Gender vs. Sex: Important Distinction

Many people use the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ interchangeably; it’s a little-known fact that they aren’t synonymous. The meanings might as well be identical to most people. I think it’s safe to say that a lot (maybe most) humans are cissexual or cisgendered.

Looking at the Latin terminology, cis- means “on the same side as”. Cisgender is a term which describes a person whose gender identity matches up with their assigned sex. Vice versa, trans- means “across” or “beyond”, so a transgender person’s gender identity is opposite to their assigned sex. The commonly accepted term used to talk about non-cisgender people is trans*, which I and most other Politically Correct activists will use.

Now that we’re up-to-date on some terminology, let’s discuss the actual difference between gender and sex: ‘Sex’ refers specifically to a person’s biological sex. It’s also referred to as ‘assigned sex’ because it was decided at their birth based on their genitalia. ‘Gender’ specifically refers to one’s perception and feelings regarding masculinity, femininity, and everywhere in between (and outside).

This cute graphic describes this pretty well, but I do take issue with a couple things.

The main problems I have with this graphic involve the sliding scales. The Gender Identity scale doesn’t address agenderism or anyone who is otherwise outside of the gender binary–rather than between the two like genderqueer. Similarly, the Sexual Orientation bar doesn’t acknowledge people who are asexual, or who are attracted to individuals outside the binary. (Nor does it encompass pansexuality, but that would be the entire sliding scale and then some.)

That being said, the graphic perfectly illustrates another point I’d like to bring up: The difference between the words ‘woman’ and ‘man’ from ‘female’ and ‘male’. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ are terms that describe one’s biological sex. (Sex is not defined solely by your genitalia, but in most states it’s the requirement for legally changing your sex.)

However, ‘man’ and ‘woman’ describe a person’s gender identity. That’s why I’m female but not a woman, since I’m genderqueer. When I write or speak about ‘women’s issues’ such as access to contraception and abortion rights, I will often use the word ‘female’ instead of ‘woman’. Not everyone who’s capable of getting pregnant is a woman, just as not every woman is capable of getting pregnant.

Now that I’ve stuffed you full of information, you might be wondering “Okay then, why do I need to know this excessively specific vocabulary?” Since you’re reading a Skepchick network site, you probably tread in lots of spaces which well cover the specific marginalization of women/females from the atheist movement. To a degree, this type of harassment and exclusion is also directed at LGBT+ individuals.

The Atheism+ movement was started by atheists who desire to work for social justice as much as they promote atheism. Even non-believers who don’t subscribe to that label can commonly agree that we need to open our doors to everyone–especially groups which are already marginalized, often with religious backing. To that end, we have to educate ourselves about the issues and struggles of LGBT+ people, women, racial minorities, and people with mental illnesses. By teaching ourselves and spreading the knowledge, we’re eliminating the stigmas attached to these groups.

It can also make a personal difference to people like me, who aren’t on either end of the binary, if you were to say ‘people’ instead of ‘men and women’. I’m neither of those, and while I recognize that this isn’t common knowledge and non-binary people are not numerous, it can still be unintentionally exclusionary. (Remember how everyone felt when Obama mentioned non-believers in his inaugural address? It makes a difference.)

It may be particularly important to reach out to youths in these minorities. LGBT+ kids are kicked out of their parents’ homes much too often. Atheist kids are sometimes ostracized by their families. There isn’t a surplus of support for these young people; we need to educate more people about these issues to eliminate ignorant discrimination and otherwise provide support to those affected.

Reasonable people don’t discriminate against other human beings for being themselves.

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Lux is a female genderqueer weirdo, writing from Kansas. They happily identify as a militant atheist(+), feminist and liberal. Their time is consumed with Doctor Who, reading, and playing WoW with a cat on their lap. If you're lucky, you might catch them smithing jewellery or cleaning something.


  1. November 13, 2012 at 5:26 pm —

    Thanks for this, Elly. I’m getting increasingly tired of the relentless gender-role-worship in society, so articles like this give me hope.

    Also, you’ll be happy to know that others had the same concerns about the genderbread person, and the creator listened to those concerns and then made version 2.0:
    It still doesn’t recognise the possibility of a third option (eg if someone has a strong sense of gender but doesn’t identify that gender as either woman-ness or man-ness), but it does allow for people having both the genders/sexes/etc (in varying degrees) or none at all.

    • November 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm —

      I agree, lots of people simply don’t understand why stressing gender-roles is unhealthy. Glad to know that more people are becoming aware. =]

      That graphic is excellent! It’s still not *perfect* but it does encompass much more than the previous one. I had the old one saved on my computer since forever ago, so I didn’t search and realize there was an updated version. Having the two separate masc/fem scales from none to hyper is spectacular.

  2. November 14, 2012 at 10:40 am —

    Thanks for writing this, very important, and very well done.

    I started to write a comment but it turned into a blog post:

    I’ve been doing that a lot lately.

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