Gender and sex aren’t synonyms

Culture

Bullying prevention starts with definitions

Illustration by Anna Dodd, Editor-in-Chief.

Do you know what the word “cisgender” means?

It’s important that you do.

It’s important because healthy gender development in children relies on adults knowing this word. How we do — or don’t — convey gender-typical behaviour in relation to our sex-assigned-at-birth (SAAB) is deeply personal, affecting our everyday lives and relationships.  

And “gender” and “sex” mean very different things.

In my work as a childcare provider, I’ve seen firsthand that kids best learn social norms when they get to experiment with different roles (including gender roles) during play. It’s important that parents, caregivers, and educators have a basic understanding of the difference between terms such as “gender,” “sex,” “cis,” “trans,” “binary,” and “non-binary” in order to prevent bullying behaviour. This can thereby promote healthy social development in young children.

Bullying is a pervasive problem in Canadian primary and secondary schools. Having a good grasp of this language plays a key role in bullying prevention.

So, once more, with feeling: “gender” and “sex” are not synonyms.

These terms represent separate social categories, but tend to (inaccurately) get tied together in colloquial discussion.

To reduce bullying, children need to be educated about what “gender” and “sex” mean — not just for their own socio-emotional growth, but for the health of their peer relationships, whose developmental trajectories may or may not mirror their own.

While gender refers to the way a person expresses themselves through how they look and what they do, sex is biological. A person’s sex is usually determined by the internal and external organs and chromosomes they have when they are born. When birth practitioners declare newborns as being male or female, the assumption that a person’s felt and expressed identity will automatically match this medical assignment is just that — an assumption.

In eurocentric societies that socially and medically reinforce gender and sex dichotomies, there’s an expectation that children will demonstrate either a masculine or feminine performance as they grow, depending on their SAAB.

This is where one’s gender is too often positioned as inevitably the same as one’s sex. In reality, gender identity is not solely dependent on the body parts babies are in possession of when they come out of the womb. In fact, research from 2014, conducted by psychoanalyst Diane Ehrensaft, shows that some children as young as two years old identify as gender-nonconforming (GNC).

To reduce bullying, children need to be educated about what “gender” and “sex” mean — not just for their own socio-emotional growth, but for the health of their peer relationships, whose developmental trajectories may or may not mirror their own.

Even in preschool, disregard for how sex-based stereotyping shapes children’s experiences with their peers through the synonymous use of “gender” and “sex” perpetuates misunderstandings about these concepts. This leads to an educational atmosphere where bullying is a socially acceptable response toward individuals whose gender and sex identities challenge normative expectations of what ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ do and look like. A lack of consideration for how “gender” and “sex” mean different things can increase GNC children’s vulnerability to bullying from cisgendered peers (children whose gender expression and identities are in line with their SAAB).

While the shift from elementary to secondary school provides many youth with a fresh start, some children experience what is known as chronic bullying. Many GNC youth who socially transition (to a name, a gender, and pronouns different from those they were known by in primary school) may experience continued bullying from new peers in secondary school settings. Bullying victimization is also a reality for many transgender (individuals whose gender identities don’t align with their SAAB), agender, Two Spirit, gender-creative and intersex children (possessing any non-binary combination of sex and chromosomal characteristics at birth).

When adults use “gender” and “sex” as synonyms, children of all genders are left uninformed about these two very important aspects of human social and physiological development.

In-school programs such as SOGI 123 address this issue. Standing for “Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression,” this B.C. curriculum teaches young people about the diversity of lived experiences across the gender and sex identity spectra.

The moral panic in B.C. surrounding this program is generally not rooted in problem-solving strategies or bullying prevention. Panic is indeed an appropriate response, but only insofar as the harm already being caused and directed toward GNC youth is a form of systemic exclusion in public schooling that urgently needs to be addressed.

As someone who is cisgender, I panic about the ways this harm is perpetuated through the disavowal of SOGI 123. This is a curriculum with potential to encourage a culture of acceptance in the public school system — the dismissal of children’s gender expression is inherently harmful. This harm is avoidable, preventable, and much more damaging to child development than teaching about gender identities in classrooms ever could be. Implementation of SOGI 123 will reduce chronic bullying and promote compassionate acceptance for GNC youth in B.C.’s public school system.

Words matter. Language is powerful. When adults use “gender” and “sex” as synonyms, children of all genders are left uninformed about these two very important aspects of human social and physiological development.

The confusing part isn’t the divergence between terms — it’s the insistence that this distinction somehow won’t affect the wellbeing of children.