Sex, Gender and Pronouns
Not too long ago, Demi Lovato came out as a non binary person. Sam Smith is another prominent public figure who had earlier came out as a non binary person too. So what exatly does non-binary mean? Are the sex and gender of a person the same thing? Why are people mentioning their pronouns on their social media handles?
Before we understand what is a non binary person, we need to understand that there exists a difference between the sex of a person, and their gender. These two terms are used so interchangeably in daily lives, that the lines between them have blurred.
The sex of a person is biological. It is something which is determined by the chromosomes they have. In most cases, humans are born with 23 pairs of chromosomes, with the last pair being the sex chromosomes, which determines the sex of the person. There are 2 major possible combinations for them – XX for a female, and XY for a male. Both males and females have many physiological and anatomical differences which tend to develop and can be observed during their lifespan.
But that is not all, for there have been cases where biologically, a person is neither female nor male. In that case, they usually have a combination of both female and male traits. Their chromosome structure may also differ, some having either the usual combinations of XX and XY, while some have only one X chromosome, or a combination of 3 chromosomes ( XXX, XXY, XYY), which all lead to a variety of differences in the body. These cases are collectively called the intersex population, the third type of sex one may have. In spite of them having a different genetic structure, they tend to have mostly either male or female characteristics, and these changes could lead to other health issues, such as Down’s Syndrome, Edwards’ Syndrome and Patau’s Syndrome.
In contrast to this, the gender of a person is developed after birth, and is more of a social phenomena. Historically, we have had two genders in society – women and men. Unlike sex, the typical characteristics of men and women were defined by society, not mother nature. Biological males were socialised to become men, and females to women.
This seems to be simple, but it isn’t. Every individual is different. Not everyone seamlessly fits into this gender division. There were females who felt that they were not comfortable with being a woman. Likewise, there were males who did not feel comfortable being men. In western culture, this was an anomaly. Contrary to popular belief, this was not a ‘phase’ for such people, and on more serious occasions, led to a medical condition called Gender Dysphoria, where one is not comfortable, and is rather distressed, with their sex assigned at birth. This section of the population eventually led to a third category, an umbrella category, for gender, transgender. Initially, there were two main categories – Female to Male(FtM) and Male to Female(MtF), whose terminologies were later changed to trans-male and trans-female, respectively. The change in the terminology was a step forward in understanding their gender identity, and signified the inclusion of those who chose to not undergo sex reassignment surgery. Likewise, those who were comfortable with their biological sex and conformed to the roles given to them by society were called the cisgender population.
Binary people are those who identify as either a man or a woman. Society today is no longer restricted to just these two divisions, and many people choose to identify themselves as neither a man or a woman. This could include, but is not limited to, those who feel that they do not have a gender (agender) or those who feel like they are in between the two genders ie they have certain traits which are observed in both genders. Another category of people who come under this umbrella are those who are gender fluid. These people do not put a constant label on their gender, and feel free to change it as per their convenience. People do this to feel more comfortable with themselves and their identity, and reflect who they truly are to the world.
Until recently, such communities were looked down upon and severely mistreated. Even today, the people of these communities live in fear and hide their true selves from everyone. Imagine having to pretend to be someone who you are not for your entire life. Yes, it is a painful and exhausting feeling on all fronts, which cannot fully be understood unless you go through such an experience.
So how can we make the transgender community and the intersex community feel comfortable with themselves? One of the best ways is to use gender neutral pronouns, or the pronouns they prefer. Pronouns can play a crucial role in one’s identity, and normalising the use of preferred pronouns and supporting and accepting those who choose non-traditional pronouns is a crucial step in helping out these communities. Gone are the days where he/him was only used by cisgender men and she/her was used by cisgender women. Many people have opened up to using the pronouns other than these, or using them against their traditional use. Also, alternative, gender neutral pronouns have come into usage, most popular of those being Hir/Ze and They/them. Using the pronouns of their choice can help them feel more comfortable with themselves and help them shape their own identity. This helps those who are afraid to step out of traditional societal norms and hence improve their overall well being. To show support to this, many cisgender individuals also state their preferred pronouns, such as mentioning it on their social media handles, to even writing it on their email signatures.
Normalise being comfortable with ourselves, and letting those around us feel that comfort too 🙂
- ONS – What is the difference between sex and gender?.