Gender vs. Sex: More Complicated Than Your Typical Trans* 101

“Sex is between the legs and gender is between the ears.”

If you have ever sat in on a trans* 101 course, you inevitably will have heard this phrase said at least once. For those of you who have never heard this before, it is meant to, in an extremely simplified manner, explain the difference between anatomical sex and gender.  Sex is ones biology whereas gender is a social construction that is created by the culture and the people within it.  When referring to sex, you would say, “male, female and intersex” while referring to gender, on the other hand, you would use words like, “man, woman, androgynous,” and so on.

Breaking the Sex Dichotomy

Usually when we hear “sex” we think exclusively “male” or “female.”  Or perhaps when you hear the word your dirty, dirty mind immediately jumps to the act of sex, rather than anatomical sex.  Don’t worry.  I’ll still be your friend.  I don’t judge ;).  Any ways, the reality is that many are born with genitalia that are between male and female, and there are even some born with both.  This would be more apparent if modern medical institutions did not try to “fix” those who are not born with exclusive hegemonic male or female bodies.

When we first think of anatomical sex, we usually focus on what is between the legs.  Our culture often sees it as the “trump card” of sex, and that regardless of how any other part of the body is sexed, the genitalia determine what someone’s sex is.  I see this as both superficial and  ignorant of how the body works as a whole.  Sex is also in our endocrinology, which in turn influences our secondary sex characteristics.  Regardless of what is between someone’s legs, if one has low levels of testosterone and high levels of estrogen, then they typically experience breast development, softer skin, greater olfactory sense, less upper body strength, but more lower body strength, etc.  Someone with high levels of testosterone and low levels of estrogen, on the other hand, will usually experience rougher skin, more body hair growth, more upper body strength and less lower body strength, etc.

Sex is also in ones chromosomes  Unlike what you are told in your high school biology courses, chromosomes are not limited to just XX and XY.  Just to name a couple more, you can be XXY or X with another partial X.  You can predict pretty well which chromosomes someone has usually by their body, but this is definitely not universal.  You can never know for sure what chromosomes you have unless you get genetic testing.   You can be XX even though you were born with hegemonic male organs, or XY  even though you were born with hegemonic female organs.  This does not make you any more or less of a man or woman.  This is why the term “genetic girl/woman” or “genetic boy/man” when referring to cisgender people is misleading because we do not even know for sure what most peoples’ chromosomes are to begin with.

Is Sex Between the Ears Too?

But what about the brain?  Talking about sexed structures in the brain always brings up controversy.  The assumption is that if there are sex differences in the brain, then it validate stereotypes that women and men natrually think and behave differently, and in turn validates sexism.  I used to make this assumption too.  Before I came to accept myself, I used to argue that there are absolutely no differences between males and females outside of reproductive organs and physical secondary sexual characteristics.  I used it as a way out of having to accept myself.  If males and females are exactly the same in every way, then I could somehow overcome this internal sense of being female.  As you can see, that did not work out very well and I had to accept myself for who I am.

Differently sexed brain structures do not necessarily mean that males and females are by nature vastly different opposites. For example, some studies show that females have slightly smaller brains, but this does not mean that females are somehow less intelligent.  What this could mean is that females are generally smaller bodied, because they have not been exposed to male levels of testosterone, and as a result their brains are proportional to their bodies.

Another problem is that people tend to generalize studies that show trends to every individual in an entire population.  Studies show that females, in general, have a larger corpus callosum, which is the connective structure that facilitates communication between the two hemispheres of the brain.  This does not however mean that ALL females have a larger corpus callosum.  In fact, it does not even necessarily mean that MOST females have a larger corpus callosum.  It just means that if you are female, you are more likely to have a larger one.  To assume that someone you are talking to has a larger corpus callosum just because they are female is just ridiculous.  Also, the assumption that brain structures are static and stable from birth is completely inaccurate. If people labeled female are socialized in a way that makes them use their corpus callosum more than males, then that part of the brain could actually mold and become larger or more complex from the use, even if they were the same size as males at birth.

English: Location of the corpus callosum, the ...

