Gender spectrum

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The biological complexities of gender.

Gender spectrum is a term used to describe the complexity of primary and secondary sexual characteristics in humans including their biology, behavior, identity, and role in their society. Although it's common to use binary terms like man/woman, female/male, feminine/masculine, or penis/vagina, none of these labels encompasses all of the variation seen in the world, so the term "gender" is used to describe them all.


This is a collection of common terms relating to gender.

  • Assigned gender - A gender that is assigned to a person by society, usually during fetal development or at birth.
  • Cisgender / Transgender - A distinction based on whether a person's gender identity matches their assigned gender. Cisgender matches, transgender does not.
  • Female / Male - Typically a distinction based on a person's external genitalia regardless of their gender expression or identity.
  • Feminine / Masculine - A distinction of behaviors, characteristics, interests, etc. as they are applied to women or men within a specific culture.
  • Gender - The range of characteristics used to describe and differentiate a person's gender identity, gender expression, gender role, and sex.
  • Gender identity - The gender a person prefers to use to identify their gender.
  • Gender expression - Physical expressions that a society applies to gender. This can be sub-divided into behaviors, mannerisms, and appearance.
  • Gender role - The gender role a person generally fills in their society.
  • Genetics - The underlying chromosomal and genetic makeup of a person. Two chromosomes makeup the basic sexual differences in humans, X and Y, which can exist in about a dozen different combinations, although XX and XY are the two most common. In addition to chromosomes, there are several genes and hormones which play a strong role in the physical and mental formation of gender.
  • Intersex - A blanket term for anyone whose physical sex cannot be neatly described as male or female. This includes people with Klinefelter syndrome, Turner syndrome, Androgen insensitivity syndrome, and various other outcomes.
  • Man / Woman - An informal term typically used to distinguish people based on the role they fill in their society primarily influenced by their external sexual organs.
  • Primary sex characteristics - Refers to the biology that most obviously differentiates the sexes (e.g., penis/vagina, testes/ovaries, testosterone/estrogen, etc.).
  • Secondary sex characteristics - Refers to the biology which plays a minor role in differentiating between the sexes (facial hair, breasts, larynx size, shoulder width, hip width, etc.).
  • Sex - A category typically determined by a person's external sex organs. The two most common are male (described by a penis and testes) or female (described by a vulva, vagina, uterus, and ovaries), however, there are many other possibilities often included in a single group called intersex.
  • Sexual preference - The types of people a person is sexually attracted to. Although this doesn't either describe or prescribe a person's gender, people often include it because it is strongly influenced by those genes which affect a person's sexual organs.


Not everyone accepts that gender should be viewed as a spectrum. From my experience, this is either because of an unfamiliarity of the subject or a conservative political allegiance. The following are criticisms I have encountered and my counter argument for each.

The word "gender" traditionally refers only to male or female

Usage of the word "sex" on US government documents.

Traditionally, the word used to describe someone as male or female is "sex," not "gender." The diagram to the right shows official US government documents, both modern and historic, all of which use male or female in a category called "sex."

In the 1300s, the word "gender" was derived from Latin genus and used similarly to refer to a general category. For example, in the 1603 tragedy Othello, William Shakespeare used "gender" to refer to types of herbs. Early grammarians used "gender" to refer to various word forms including verb tense, noun animacy, voice, and, most important to this topic, whether a noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter. You might read about a language having nine "genders," but this doesn't necessarily mean they have a large spectrum of words for human sexuality. The Chechen language, for example, spells nouns differently when referring to feminine and masculine, but also inanimate objects, non-human animate objects, children, concepts, and so forth. They have six "genders" because they have six "categories."

It wasn't until around the 1960s that it became popular in academic circles to use the word "gender" to talk about human sex. Part of the reason for using the word "gender" over "sex" is because it more accurately represents what they study. You can't accurately describe a person's body, genetics, behavior, feeling, appearance, and societal role with only a binary category like "man/woman". As academics popularized the word, the general public began to adopt its usage, and the ambiguity it entails.

The words "female/male," "man/woman," and "feminine/masculine" are used interchangeably

In any language, the reason multiple words are used is because the speaker wants to distinguish between them in some way. These six words are indeed all synonymous, and are sometimes used interchangeably because human language is messy, but they typically have different uses:

"Female" and "male" are usually used in and official capacity to talk about external sex organs, or in a clinical capacity to talk about chromosomes.

The words "man" and "woman" are generally used in commonplace conversation, and, while they certainly imply which sex organs a person possesses, they also focus a lot on a person's role in their society. For example, the phrases "man of the house" and "women's work" both denote a role, but can be applied to males and females alike. Also, the words "man" and "woman" are predominately used to describe people but not animals, for example, "the goat is female," is said far more often than, "the goat is a woman." Although people will often say that an animal is a "boy" or "girl," they're doing so as a more socially acceptable way to talk about the animals' external genitalia.

