The traditional understanding of gender and sex is that there are only 2, man and woman. Everyone is deemed to be one or the other. Further more there is often no distinction made between gender and sex, many people just consider gender to be an equivalent word used just to avoid any juvenile sniggering about the word sex.
The reality, as is often the case, is significantly more complicated. Most people will have an intuitive grasp of this to some extent or another. Very few people really expect most people they meet to fulfill the traditional stereotypes of what it is to be a man or a woman, either physically, emotionally or intellectually. Most people would admit that within their character they have some aspects which are feminine and some which are masculine. They still usually identify as men or women though.
However, some people find their own sense of their gender diverges so much from the traditional 2 that they do not feel that they are either. They may identify as genderqueer, androgyne, third gender, non-gender, agender, gender-fluid, gender-non-conforming, neutrois or one of many other non-binary genders. For short hand on this site we use the phrase ‘non-binary gender person’.
Gender and Sex
We’ve already implied that gender and sex are different things – but what is the difference? The short answer is that sex refers to your biological physical body and genetic makeup. Doctors recognise only 2 sexes – male and female. When someone is born who does not physically fit into either of these boxes they are usually labeled as having an ’intersex condition’ (now also called a ‘disorder of sex differentiation’ by some doctors) and then are often subjected to surgery while still very young in order to assign them one of the medically recognised sexes, more often than not female.
Gender is what you identify as, there is no way you can tell someone’s gender simply by looking at them. More often than not you can make a pretty much accurate guess, but a guess is all it is. The best way to discover someone’s gender is to ask them! As such, it’s not possible to identify the gender of a new born baby. Most people don’t become aware of their gender until they are 3 or 4 years old.
What about Sexuality?
Gender, sex and sexuality are 3 different things that are often confused. At its simplest, sexuality is who you’re attracted to. Whilst your gender and sex have no bearing on your sexuality, they do have a bearing on the words used to describe your sexuality. For instance, if you had 3 people who were attracted men, one of whom was a woman, one was a man and one was a non-binary gender person, then their sexualities would be variously described as straight, gay and… well, there aren’t any clearly established words yet to describe non-binary gender people’s sexualities! So while gender and sex are different from sexual orientation and sexual attraction, describing people’s situations can easily become confusing because of the lack of clarity in current terminology.
Gender Binary versus Gender Spectrum and Gender Sphere
Often within the transgender and gender variant communities you’ll hear the traditional view of gender being described as the ‘gender binary’. This refers to there only being 2 possible genders in this view – man and woman.
It is becoming increasingly common however to describe gender as a ‘spectrum’ or ‘continuum’, particularly within organisations that work with LGBT people. This views gender as a continuous line of variation between men at one end and women at the other. The concept of gender as a spectrum is a good step forward from viewing it as a binary. The concept of a gender spectrum enables recognition that someone’s gender can exist anywhere along the spectrum and therefore they may identify as neither simply a man nor a woman.
This view has a number of advantages, chiefly that it acknowledges the fact that non-binary gender people exist. It does still have some draw backs though. The main one is that it expects everyone to exist on a line relative to men and women. This often means that people who identify as having a gender which is neither man nor woman, people who identify as having a blended gender of both man and woman, people who identify as transcending gender and people who identify as negating gender all get lumped in together at the same ‘middle point’ on the spectrum. Whilst this may seem logical at a first glance, it does mean that much of the distinctiveness of these diverse identities is lost to this view.
What better model could we use then for gender? Many people who view gender as non-binary come to prefer a spherical model; all genders exist somewhere within the ‘gender sphere’, none are more important than others and none are truly opposite to others. There is a certain beauty to this model.
It is only a model however and still loses some of the wonderful diversity that exists.