In my opinion, the only universal trait between all females is the part of the brain that makes them self identify as female, and the same goes for males.  Not the rest of their bodies, their endocrinology or their chromosomes.  After all, that part of our brain cannot be changed by human hands, and if it makes us identify as female, male, or something else all together, then it does not matter how our body, or even the rest of our brain is structured.

In the end, sex differences in the brain are relatively minute, and by no means are they even remotely universal.  There are vastly more similarities between male and female brains than differences.  The problem is that our culture hones in on these tiny differences and completely exaggerates them to a ridiculous level.  For the most part our culture just makes stuff up.  Female individuals are not somehow inherently more likely to love pink and playing with dolls, and male individuals do not inherently hate pink and love cars and sports.  These are all socially constructed ideas of what it means to be a girl versus a boy and a man versus a woman.  It has nothing to do with sex.

Sex As a Social Construct

Now here is something that you probably will never hear about in your typical trans* 101 course:  The idea of sex also being a social construct.

“But how can sex be a social construct, when it is rooted in biology?” you ask.

Well that is a good question.  Because biology itself IS a social construct that we, as human beings, use to understand the world around us.  It is an extremely useful tool to categorize and classify the living creatures, and how they survive and function.  We can use this information to improve on our quality of life.  By getting a better understanding of how human bodies function and survive, you can create better medical techniques that extend and improve upon the quality of human life.  By understanding the delicate intricacies of an ecosystem, we can better protect it.  But in the end, none of these categories and classifications have any meaning beyond what we give them: including sex.  Just because something is socially constructed, though, does not mean that its impact or effects are somehow any less real.

Biology, just like any other science, is meant to gather information about the world to either support or provide evidence against a given hypothesis.  Often when new information is discovered that challenges existing ideas, we will modify our understanding of biology to better fit this information.  For example, a mammal is typically defined as a placental animal with mammary glands that gives live birth.  With the discovery of egg laying mammals, like the platypus and echidna, we created a new category of mammals called monotremes.

Echidna short beaked

An Excuse to Post a Picture of a CUTE Echidna 🙂

The problem is when this process does not happen.  It is much easier to move around and reclassify our understanding of other species, but when it comes to reclassifying our understanding of human categories, i.e. sex, this process does not happen.  We are quite strongly attached to our cultural ideas of sex.  Rather than allow for the existence of intersex individuals, the Western world pathologizes anyone who falls outside of what the medical establishment considers “male” or “female.”  We ignore the fact that, while some want medical intervention, other people with intersex bodies do not want any medical intervention and do not see their bodies as being pathological.  In fact, many feel violated for the rest of their lives after having their bodies surgically altered at birth in order to “fix” them.

For example, I know two different intersex individuals.  They both had similar situations.  They both had some kind of surgery done to them downstairs when they were born because the area fell outside of the male/female binary we created.  No one in their family knows, or is willing to tell them what kind of surgery was done to them or the circumstances of their birth.  All medical records of what happened have been discarded over the years so they cannot even go back and investigate their own medical history.  They both have to live with medical problems as a result of whatever surgery was done to them, and they were both assigned male at birth.  The main difference is that, while one of them identifies as male, the other one identifies as female and has to live the rest of her life with what was done to her in order to construct what the surgeons considered ” more appropriate” organs.  We make the false assumption that by looking at ones genitalia and seeing what they more closely resemble, that we can somehow know for certain how they are going to identify.  The reality is that even if someone’s visible body completely falls into one of our constructed categories of male or female, we still cannot know for sure how they identify until they are old enough to figure out for themselves and tell us.


Terminology: How to Refer to a Trans* Person

It can be confusing on what terms to use, how to use them, and in what context are they are appropriate.  Each person often comes up with their own individual understanding of the words they use to describe their identity, so these words can notoriously be fraught with tiny idiosyncratic differences in terminology that  vary as much as the human population that uses them.  Even the same word, like “trans” for example can mean one thing to one person, and then hold a completely different meaning for another person.  Please remember that these are my understanding of the terms and it does not necessarily represent what every trans* person understands them to be.


First, I’ll start off with the word transgender.  This is the most generic blanket term that is used.  It does not have the same stigmatized forceful feel that transsexual can sometimes give off.  Also it focuses more on the concept of gender rather than on the physical nature of sex that the word transsexual implies.  Being an umbrella term, it includes anyone who’s gender identity does not align with the one assigned to them at birth.  Depending on who you ask, it can also include cross-dressers and drag performers as well.

