Understanding Gender

Understandings of gender continually evolve. In the course of a person’s life, the interests, activities, clothing and professions that are considered the domain of one gender or another evolve in ways both small and large.



This has perhaps never been more true than it is now. The data show that today’s young people have significantly different understandings of gender than previous generations, with consequences for all children, families, organizations and institutions.

Dimensions of Gender

People tend to use the terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. But, while connected, the two terms are not equivalent. Generally, we assign a newborn’s sex as either male or female (some US states and other countries offer a third option) based on the baby’s genitals. Once a sex is assigned, we presume the child’s gender. For some people, this is cause for little, if any, concern or further thought because their gender aligns with gender-related ideas and assumptions associated with their sex. Nevertheless, while gender may begin with the assignment of our sex, it doesn’t end there. A person’s gender is the complex interrelationship between three dimensions: body, identity, and social gender.



Most societies view sex as a binary concept, with two rigidly fixed options: male or female, based on a person’s reproductive anatomy and functions. But a binary view of sex fails to capture its complexity.

“Even the biological categories of male and female are blurred; we know today that not just the X and Y chromosomes but at least 12 others across the human genome govern sex differentiation, and at least 30 genes are involved in sex development.”
–Simona Giordano, Director of Medical Ethics, Manchester University Medical School

Not only are female and male bodies more complex than most realize, there are also bodies that fit neither category. While we are often taught that bodies have one of two forms of genitalia, which are classified as “female” or “male,” there are Intersex traits that demonstrate that sex exists across a continuum of possibilities. This level of naturally occurring biological variation by itself should be enough to dispel the simplistic notion that there are just two sexes. The relationship between a person’s gender and their body goes beyond one’s reproductive functions. Research in neurology, endocrinology, and cellular biology points to a broader biological basis for an individual’s experience of gender. In fact, research increasingly points to our brains as playing a key role in how we each experience our gender.

Bodies themselves are also gendered in the context of cultural expectations. Masculinity and femininity are equated with certain physical attributes, labeling us as more or less a man/woman based on the degree to which those attributes are present. This gendering of our bodies affects how we feel about ourselves and how others perceive and interact with us.



Gender identity is our internal experience and naming of our gender. It can correspond to or differ from the sex we were assigned at birth.

Understanding of our gender comes to most of us fairly early in life. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “By age four, most children have a stable sense of their gender identity.” This core aspect of one’s identity comes from within each of us. Gender identity is an inherent aspect of a person’s make-up. Individuals do not choose their gender, nor can they be made to change it. However, the words someone uses to communicate their gender identity may change over time; naming one’s gender can be a complex and evolving matter. Because we are provided with limited language for gender, it may take a person quite some time to discover, or create, the language that best communicates their internal experience. Likewise, as language evolves, a person’s name for their gender may also evolve. This does not mean their gender has changed, but rather that the words for it are shifting.


Social Gender

Social gender is the third dimension. This includes gender expression, which is the way we communicate our gender to others through such things as clothing, hairstyles, and mannerisms. It also includes how individuals, communities and society perceive, interact with, and try to shape our gender. Social gender includes gender roles and expectations and how society uses those to try to enforce conformity to current gender norms.

Practically everything is assigned a gender—toys, colors and clothes are some of the more obvious examples. We begin to teach children about gender from the moment they are born; given the prevalence of the gender binary, children face great pressure to express their gender within narrow, stereotypical definitions of “boy” or “girl.” Expectations regarding gender are communicated through every aspect of our lives, including family, culture, peers, schools, community, media, and religion. Gender roles and expectations are so entrenched in our culture that it’s difficult to imagine things any other way.



Gender congruence is the feeling of harmony in our gender:

  • experiencing comfort in our body as it relates to our gender
  • naming of our gender that adequately corresponds with our internal sense of who we are
  • expressing ourselves through clothing, mannerisms, interests and activities
  • being seen consistently by others as we see ourselves

Finding congruence is an ongoing process throughout each of our lives as we continue to grow and gain insight into ourselves. It is most often found through exploration. For some, finding congruence is fairly simple; for others, it is a much more complex process. But the fundamental need to find gender congruence is true for us all, and any degree to which we don’t experience it can be distressing.


Personal Gender

While the dimensions of gender and the desire for congruence are common to us all, ultimately gender is personal. Each dimension of gender is informed by our unique intersection of identities, experiences, and personal characteristics. We are more than our body, gender identity and gender expression: we are also our race, ethnicity, class, faith, sense of geographic place, family history, and more. Our gender is personal because, while we share some of these aspects of self with others, the way that all of these identities, influences and characteristics come together is unique to each of us.


Gender Is Different Than Sexual Orientation

One final distinction to make is the difference between gender and Sexual orientation, which are often incorrectly conflated. In actuality, gender and sexual orientation are two distinct, but related, aspects of self. Gender is personal (how we see ourselves), while sexual orientation is interpersonal (who we are physically, emotionally and/or romantically attracted to).

Why is it so critical to distinguish between these two concepts? When we confuse gender with sexual orientation, we are likely to make assumptions about a young person that have nothing to do with who they are. For example, when someone’s gender expression is inconsistent with others’ expectations, assumptions are frequently made about that person’s sexual orientation. The boy who loves to play princess is assumed to be gay, and the girl who buys clothes in the “boys’” section and favors a short haircut may be assumed to be a lesbian. These could be faulty conclusions. What someone wears and how they act is about gender expression. You cannot tell what a person’s sexual orientation is by what they wear (for that matter, you can’t know what their gender identity is either, unless they tell you).

Our society’s conflation of gender and sexual orientation can also interfere with a young person’s ability to understand and articulate aspects of their own gender. For example, it’s not uncommon for a transgender or non-binary youth to wonder if they are gay or lesbian (or any sexual orientation other than heterosexual) before coming to a fuller realization of their gender identity. How we come to understand our gender and our sexual orientation – and the choices we make to disclose and express these parts of ourselves – are distinct paths. Thinking of these two aspects of self as interchangeable may, instead of helping us know ourselves and one another better, actually get in the way of understanding and communication.


What’s Next?

There is a generational divide in how we think about gender. In order to bridge this gap, those of us who were raised with a more limited view of gender can take this as an opportunity to explore gender with new eyes, to read and ask questions to better understand gender’s complexity. As with any learning experience, you’ll learn more about the world around you and about yourself in the process.

Gender diversity has existed throughout history and all over the world. As one of the most fundamental aspects of a person’s identity, gender deeply influences every part of one’s life. Where this crucial aspect of self is narrowly defined and rigidly enforced, individuals who exist outside of its norms face innumerable challenges. Even those who vary only slightly from norms can become targets of disapproval, discrimination, and even violence.

This does not have to be the case. Through a thoughtful consideration of the uniqueness and validity of every person’s experience of self, we can develop greater acceptance for all. Not only will this create greater inclusion for individuals who challenge the norms of gender, it will create space for all individuals to more fully explore and express who they are.

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