"Feminine" and "masculine" do not refer to sex organs, but rather behaviors, and how they are more commonly associated with men or women in their society. Because of this, the level of feminine or masculine behavior changes per location and across time. For example, in ancient Egyptian cultures, eye-liner was viewed as masculine, but in modern Western cultures it is feminine. However, there are still exceptions where eye-liner is viewed as masculine, like in certain music cultures. Because "feminine" and "masculine" are based on an ever-changing complex society, they are intrinsically viewed as a spectrum; boxing is a more masculine sport than golf, but both activities are still viewed predominately as masculine, even though women also do both.

A person's sex should be determined when they're born, and never be allowed to be changed

Sex is usually declared on a birth certificate based on the appearance of the external primary sex organs of a newborn. The majority of the time, this ends up accurately matching a person's DNA and chromosomes. However, there are several biological conditions where either the sex organ isn't obviously one or the other, or doesn't match the person's DNA, chromosomes, or both. These various conditions are collectively called intersex.

As an example, a person could be born with an XY chromosome set, but have a malformed SRY gene. In utero, they will grow a vulva. The obstetrician, seeing the vulva, will mark their birth certificate as female, and the child will be raised as a girl. However, during adolescence, because they have a Y chromosome, they become awash with testosterone and develop male characteristics. They won't grow breasts or develop more fat around the hips and buttocks, but will instead grow facial hair and broad shoulders. They will develop a sexual attraction to women, and look, feel, and act like a man because, chromosomally, they are male and would show up as male on a chromosome test. Compare such a person to someone born as a man, but loses their penis in an accident. They are effectively identical, but only one has a birth certificate to match who they truly are.

Gender should only describe a person's sex organs

This is the primary system put in place for most cultures throughout history, and it works great for about 96% of the population, but it does have several problems. Which sex organs should we use to determine a person's gender? Just the primary, or the secondary as well? Just the external, or the internal as well? Is a person who has a hysterectomy still a woman even though the majority of her sex organs have been removed? If a person born with a penis and scrotum has it converted into a vagina and labia are they now a woman since they have more female sex organs than male sex organs? The typical response to these edge-cases is to move the argument back to chromosomes and genetics, but such an argument has its own problems.

Gender should only describe a person's chromosomes

There are no biological metrics that always match a person's genetics, chromosomes, and sexual organs. For example, a person can be born with XX chromosomes, but have an SRY gene, which causes them to grow a penis and testes that often don't function. Is this person male or female?

Until just the past couple decades, when scientists learned how to measure chromosomes and genes, such a person could live their entire life as a man, with everyone in their society thinking they're a man, but, according to this criticism, they would be the "wrong" gender.

Most people are born with sex organs typical of their chromosomes, genes, and hormones, but biologists estimate that around 4% of the world's population have sex organs that are atypical of the rest of their biology, which comes to some several million people.

We need to know a person's gender to separate them in society

Rarely is this criticism stated in such a clear way (it usually includes bathrooms and insults), but this is a valid criticism. Most Western cultures segregate men and women when it comes to being nude (bathrooms, locker room, changing rooms, etc.) and when it comes to athletics, and many Abrahamic religious cultures go further segregating them in additional aspects of society. If we want to maintain such societal norms, an agreed upon demarcation must be set.

Trans men.

The four people to the right were assigned a female sex at birth and raised female by their culture, but underwent surgery and hormone therapy to alter their biology. Now, unless you see their nude crotch, they are indistinguishable from cis-gender men. It would find it more unusual to see them in a woman's locker room. However, their transition was a long process and it raises some important questions. At which point during their transition should they be excluded from the women's locker room and allowed into the men's? If they wanted to take part in professional sports, at what point should they be excluded from a women's competition and allowed in the men's? The same questions could be asked for men transitioning to women, or for people who maintain an ambiguous gender.

This is not a new problem because ambiguous gender has existed all throughout history; every culture has come up with different ways of accepting it, ignoring it, or fighting it. For example, the International Olympic Committee has rules set in place for how a transgender person can compete. And, while there are occasional instances where a person's gender really does need to be known, the majority of the time in society it doesn't matter. You've probably encountered several transgender people in your life and never even knew it.

Children born with ambiguous genitals should be forced into a category

It is a fact that people are sometimes born with ambiguous genitals, it is also a fact that biologists have advanced enough to perform procedures to move a person closer to the far ends of the gender spectrum. This raises the ethical question: when is it correct to perform such procedures?

If a child is born with generally typical biology, but with slightly low hormone levels, should we give them artificial hormones to push them further away from the middle of the spectrum? My initial reaction is to say yes, because I feel it will increase their quality of life due to how our culture currently works, especially as they reach sexual maturity. However, as this hypothetical child gets closer to the middle of the gender spectrum, I become more hesitant. History has many cases of parents trying to push ambiguous children toward one end of the spectrum with disastrous results. Many children with ambiguous gender who are raised as typical boys or girls feel like they're in the wrong body, become severely depressed, and ultimately kill themselves. An important question to ask is, if they grew up in a society that acknowledged their unique situation, didn't try to force them into a binary category, and treated them with respect and dignity, would they still have killed themselves?