When two words have the same meaning, we call them synonyms. When two words have different meanings but people use them interchangeably, we write articles about what those words actually mean.
Take gender and sex. While people substitute one for the other on the regular, their meaning and usage are significantly—and consequentially—different. Because we’re most often talking about human beings when we use these terms, it’s critical we get them straight. Give respect to get respect, right?
What does the word sex mean?
First, let’s talk about sex. Intercourse aside for these purposes, sex is “a label assigned at birth based on the reproductive organs you’re born with.” It’s generally how we divide society into two groups, male and female—though intersex people are born with both male and female reproductive organs. (Important note: Hermaphrodite is a term that some find offensive.)
What does gender mean?
Gender, on the other hand, goes beyond one’s reproductive organs and includes a person’s perception, understanding, and experience of themselves and roles in society. It’s their inner sense about who they’re meant to be and how they want to interact with the world.
While a person can only change their sex via surgery, one’s gender is more fluid and based on how they identify. If someone’s gender identity aligns with their biological sex, we refer to them as cisgender people.
Gender is often spoken about as a social construct, for what a society considers to be female, for example, is based on such things as beliefs and values—not nature. That women are supposed to wear dresses and that “boys don’t cry” are, ultimately, made-up social customs and conventions.
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What does transgender mean?
However, one’s gender identity and sex as assigned at birth don’t always align. For example, while someone may be born with male reproductive organs and be classified as a male at birth, their gender identity may be female or something else.
We refer to these individuals as transgender people (trans- a prefix meaning “beyond” or “across”). In some cases, they may take hormones and/or undergo surgery to better sync the two; in other cases, they simply live their life as the gender they feel best represents them. Well, as simply as society lets them, which, as we know, is all too often not the case.
Use of the term transgender should be used appropriately though. Calling an individual a transgender or a trans is offensive. In other words, it should be used as an adjective, not a noun, when referring to individuals (e.g., a person who is transgender or transgender rights).
Transgender individuals may also identify as genderqueer. And, some people may have a changing experience or expression of their own gender; this can be called gender-fluid or genderflux.
Gender-neutral is best
There are also nonbinary people who don’t identify in the traditional (and many would say false) dichotomy male or female—and indeed, everyone ranging from scientists to sociologists are understanding gender as spectrum. Increasingly, countries and states within the US are offering a third box for people to check when it comes to gender on birth certificates and other documents—such as Gender X in the state of New Jersey—to accurately represent them.
More parents are also choosing to raise their children with gender-neutral upbringings, so as not to assume or influence their gender identity before they’re able to determine it for themselves. Celebrity and non-celebrity parents around the world are refusing to put their children in a gender box just because the world expects them to check one on a form. This movement is yet another reason why the use of gender-neutral pronouns, such as they, should not only be considered proper grammar but also proper behavior when referring to a nonbinary individual.
Sure, it’s easier to just put people into one of two neat boxes, male and female, boy and girl. But, humans are complex creatures, and it’s just not that simple.
The bottom line is that people deserve to be identified and referred to correctly and based on their preferences. Mixing you’re and your isn’t quite the same as conflating someone’s birth sex with their gender identity or referring to he/him/his when they prefer they/them/theirs. That causes pain and shows disrespect.
So, if you have a hard time remembering how to refer to anyone, anytime, you can always call them by their chosen name. There’s no synonym for that.