What Is Gender?   ♂ ♀

Struggling to understand the ideological divide about gender identity?

What Is Gender is a public-service project to explain how each side defines gender and related concepts.

The Divide

The disagreement is fundamentally about what constitutes gender

Gender Subjectivists

believe that a subjective criterion, our own perception of our maleness or femaleness, determines our gender.

And while they acknowledge that for the vast majority of people, that perception tends to align with their biological sex, in cases where it does not, they assert that our subjective, internal perception determines our true gender.

Gender Objectivists

believe that an objective criterion, our biological sex, determines our gender. To gender objectivists, one's sex is one's gender, and vice versa.

Gender objectivists generally believe that gender is an immutable quality — that is, it can't be changed — and that there are two and only two sexes, and every person is one or the other.

Arguments For

The philosophical and practical arguments for each position

Gender Subjectivism

One appeal of gender subjectivism is that it fits in well with a modern libertarian ideal in which each individual is radically free to define his or her own identity. Under this paradigm, it becomes natural to ask questions such as, "If I assert that I am X, who are you to say that I am not? Am I not the best authority on my own self?"

Another appeal of gender subjectivism stems from the fact that we live in a time in which our corporeal selves are both more malleable than ever and, arguably, less relevant to the determination of our destiny than ever. Gender-related body modification surgery and hormone injections, for instance, can drastically alter physical appearance and voice. In the vast majority of professions and activities, we've come to recognize that a person's biological sex is not relevant to their ability to do the job. Even in cases where it might seem as if the physical difference between the sexes is a relevant factor, such as in athletic events, there's been a push to end gender-based segregation. It can be tempting, therefore, to treat our physical bodies as entirely irrelevant to our identities, or at least not nearly as important as our minds.

But perhaps the greatest appeal of gender subjectivism is that, as a practical matter, affirming self-assertions about gender appears to resolve a problem that gender objectivism does not: the problem of gender dysphoria. In contrast, conversion therapy aimed at helping people with gender dysphoria come to terms with their biological sex as their gender does not appear to be particularly effective.

Gender Objectivism

One appeal of gender objectivism is that its definition of gender is straightforward — a man is someone who is biologically male, and a woman is someone who is biologically female.

Gender objectivists argue that if identifying a person's gender tells us anything meaningful about that person, it is only because of that connection with biological sex.

In certain situations, of course, biological sex is irrelevant. You might chat online with a customer service representative to upgrade your Internet service and never know, or need to know, the person's gender. In other situations, it is absolutely relevant. For instance, there are a variety of gender differences in health care, ranging from sex-specific genetic conditions to sex differences in the prevalence and severity of certain illnesses.

To put it another way, in cases where gender is a relevant characteristic, it tends to be relevant as an objective characteristic. To an obstetrician who is offering you medical services, it doesn't really matter whether you perceive yourself to be a man or a woman. It does matter whether you have a uterus. Similarly, even among many people who identify as LGBQ, sexual attraction appears to be predicated on objective factors about a person, such as whether the person is anatomically male or female.

Arguments Against

The philosophical and practical arguments against each position

Gender Subjectivism

Coming soon.

Gender Objectivism

Coming soon.

Divided Language

Each side uses markedly different vocabulary to describe gender concepts

Gender Subjectivism

Gender identity is a person's internal, deeply held sense of their own gender.

Gender expression describes how we express our gender externally, as with the pronouns we use or the way we dress. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although what is considered masculine or feminine varies over time and by culture.

Transgender is an adjective that describes a person whose gender identity does not match their biological sex.

Sex reassignment surgery or Gender confirmation surgery refers to surgical interventions that modify a transgender person's body so that it appears more like the gender they identity with.

Assigned male/female at birth is typically used in reference to a transgender person whose apparent sex at birth, assigned based on their physical characteristics, does not correspond with their gender identity.

Gender Objectivism

Gender identity is not a preferred term, but to the extent that it is used, it refers to a person's biological sex.

Gender self-perception is a person's internal sense of their own gender. Unlike gender identity, it does not imply that their perception is always accurate, or that their perception determines what their gender actually is.

Gender assertion is the gender one asserts oneself to be. Unlike gender identity, it does not imply that the assertion is always accurate.

Gender affinity refers to a feeling of fitting in with a particular gender, e.g. because one feels more comfortable in the gender roles typically associated with that gender. Unlike gender identity, the term does not imply that this feeling determines what one's gender actually is.

Gender expression is an existing term that both gender subjectivists and gender objectivists use. It refers to how a person outwardly projects their gender, typically by presenting themselves in stereotypically gendered ways or behaving according to traditional gender roles.

Determined to be male/female at birth is preferred over "assigned male/female at birth," because "determined" implies that gender is not a subjective characteristic arbitrarily given to a person, but an objective characteristic about a person that is merely recognized.

Gender-related body modification surgery refers to surgical interventions to make a person's body appear more like their self-perceived gender. This terminology does not imply that a person's sex is something that can be changed, assigned or reassigned.