What does “gender diversity” mean?

Sex and gender. They’re always present, they’re important aspects of who we are, yet they’re rarely discussed in a thoughtful way.

The following definitions are intended to provide a framework for discussion about gender – physical sex, assigned sex, gender identity, gender role, gender presentation, and perceived gender.

Note, first, that even researchers and clinicians disagree about the use of the words sex and gender. You may be accustomed to using those words in a different way than they’re used here. If so, please don’t let that sidetrack you. Instead, listen for the concepts underlying the words.

Physical sex

Physical sex is often identified simplistically in terms of the genitals we have, but physical sex is much more than that. Just as human beings come in many shapes, sizes and colors, we also come in many varieties of physical sex, based on our own unique combination of chromosomes, hormones, and physical characteristics.

Inspecting a newborn’s genitals to determine whether the baby is a boy or a girl can be inconclusive or misleading. Experts have estimated that approximately one percent of babies (at least 40,000 annually in the United States alone) are born with bodies that differ in some way from what is considered standard for males or females.

Some babies have physical characteristics that lead to confusion about whether they’re male or female.

My wife and I just had our first baby. People keep asking, Is it a girl or a boy?” and I don’t know what to say because the baby has what the doctors call ambiguous genitals. The doctors are recommending a series of surgeries to “correct” the problem. I’ve never heard of this. I usually follow doctors’ recommendations, but I don’t know what to do. I feel so alone.

Other atypical aspects of physical, genetic, and brain sex are invisible to the eye but may become apparent later, perhaps at puberty, or become apparent only if genetic tests are performed.

Assigned sex

Assigned sex is what people declare a baby to be at birth. Assignment is the answer to the question, “Is it a girl or a boy?” Most of us don’t realize that sex was assigned to us, and we take for granted that we are the male or female that we were originally said to be.

However, sometimes sex is ambiguous, as in the above example, but even when a baby’s genitals look the way we expect them to, sex assignment on that basis alone isn’t necessarily accurate.

Our child was born with a girl’s body, externally, but when she was about four, our doctor noticed a slight bulge in her groin. After blood work and ultrasound, we learned that she had male chromosomes (XY) and testes rather than ovaries.

Still other people have unambiguous genitals, but have a profound sense that their assignment was wrong, and they’re deeply troubled by the bind they find themselves in.

Gender identity

Gender identity is a person’s internal understanding of their own true gender. Most people never question or contradict their assigned sex. They were declared to be a boy or girl at birth, and that suits them completely.

Some children, however, know from a very young age that their assigned gender and apparent physical sex are wrong for them, that they are really the other gender.

…My nephew is four years old. He’s been telling his parents for two years that he’s a girl and wants to wear dresses. My brother is beside himself. He keeps pointing to the child’s penis and saying, “You’re a boy, just like Daddy.” But the kid won’t buy it and is getting more sullen by the day.

For some people, neither male nor female fits their understanding of themselves.

…I’m 24 years old and look androgynous. People don’t know what I am. I don’t feel that either label—male or female—fits me. I’ve been trying to explain this to my mom, but she doesn’t get it. She keeps saying that I have to decide whether I’m a boy or a girl. I’m so frustrated.

Gender role

Gender role is what society says is appropriate for males and females, including dress, behavior, and other activities such as using a particular restroom.

When children encounter gender role restrictions that don’t make sense to them, they often conclude that they have a problem and begin monitoring themselves to make sure they don’t step outside the gender role considered appropriate for their assigned sex. For example, you’ve probably known

  • an intelligent girl who played dumb to try to become more popular, or
  • a boy who held back tears at his grandfather’s funeral because boys aren’t supposed to cry.

We often forget how culturally specific gender roles are, that what is acceptable in one culture is completely unacceptable in another. For example,

  • In the United States, adult women are allowed to drive; in some countries, it is forbidden.
  • In some countries, men express their affection for each other freely; in the United States, doing so can be dangerous.

Gender presentation

Gender presentation is the way people express their gender or gender role outwardly—including

  • Clothing and jewelry they choose,
  • Their mannerisms,
  • The way they walk and use their hands,
  • Their hairstyle,
  • The interests they express, and
  • Their speech.

If you stand on a street corner in any major city, you can observe a huge range of choices to express gender. And if you look back at your own life, you may remember different periods of experimenting with or changing how you presented yourself as a man or woman.

…I’m a 34-year-old woman. When I was a kid, I felt comfortable only in boys’ clothes. I was so relieved when I grew up and no longer had to fight with my parents over dresses. I wear men’s clothes all the time, and people are fine with it The only exception is the choir I sing in, which requires women to wear long skirts and men to wear tuxes. It’s not that I want to wear a tux, but I find wearing that skirt incredibly stressful.

Perceived gender

Perceived gender is how someone appears to others. Think about how you “know’ whether someone is male or female. We usually see people clothes, so we perceive gender based on gender presentation and how they fit society’s gender roles.

We may think that we can always tell whether someone is male or female, but what we perceive can be inaccurate. For example, at first glance, many people perceive the woman in the photo on this page to be male because of the way she dresses and carries herself.

As another example, look at the photo of the other person. You probably see him as male, and he agrees. Your perception and his own male gender identity, however, don’t match the sex he was assigned at birth: female.

What does all this mean?

Take a moment to consider the distinctions we’ve just made between physical sex, assigned sex, gender identity, gender role, gender presentation, and perceived gender. You probably can’t remember how you learned about your own gender, your physical sex, or the sex you were assigned. We learn these things before we learn to talk. Most of us take them for granted and assume that everyone else does too.

Then again, you may be able to recall some of the ways you learned about what was considered appropriate for boys and girls. You probably learned these things as a very young child by watching your family and friends. You may remember instances when you unknowingly crossed a gender line and were corrected, ridiculed, or punished.

Of course, if you objected to the rules, they were probably rigidly enforced. For example, if you were a girl who didn’t want to wear dresses, or a boy who did, you were probably not given a choice, but made to conform.

Notice that we haven’t mentioned sexual orientation. Many people confuse gender and sexual orientation, and although they’re related, they’re quite separate issues.

Adapted from Made in God’s Image

Contributed by Ann Thompson Cook

Please give credit: The person or organization who contributed this resource has made it available for you to download free for use for worship or education in your congregation or faith community. Whenever you use it, please attribute to the contributors as they are named, adding the words, "downloaded at ManyVoices.org." Use of this resource for commercial purposes is expressly prohibited.

Please give feedback: To share anything about your experience using this resource, enter your comments below. Your feedback helps build a vibrant community.

Please give a donation: If you appreciate the opportunity for free downloads, please consider a donation so we can continue offering guidance to all who seek to broaden their welcome.