Whilst chatting with Dee recently about her latest Gay Express column, the issue of definitions for 'sex' and 'gender' arose.

i often see what seem to be well-meaning attempts to define 'sex' as "biological" and 'gender' as "socially constructed". i find this to be highly problematic.

Firstly, it would be more accurate to say that 'sex' is a social construct based on biology. There are several biological factors that can influence the development of what are often referred to as "sexual characteristics": not only genetics (including chromosomes), but also epigenetics, exposure to internally-produced and externally-produced hormones, and environmental substances more generally. Out of all this, it's common to select the 'X' and 'Y' chromosomes as indicators of 'sex'. Even then, however, there can be issues, because not everyone is either 'XX' or 'XY'. For example, some people are 'XXY'1. In some countries, having two XX chromosomes makes one 'female'; in other countries, having a Y chromosome makes one 'male'. So the same person could be classed as either 'female' or 'male' depending on what country they're in.

Thus, the privileging not only two particular chromosomes, but specific configurations of those chromosomes, over other biological factors is why i refer to 'sex' as "a social construct based on biology".

Secondly, as a dual-gendered trans woman, i can assure you that 'gender' is even trickier to define. Part of the problem is that people frequently conflate the concept of 'gender' with the concept of '[expected] gender roles'. So some (C)AFAB people say "Well, i'm not a 'girly girl', into frilly pink dresses and playing with dolls, so i must be transgendered!" No, it means they don't fit the expected gender roles for their assigned gender (i.e. 'female'). Similarly, many people assume that when i say i'm dual-gendered, i mean i've 'embraced'2 my "feminine, doll-loving side" together with my "masculine, truck-loving side". Again, no: i'm a woman and a man simultaneously, all the time, regardless of what i'm doing; and enjoying "chick-flicks" is part of me being a 'man', and enjoying programming is part of me being a 'woman'.

Why, then, do i call myself a 'woman', if it's not on the basis of identifying that category as being the one that gets to stick pictures of unicorns and rainbows on exercise books? It's because on some level, my mind fundamentally identifies with people labelled as being of 'female' gender as being "like me". It also fundamentally identifies with people labelled as being of 'male' gender as being "like me" (though to a noticeably lesser extent than 'female' people are). So the question then becomes: Well, how did this sense of identification come about?

In short: i don't know. i strongly suspect it's a mixture of biology, and physical environment, and social environment, and cultural environment, and political environment, and the influence of these four environments on the development of my biology, in which my mind is (i believe) based.

And 'gender'? i would call it something like "a psychosocial construct based on some combination of biology, physical environment, society, culture and politics". Still problematic, i'm sure, but at least more accurately reflective of what Western society has only recently started to learn: that sex and gender are a lot more complicated than we typically like to imagine.

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1. This particular combination is known as Klinefelter's syndrome. People are also born XYY, XX-male, XY-female, amongst other things. For more information, visit the Wikipedia entry on 'Intersex'.

2. For some reason some form of the word 'embrace' seems to be obligatory in this context.


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