I am the parent of a trans teenager, the president of my local PFLAG chapter, a feminist theologian, and the pastor of an historically LGBTQ congregation. For these reasons, I spend a lot of my time thinking in both popular and scholarly arenas about sex, gender, sexual orientation, and romantic attraction. One of the difficulties of engaging in conversation about sex and gender, in particular, is that people use terms related to these ideas in various ways. This diversity of meanings is not in itself a bad thing, but it does present at least an initial barrier to understanding one’s interlocutors. Moreover, how one understands the relation between sex and gender signals different approaches to the topic. And so, boring as it might initially seem, I often find myself on a journey through terms and definitions used by LGBTQ+ and ally communities. In the midst of the rise in anti-trans and anti-nonbinary legislation across this country, simply understanding one another seems especially important.

Further, I’d like to suggest—against a prevailing popular usage of terms—that it is critical both to maintain a distinction between sex and gender, and also to separate gender characteristics and gender expression from gender identity. As I see it, this allows for transgender and/or nonbinary people who do not wish to change their anatomies to be supported and celebrated, just as they are, within LGBTQ+ and ally communities.

Useful Definitions

I offer the following definitions not to close the discussion, but to open it up. Achieving clarity regarding the ways that I will use the terms in this post is important for what I hope will be meaningful conversation in the next section and in your comments on this post.

TermDefinitionApplication
SexAnatomical identification of human beings based on reproductive organs, breast tissue, mammalian glands, chromosomes, and/or hormones.  -Male
-Intersex
-Female
Gender characteristicsSocio-culturally constructed clusters of physical and mental traits. As far as I can tell, there are only two firmly established lists of gender characteristics, and “third gender” or “two-spirit” individuals hold some combination of traits from both lists.  Femininity: Character traits compiled by people from the ancient Greeks to the present day in the West typically include:
-round and soft (less muscularly developed, more body fat)
-delicate
-prioritizes beauty
-emotionally expressive (esp. sad and “hysterical”)
-limited rational capability (esp. regarding math, science, and management)
-submissive or manipulative
-oriented to others (prioritizes relationships)
-compassionate/empathetic/caring/nurturing or evil
-ability to multitask
-ability to think laterally (making connections)
-ability to perform unskilled work  

Masculinity: Character traits compiled by people from the ancient Greeks to the present day in the West typically include:
-sculpted and hard (more muscularly developed, less body fat)
-hardy
-prioritizes usefulness
-limited emotional expression (esp. anger and humor)
-rational
-dominant, leadership ability, assertive, decisive
-task-oriented
-concerned more with doing than listening and feeling
-ability to concentrate on one thing at a time
-ability to think linearly and systematically
-ability to perform skilled work  
Gender ExpressionSocio-culturally constructed expectations regarding gendered appearance. Again there seem to be only two firmly established options in the U.S., with nonbinary people opting for a combination of both or an attempt to avoid both.  Feminine:
-Lack of body hair
-Dresses/skirts
-Low-cut shirts/dresses
-Form-fitting clothing (at least on one part of the body at a time)
-Clothing that shows more skin (at least on one part of the body at a time)
-Makeup
-Long and/or heavily styled hair
-Bows, ruffles, lace, flowers
-Jewelry

Masculine:
-Body hair
-Pant suits
-Ties
-Looser clothing (typically square/rectangular in shape)
-Clothing that shows less skin (at least in professional settings)
-No makeup
-Short hair or (typically) unstyled long hair
-Tattoos  
Gender IdentityAn inner feeling about who one is, based on a variety of factors.-Man (including trans men; see 1 row below)
-Woman (including trans women; see 1 row below)
-Nonbinary:
*Agender (neither gender)
*Genderfluid or Genderqueer (both genders: tending masculine, tending feminine, balancing masculine and feminine, or alternating masculine and feminine)
Transgender peopleThose whose sex does not correlate with the socio-cultural expectation regarding what their gender, gender expression, and gender identity “should” be (male-masculine-man; or female-feminine-woman). They often experience some level of discomfort with their anatomy (gender dysphoria). The way sex and gender are correlated in trans individuals tends to be the opposite of what is socio-culturally expected.-Male-feminine-woman
-Female-masculine-man
Nonbinary peopleLike trans people, nonbinary people are those whose sex does not correlate with the socio-cultural expectation regarding what their gender, gender expression and/or gender identity “should” be. However, nonbinary people do not always experience discomfort with their anatomies, and the way sex and gender are correlated in nonbinary individuals tends to be a denial or mixture of what is socio-culturally expected.The possibilities here are endless, but here are some examples:
-Male-agender-androgynous
-Female-both masculine and feminine-genderqueer
-Intersex-both masculine and feminine alternating-genderfluid
Sexual OrientationThe sex of a person to whom one is sexually attracted.-Homosexual (gay or lesbian): same-sex attraction
-Heterosexual (straight): male to female attraction or female to male attraction
-Bisexual: attraction to both male and female people
-Pansexual: attraction to people regardless of sex
-Asexual: little to no sexual attraction
Romantic OrientationThe gender of a person to whom one is romantically attracted.-Attraction to men
-Attraction to women
-Attraction to agender people
-Attraction to nonbinary people (including gender fluid or genderqueer)
-Aromantic: little to no romantic attraction  

Against the “Natural” Correlation of Sex and Gender Identity

So far, I have simply presented some important terminology related to gender and LGBTQ concerns, as I will use them below.

