Over the last several decades, our society’s understanding of gender and sexuality has changed drastically and language has evolved to reflect a beautiful, complex spectrum of identities. This evolution can feel like it’s happened very quickly, and the new concepts that have arisen often ask us to call into question certain core beliefs we’ve been taught about gender and sexuality. It’s not uncommon to feel confused or to struggle to keep up. We’ve broken down some of the basics and compiled this resource to help you understand some common terms you might encounter and how they’re used. Sex and Gender. So, what is sex? Most of us are taught that there are only two biological sexes, male and female. Shortly after your first breath, a doctor most likely examined you and assigned you one of those two sexes. However, for intersex people, also referred to as people with differences of sexual development, the categories of male and female don’t necessarily fit. In considering people with differences of sexual development, researchers have argued that there are as many as five to seven common biological sexes and that sex actually exists along a continuum with many different variations. Estimates suggest that as much as 1.7 percent of the population has some variation of sexual differentiation. It’s much more common than you might think! But, how do we qualify sex? Again, it’s a tricky subject that even scientists can’t seem to quite agree on. Is your sex determined by your genitals? By your chromosomes? By your predominant sex hormones? Is it a combination of the three? For folks with differences of sexual development, genitals, chromosomes, and predominant sex hormones can vary from what is considered “normal” for males or females. For example, people with Kleinfelter Syndrome are often assigned male at birth, but have XXY chromosomes and may have low testosterone levels and other physical variations such as wide hips and enlarged chest tissue. Indeed, intersex folks have distinct needs for which the categories of male and female simply aren’t useful. Transgender people, or folks who were assigned a sex at birth that doesn’t align with their gender identity, also call into question the category of biological sex. For those transgender people who have chosen to pursue physical transition by taking hormone replacement therapy to make testosterone or estrogen their predominant hormone, by having chest or genital confirmation surgery, or both, these markers of biological sex again may not line up as we’ve been taught to expect. For instance, a transgender man, or someone who was assigned female at birth but identifies as a man, may have a vagina, XX chromosomes, and testosterone as his predominant hormone. Despite the fact that his chromosomes and genitals differ from what we consider typical for males, he is still male. Biological sex is a little less cut and dry than we thought, huh? Which brings me to another important distinction: gender. We’ve also mostly been taught to believe that there are only two genders, men and women. We’re told that men are people who were assigned male at birth and women are people who were assigned female at birth. But, as many folks have begun to understand over the last several decades, there is nothing universal or innate about gender. The fact that gender roles shift over time and tend to differ between cultures calls into question the idea that gender is a fixed thing. Did you know pink used to be considered a boy’s color? This shows that gender is actually a system of socially agreed upon norms that determine how boys and girls, men and women in a given society are expected to behave. What’s more, people are increasingly beginning to understand that gender identity, or how an individual understands their gender, is actually a spectrum. This means that, regardless of the sex you were assigned at birth, you may identify as a man, a woman, or really anywhere in between those two categories. If you are cisgender, that means that your gender identity lines up with the sex you were assigned at birth. So, a person who was assigned female at birth and identifies as a woman is a cisgender woman, and a person who was assigned male at birth and identifies as a man is a cisgender man. You might feel weird about being labeled cisgender, but it’s actually just a useful way to classify different experiences. If you are transgender, as I explained earlier, that means that your gender doesn’t align with the sex you were assigned at birth. That means a transgender man is someone who was assigned female at birth and identifies as a man and a transgender woman is someone who was assigned male at birth and identifies as a woman.