Personally I use transgender as more of a socio-political term to describe myself.  It is a relatively quick simple term to describe the group of people who I share a similar experience with.  It easily lets people know some of the struggles I have had to go through in life.  It also provides a unifying word behind which all groups of gender minorities can rally together and fight for equality.  I never really have seen myself as ever having been a boy/man since I never really accepted the role ascribed to me to begin with.  Rather than becoming immersed in the male role, I just completely shut down and stopped talking or socializing all together.  I did not even let myself have opinions on anything: even a favorite color.  It was not until I actually started accepting myself as a woman that I started blossoming into the person I am today.  Because of this, the word “transgender” can feel strange to me sometimes because I do not see myself as having changed from one gender to another (as the word suggests).

MTF and FTM Transsexual

This word is used to describe people who not only identify as a different gender than the one assigned to them, but also take or desire to take medical intervention into the mix.  They either want hormones, surgery or both.  Although I use medical intervention, I particularly do not like this term because it puts a strong emphasis on the physical transition rather than on who the person is.  Also it has a slightly more negative connotation than transgender does since it has been abused more.


Do not, I repeat DO NOT use this word.  Just because some people *cough* RuPaul *cough* use it does not mean that it is okay.  For many, including myself, this is the equivalent of the “N” word.  It has been used in such derogatory manners over the years that the word itself has inherently become derogatory.  Also never call a trans* person an  “it,”  a “shemale,” or a “he/she” because these are extremely dehumanizing and offensive as well.

Trans vs. Trans*

“Trans” is just a shortening of the word transgender, but implies trans woman or trans man.  Because of this, the relatively recent idea of adding an asterisk to the end to create “Trans*” came about.  The asterisk means that anything can follow the word trans*, and as a result is seen as more inclusive of all that fall under the trans* umbrella.

Ex: “I am a trans woman”


       “Being trans* can mean a number of things”

Trans Woman vs. Trans Man

Some people can get confused on who you are referring to someone as a “trans woman” or “trans man.”  I see ignorant psychology articles that refer to transgender women as, “transgender men,” or “transgender males,” all the time.  A trans woman is a trans* individual who identifies as a woman, and a trans man is a trans* individual who identifies as a man. Period.  Unless you are being a jerk do not call someone who identifies as a woman a “man,” or someone who identifies as a man a “woman.”

Transgender is an Adjective NOT a Noun

This is definitely one of my pet peeves.  Transgender is often used as a noun and this is wrong for two reasons: 1) It is grammatically incorrect and just sounds weird to me o_O   2) Using transgender as a noun reduces our whole identity and being to one trait, when we are complex human beings with many traits and characteristics that define us.

Right:   “They are transgender”

Wrong: “He is a transgender”

Right:   “She is a transgender woman”

Wrong: ” I know lots of transgenders”

Drag Queen/King vs. Cross-dressers

The difference between a drag queen or king and a cross-dresser is that the drag performer does it for performance reasons.  They like to play with gender in a way that puts on a show and is entertaining, and also like to mess with gender stereotypes as well.  Like a cross-dresser, most do not identify as a different gender than the one assigned to them.

Someone who cross-dresses puts on clothes of a different gender because they enjoy it, sometimes for sexual reasons and sometimes not.  They do not do it in order to perform like a drag queen or king, it is rather an internally driven desire.

Sometimes, before coming out as trans*, people will say they are a cross-dresser or perform drag first since it is safer and more contained than coming out all the way and turning everything in their lives upside down.  This does NOT however mean that every drag performer or cross-dresser is secretly trans*.

Gender Queer

Someone identifies as gender queer identifies as neither man nor woman.  Since gender is a spectrum of countless different identities, there are a limitless number of subcategories to identifying as gender queer.  These include, but are no means at all limited to androgynous, bigender and gender fluid.


This is when someone identifies somewhere between genders and does not adhere strictly to man or woman.  Unlike someone who is gender fluid their gender identity and expression tends to stay in one spot on the spectrum and does not move.


