Many people use the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ interchangebly. How much do you know about sex, gender, and gender identity? Let’s play “Two Truths and a Lie” to find out.
A. ‘Gender’ is a synonym for a person’s sex.
B. ‘Gender identity’ refers to a person’s subjective conception of self, not to any material reality.
C. The language we use affects the way that courts interpret the law.
Let’s take these statements one at a time:
A. LIE! Although sex and gender are related concepts, they are not the same thing. Sex is a biological trait determined by specific sex chromosomes, with the male sex determined by the presence of the Y chromosome. Sex is a scientific term and refers to something that is objective and fixed. By contrast, ‘gender’ is a sociological or anthropological term. It refers to culturally determined sex roles or to expectations regarding male and female behavior, appearance, interests, and lifestyle, that, while not unconnected to sex, are not biologically fixed.
B. TRUTH! ‘Gender identity’ is a broad and malleable concept that refers to the way in which a person identifies along a spectrum of masculine and feminine. Gender identity is subjective and, arguably, fluid. A person may adopt a particular gender identity without doing anything to alter his or her appearance or anatomy, but a ‘transgender’ person typically is someone who has taken steps to present and live as a member of the opposite sex.
C. TRUTH! Laws that prohibit sex discrimination are based on the fundamental premise that it is wrong to treat someone unfairly on the basis of certain immutable characteristics. Because sex is objective and fixed and has a specific meaning different from ‘gender’ and ‘gender identity’, using the terms interchangeably can cause confusion and distort the law. When people use the term ‘gender’ to mean ‘sex,’ they create a misperception that laws against sex discrimination require businesses and schools to allow any biological man (even one who is not living as a woman and has taken no steps to alter his physiology) to self identify into women’s private spaces, such as women’s locker rooms, high school bathrooms, women’s sports teams, or prisons.
Bottom line: Words matter. It is important to be precise, particularly when discussing women’s distinct legal rights.