For most of my life I have been pretty sure that “gender” was the word used by people either too prudish to say “sex” or wanted to make a clear distinction between ‘gender’ and copulation. But there appears to be a conversation that suggests I’m wrong. The argument centres around transgenderism, an issue I’m not against in anyway but am struggling to find the nuance of the discussion around.
The distinction, so far as I can see, is this:
Sex is the scientific and biological term. We are a sexually dimorphic species, meaning the overwhelming majority of the human population is represented in one of two sexes: male or female. These terms are defined by anatomy and genetics. There does exist a limited number of defined other groups: hermaphrodites and XXY chromosomes. In this paradigm, a transgender person is a person who has undergone a change to their anatomy.
Gender, however, is not identical to this. Instead, gender relates to cultural stereotypes that relate to gender. (You can nitpick, claim you find the word “stereotype” offensive or prefer the term “social expectation” if you want. But I’m going to ignore that unless it makes a substantive change to the argument I am making here. I am not going to obsess over inconsequential distinctions.) Gender may be better thought of not as “male/female” but “masculine/feminine”. Exactly what masculinity and femininity look like changes in different cultures, however it would be remiss to not point out there are considerable similarities between cultures in these stereotypes.
Using this distinction, then, people seem to be choosing to eschew the false dichotomy of thinking of themselves as masculine or feminine. And, on that point, I think we can all agree. The narrow definition of what it means to be masculine or feminine is a very long way from encompassing the breadth of human personality. I thought, as a society, generations ago, we were laughing off the restrictive definitions of masculinity and femininity.
But some people seem to think they are laughing off and eschewing these shackles of stereotypes harder than everyone else, and instead of being a part of the natural evolution of language they are demanding new terms for themselves: new gender pronouns. These terms still relates to sex, as the original gender pronouns do. But, this time, they also relate to style of deviation from the archaic stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.
And so far, so good. I’m fully in support of this. In fact, the less-than-40 new nontraditional gender pronouns are insufficient. We should keep throwing more in. Until there are hundred. Thousands. Billions. In fact, maybe we could just start calling our names our ‘genders’; after all, doesn’t our name capture our identity better than any group term?
But this goes one further, I think. If we continue to use group terms that relate to sex but also relate to how we feel we deviate from sex-stereotypes (i.e. traditional gender), and you’ve got a new gender pronoun that you think encapsulates a useful idea ― a term like ‘genderqueer’ ― I don’t see how it’s then up to you as to whether you fulfil that defined idea. You may advocate 40 new terms, but I don’t then see how that empowers you to pick which one you fall into.
Although I can see the concept of ‘gender’ as something that relates to sex, but it more gradated, resolute and certainly has a nonlinear relationship to sex, I don’t see how you then get to pick which of these terms describes you. There is no linguistic utility in me having a word for how you feel; instead, the word is only useful for how you come across to me. And you don’t get to dictate to me how you come across to me. You may see the utility in having “it” as a gender pronoun, but you might come across to me as a “zhe”. And that much isn’t up to you.