Rather than identifying between genders, someone who is bi-gender identifies as man AND woman at the same time.

Gender Fluid

Someone who identifies as gender fluid does not strictly adhere to just one gender.  They often “flow” between different gender expressions at different times.  Depending on the person, the range of expression can vary greatly.

In the end there are SO many different gender identities out there that it would be impossible for me to cover all of them.  Gender identities vary as much as people do, and as a result it creates a wide spectrum rather than a tight dichotomy.  In the end, if you are unsure of someone’s identity or how they want to be referred to, then it is best just to ask.  It is much better than assuming the wrong thing.

What is Cisprivilege?

So you may have come across my blog and been like, “What the heck is ‘cisprivilege’ anyway?”  Well that’s a good question, because whenever I say this around one of my friends or colleagues for the first time, they almost never know what it means, so DON”T WORRY you are not alone!  Most people do not have the opportunity to become educated on trans* issues in general so it would make sense that many would not know the language behind them too.


Before we get into what cisprivilege is, first we need to look into the prefix cis-.  Cis- is short for cisgender, which refers to someone who’s assigned gender also aligns with ones internal sense of gender or gender identity.  A crude way of putting it is that a cisgender person is someone who is “not trans*”.  A transgender person on the other hand is someone who’s assigned gender does not match their internal sense of gender or gender identity.  The way these are worded is very important: especially the word “assigned,” which shows how the gender role was ascribed to people against their will.   Avoid replacing the word “assigned” with the words “actual” or “real” because this says that the persons identity is not real.

Right:  “A transgender person is someone who’s ASSIGNED gender does not align with their gender identity”

Wrong: ” A transgender person is someone who’s ACTUAL gender does not align with their gender identity”

Phrasing it the second way is a BIG no-no!!! As you can imagine, to say that one’s identity is fake can be extremely offensive.  Whether you agree with a person’s identity or not, it is important to at least respect their identity if you want to continue any sort of amicable relationship with them.  So if you care about the person please put away any negative feelings you have about their identity and respect them.  This includes using proper pronouns too (he, she, they or zie depending on what they prefer) and other gendered language (Sir, Ma’am, Son, Daughter, etc.)


So now that you know what cisgender means, we can talk about cisprivilege, i.e. cisgender privilege.  Cisprivilege is the privilege one receives in society for being cisgender.  For example if you are cisgender, you can expect that all of your identity documents show the correct gender on them, and that if it is incorrect you do not have to go through a long and rigorous medical process that excludes those who do not have $20,000 on hand, or those who do not want, or cannot get, major surgery for that matter.  Also, you can expect everyone to use the correct pronouns (he or she) in reference to you.  In the rare instance one makes a mistake and uses the wrong pronoun, you can expect an immediate and sincere apology.  Any anger you may have for being misgendered is considered a legitimate emotional response.

Cisprivilege permeates through pretty much every interaction in life, and for the most part goes completely unrecognized by those who have it.  A trans* person can have cisprivilege temporarily extended to them if they “pass” as the gender they identify as, but it is extremely fragile and can be taken away at any moment once someone realizes that they are indeed trans*.  For example, if I am applying for a job, the employer might not know that I am trans* by looking at me, but once he looks down at my application and sees that my former legal name is male (which I am required to put on every application), it could tip him off and lose me the job opportunity.

You can even be experiencing cisprivilege and never know it happened.  For example,  it took me 6 months to find a place to live one time because every time the owner or one of the roommates found out I was a trans woman they would not let me move in.  A cisgender person would have been able to move into the first match they found without any objection to their gender identity.  They would never know that the person might have rejected them if they had been trans*.  The same thing applies to jobs, friendships, and dating as well.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to examples of cisprivilege.  Like I said it is EVERYWHERE and seriously affects our lives in dramatic ways.  It is impossible to cover all the examples of cisprivilege in one article, so I will continue to explore it throughout this blog.  I also will delve into other topics too, like the relationship between feminism and the transgender community, the intersectionality that comes with being both trans* and a racial minority, body image while being a trans woman, and more about language when referring to trans* individuals.   This is the first of many, so I hope you enjoyed and come back for more in the future!  Thank you for reading!!! ^_^