us who aren’t transgender. But the solution to ending discrimination against gender-variant people is not to adopt the position that biological sex doesn’t exist.

Another common argument in this debate has been the tokenization of the intersex community, with advocates pointing to them as evidence that biology doesn’t always predict one’s gender identity. But intersex people possess both female and male anatomy, which leads to having a gender identity that may be different from the way they appear to the outside world. To suggest that this group proves that gender is completely unrelated to anatomy, or that a person’s sense of gender in the brain somehow operates in a way that is distinct from the rest of their body, is foolish and erroneous.
Stop Calling Trump's Anti-Transgender Policies a
Most of us can acknowledge why the memo would be viewed as a threat to transgender people. Any sex-based policy to come out of this administration could be seen as a slippery slope to denying transgender adults the right to lives their lives as they choose or halting access to medical interventions, like hormones and surgery. The stakes seem especially high considering Trump’s proposed transgender military ban and the previous challenging of trans rights under employment and health care laws. Placing an emphasis on biological sex could also be seen as creating more stress and unwanted harassment for transgender people. It would force them to expose themselves as transgender every time they are required to show their driver’s license or ID, like in the event of being stopped by the police or when applying for a new job.

Although the United Kingdom has the Gender Recognition Act in place, which allows trans people to change the sex marked on their birth certificate, in the U.S., birth certificates are issued at the state level, necessitating a federal law for the same right. In the context of Title IX, what demographics constitute a protected class is an important conversation to be had. We should be able to advocate for equal rights for transgender individuals while also acknowledging that differences exist between trans women and women who were born female.
Some liberals, including myself, have become tired of its nonsensical ideas, including the concept that self-identification supersedes everything else.
Presumably operating from the same line of logic, U.S. officials are also attempting to remove the word gender from United Nations human rights documents, replacing it instead with “woman,” so that phrases like gender-based violence would be documented as “violence against women.” It is a move that has been described as a “brazen attack on the transgender community.”

The solution, however, is not to deny science or to make sweeping claims in order to ramp up the backlash. In our current climate, heightening political polarization is reckless and only serves to frustrate and alienate well-meaning people who would otherwise be sympathetic to the cause. Rather, they must contend with whether they are being manipulated by the media. These changes have no doubt been a wider response to the left’s increasingly extreme views on gender; some liberals, including myself, have become tired of its nonsensical ideas, including the concept that self-identification supersedes everything else, and that shaming and silencing someone is the only acceptable reaction should they question the outrage. Both the right and left have a history of talking above one another and bending the definition of gender to fit their respective goals. Going forward, we should be focused on having difficult, honest and fact-based conversations instead of derailing potentially meaningful progress.Debra W. Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her and her writing: @DrDebraSoh.

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