Earlier this Pride month, J.K. Rowling wrote a widely critiqued tweet taking issue with a headline that opted for the specific “people who menstruate” over the general, but not always accurate, “women.”
When people explained how the tweet was transphobic (even Daniel Radcliffe weighed in), the author of the Harry Potter series doubled and tripled down: “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction,” she tweeted.
“If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives.”
She’s wrong, educators and advocates say, and she’s also conflating terms. Sex isn’t about the lived reality of women — that’s gender. And neither of those is the same thing as sexual attraction.
“Sex and gender are not the same,” says Lyba Spring, a retired sexual health educator living in Toronto.
Sex is a medically constructed categorization that you get assigned a birth, Spring says (one reason why not everyone is gung-ho about so-called gender reveal parties). Baby comes out with a penis and “it’s a boy!” Baby comes out with a vulva and “it’s a girl!”
It’s an assignment that has nothing to do with the baby’s gender, she says.
“Gender is a feeling, it’s a self-perception, and gender doesn’t always line up with a way a person was sex-assigned.”
Despite the conflation that some people — Rowling included — keep making, the distinction matters.
“We like simple, we like man and woman and boy and girl, we like the binary,” Spring says.
And yet, “nothing is simple… we’re much more complicated than we thought we were, so as our eyes become open to people finding words to attach to their feelings, it’s critical to come along with them and learn with them.”
Having the words is incredibly important, says Lyra Evans, a school trustee in Ottawa.
Evans grew up as a young person “who didn’t have access to LGBTQ terminology.” That meant hardship and a struggle to verbalize her feelings in a way that enabled her to access care and process the negative emotions she was feeling and her experience with gender dysphoria.
“It’s really important that we teach young people the words that they might need to express themselves,” she says. After all, “there’s a reason we have a plethora of synonyms for good, and that’s because having a clarity of language is important to allowing people to express themselves.”
Fine. Acceptable. Ethical. Principled. These are all synonyms for good, but they have their own unique connotations and you wouldn’t use them interchangeably.
“It’s important that everyone is on the same page when it comes to the meaning of the words that we are using,” Evans says.
“Language only works when we all agree what the words mean.”
- Sex — This is your assigned sex at birth, female or male, usually based on whether you’re born with a penis or a vulva. In reality, it’s more than just what the doctor or midwife sees, it also includes reproductive organs, hormones and chromosomes.
- Gender identity — This is your internal, deeply held sense of gender. For transgender people, this will differ from their sex. A person’s gender identity isn’t always binary.
- Gender expression — This is the way in which your gender is manifested externally, be it particular pronouns, how you act, how you style your hair or how you dress yourself.
- Cisgender — This is a term to describe people who are not transgender.
- Transgender — This is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression typically differs from their assigned sex.
- Gender non-conforming — This term is used to describe some people whose gender expression does not fall into the conventional binaries of masculine and feminine. This is not a synonym for transgender.
- Non-binary and/or genderqueer — This term is used to describe people whose gender identity and/or gender expression is neither traditionally male nor traditionally female. This is not a synonym for transgender.
- Sexual orientation — This is the term for your emotional, romantic and/or physical attraction to other people. You can be cisgender or transgender or nonbinary AND straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer.
When those words are used interchangeably, Fae Johnstone, a trans educator and writer in Ottawa, says it’s often done without realizing how certain words can exclude people — some of whom we may actually be trying to include.
“We need to be able to differentiate between these things because the experiences of somebody who is marginalized based on their sexual orientation, like a gay man, are quite distinct from those of somebody who is experiencing discrimination based on their gender identity or gender expressions,” Johnston says.
“If we don’t have the language to capture those distinctions, we blend them together and aren’t really able to acknowledge the differences.”
Think of the article that set Rowling off because it used “people who menstruate” when she thought it should say “women.” Not all women need menstruation products, but some trans men or non-binary people do.
“Using language that actually identifies the group of people we’re talking about means we can reach those people,” Johnstone says. “It means we can ensure that services are available to those particular people.”
It isn’t about trying to “erode ‘woman’” as Rowling wrote in response to criticism, Johnstone says. In fact, she finds that argument “a little absurd.”
“Nobody ever wants to get rid of the word woman. I know so many trans folks who would be the first to say, ‘God no, you can’t do that,’” she says. “To get rid of the language takes away from trans women and transfeminine folks who had to fight to be accepted as the women they are.”
Ultimately, Johnstone says, this is about being more inclusive and more accurate.
It’s not always easy or intuitive to transition to new terms, says Spring, the retired sexual health educator, recalling her own struggles adjusting to certain terms.
Nevertheless, she says, “my personal intention is to ensure that I am evolving as a human being, to ensure that I continue to be respectful of people and accepting and celebrating of people’s differences.”
Language evolves as we do, Evans says, it’s natural.
“Society changes, and as it does, words get created for things that we didn’t necessarily feel the need to differentiate before,” she says. She points to machines as one example. There weren’t all that many words under the machinery umbrella 200 years ago but now — in the age of computers and cellphones — there are.
“As our understanding of the nuance between sex and gender has evolved, we as a society have felt the need to create words differentiating those,” Evans says.
“If we didn’t take the time as a society to redefine some of these words or to make these words mean something specific, we would have a harder time pointing out systemic barriers that people face.”
And that, she says, is Step 1 to addressing those barriers.
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