In this section, I want to suggest that in order to support and celebrate transgender and/or nonbinary people who do not wish to change their anatomies, it is critical 1) to maintain a distinction between sex and gender identity, 2) to separate sex from gender characteristics; and 3) to separate gender identity from and gender expression. The suggestion that sex, gender identity, gender characteristics, and gender expression are each distinct and separate is not novel. Here I simply want to highlight the importance of these distinctions for trans and nonbinary people who do not wish to change their anatomies, in particular.

In popular LGBTQ resources (like YouTube, online resources, and online dictionaries), individuals often correlate and/or conflate sex and gender. For instance, “nonbinary” (a gender identity) is often defined as “not being exclusively male or female” (sex).

In some cases, this kind of conflation between gender identity and sex can be used to recognize that anatomical sex, just like gender, is constructed. For example, in the case of intersex individuals, we can see that whether someone is considered “male” or “female” at birth is subject to the judgements of doctors and families (see Judith Butler, Undoing Gender).

We also find a correlation between gender identity and sex in the U.S. trans community. Transgender individuals who have undergone or would like to undergo gender reconstructive surgery as well as transgender individuals who are taking or would like to take hormones that would change their anatomies wish to bring their sex into alignment with their gender identity—on the dominant socio-cultural expectation that males are men and females are women. In this way, many trans individuals who seek medical treatment for gender dysphoria reinforce the dominant correlation between sex and gender identity.

This correlation is not in itself worrisome, when it is chosen by the individual themselves. However, it is important to ensure that the correlation between sex and gender identity is not seen as “natural.” Wanting to change one’s anatomy to female when one identifies as a woman, for example, should not be considered a “natural” desire for trans women, if we want to safeguard and uphold non-binary and trans people who do not desire medical intervention.

By separating gender identity (woman, man, agender, nonbinary) from sex (male, female, intersex), transgender and nonbinary people who do not want to anatomically transition could claim their gender identities without reference to their sex. For example, they could say they are a man even if they are female (without any medical intervention), that they are a woman even if they are male (without any medical intervention), that they are nonbinary even if they are female or male (without any medical intervention), and so on.

Against the “Natural” Correlation of Sex and Gender Characteristics

Among the wider population, we also find a correlation of sex and gender characteristics. This sometimes allows people to criticize the socio-culturally established list of gender characteristics given above. For instance, people may argue that “delicate” or “submissive” should not be on the list of feminine traits because there are a number of females who are strong leaders. In their view, these are stereotypes that should be removed from the list. Moreover, at times the existence of the gender characteristic lists themselves are contested on this basis. Even in these cases, however, sex and gender are correlated in order to show that the existence of any list of gender characteristics is inaccurate.

One consequence of the separation of gender identity from sex is that it would be impossible to identify “stereotypes” within the lists of gender characteristics or as a whole. The meanings of “femininity” and “masculinity” may certainly still be changed within society, but those changes would have to come about otherwise than as a corrective to stereotypes based on the sex-gender correlation.

It is critical, as I see it, to separate gender identity (woman, man, agender, nonbinary) from gender characteristics (femininity, masculinity, or some mixture or alternation of the two). This is especially important for agender and/or nonbinary people who may exhibit gendered traits but do not identify as a man or woman. The separation of gender identity from gender characteristics would make it cognitively possible for women to have masculine traits, men to have feminine traits, and nonbinary people to have feminine and/or masculine traits. It would also remove the possibility for people to assume they know someone’s gender identity based on their gender characteristics. If someone’s personality seems feminine or masculine, for instance, it would not be appropriate to assume that they identify as a woman or man, respectively.

Against the “Natural” Correlation of Gender Identity and Gender Expression

Finally, it is important that gender identity is not “naturally” correlated with gender expression. The separation of gender identity from gender expression would conceptually allow nonbinary people freedom from feeling they have to restrict their gender expression to some form of androgyny. It would also, for instance, make it cognitively possible for those who express themselves using feminine clothing to be men; for those who express themselves using masculine clothing to be women; for those who express themselves using some combination of masculine and feminine clothing to be men or women; and so on.

In short, differentiating gender identity from sex, gender characteristics, and gender expression allows people to identify as a “woman,” “man,” and/or “nonbinary” without reference to a definition of those terms. On this anti-essentialist account, there would be no definitive understanding of “what it means to be a woman,” for instance. Anyone is a “woman,” “man,” or “nonbinary person” who claims that identity, on this account.

Empowering Nonbinary and Trans People

Different people will certainly claim their gender identities based on a variety of factors, some of which will include a correlation between sex and gender. This includes nonbinary people as well as men and women. For example, someone might secondarily identify as a woman and use she/her pronouns even though she primarily identifies as nonbinary, simply because she was socialized as a female in the 20th century in the U.S. In this example, the person connects in some way to the identity “woman,” even though it is not the primary way she understands herself. As another example, someone might identify as nonbinary and use they/them pronouns, while simultaneously expressing themselves in a masculine way, because they were socialized as a male in the 20th century in the U.S. In yet another example, someone might identify as a man while also exhibiting primarily feminine traits and expressing himself in a feminine way, because he loves his male body and was socialized as a male in the 21st century in the U.S.

Although conceptually separating gender identities from sex, gender characteristics, and gender expression goes against the grain of typical thinking and speaking about gender identities, even in many LGBTQ+ and ally communities, doing so better empowers nonbinary people and/or trans people who do not wish to medically transition. Or so it seems to me.

In the course of this discussion, I’ve identified at least two important consequences of this way of thinking. First, this train of thought makes it impossible to identify “stereotypes” within our current lists of gender characteristics. Second, it leads to the conclusion that gender identities like “man, woman, and nonbinary” have no definitions.

I hope this post and responses to it will help us to think critically about how we use terms related to sex and gender, and about the consequences of those choices. Please comment to contribute to this discussion!

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