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 outer 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 by a 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 terms 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 physical formation.
  • 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.
  • Secondary sex characteristics - Refers to physical characteristics that are not sex organs (facial hair, breasts, larynx size, etc.)
  • Sex - A category typically determined by a person's sexual 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." 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."

The word "gender" comes from the Latin genus and was originally used to refer to any generic categorization. It became associated with human sex later when grammarians used the word "gender" to describe various word forms such as animate/inanimate, active/passive, or, most important to this topic, masculine/feminine/neuter. It wasn't until around the 1960s that it became popular in academic circles to use the word "gender" to refer to a person's sex, and decades later for the general public take up its usage.

Part of the reason why academics began preferring "gender" over "sex" is because it more accurately represents what they were talking about. While the public may be content distilling a person down to what's between their legs, academics need to talk about a person's biology, behavior, how they feel, how a culture views them, and various other aspects that go beyond their sex organs. Traditionally, the word "sex" has referred only to the outer sex organs in a binary fashion, while "gender" has had more options. For example, in the English language, gender-specific pronouns include "he" for masculine, "she" for feminine, "it" for neuter, and there is a growing trend of using "they" when gender is unknown or ambiguous.

The words "masculine" and "feminine" themselves are usually viewed as a spectrum as well. For example, it's common to view boxing as more masculine than golf, but both activities are still viewed as masculine. As "gender" became more popular in academic circles, the general public began to adopt its usage.

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 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 now a woman since they have more female sex organs than male sex organs? The typical response to this ambiguity 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 with everyone in their society thinking they're a man because their outer sex organs, 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. 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 Middle Eastern cultures go further segregating them in most aspects of society. In order to maintain such societal norms, an agreed upon demarcation must be set.

Trans men.

The four people to the right were assigned a female gender at birth, but underwent surgery and hormone therapy to alter their biology and are now indistinguishable from cis-gender men unless you see them nude. Personally, I would find it more normal for them to use a men's locker room than a lady'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 societal problem, ambiguous gender has existed all throughout history, and every culture has come up with different ways of dealing with it or ignoring it. For example, the International Olympic Committee has rules set in place for how a transgender person can compete.

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, 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?