Yes, There’s a Difference Between Sex, Gender, and Gender Identity — Here’s a Breakdown

graphic of gender symbols

Graphic by Giovanna Pineda/KCM

The terms are often confused, but it’s important to understand the difference.

Not too long ago, it was common for the terms “sex” and “gender” to be used interchangeably. But as our understanding of relationships and identity changes and grows, so has our vocabulary. 

Sex, gender, and gender identity are distinct. And grasping the meaning of each term is a crucial part of appreciating our expanding view of the human experience, thinking through some of the hot-button issues that have risen to the forefront of today’s culture wars, and supporting the queer and trans community. Legislation like the Don’t Say Gay bill in Florida and other bills looking to ban transgender kids from school sports has LGBTQIA folks on edge, says Salem Joseph, a youth leadership developer for The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City. 

Joseph says that knowing that people are making an effort to understand these concepts is comforting, and makes it easier to start conversations about gender and identity. 

Here’s a simple primer on the difference between sex, gender, and gender identity:

What is sex?

Sex describes a person’s physiology. It’s assigned at birth based on external anatomy or a person’s chromosomes. People are usually assigned male or female, and in some cases intersex — when a child displays a combination of both male and female anatomy.

What is gender?

Gender refers to the “socially constructed” characteristics of women, men, girls, and boys, according to the World Health Organization. These are expectations a culture has about how men and women may dress or behave, for example. The main difference is that sex is about a person’s physiology, while gender is society’s set of standards about men and women. 

However, the concept of gender is changing. Increasingly, gender is being viewed as a spectrum, not binary. More and more people are identifying as somewhere along a continuum between male and female, or as neither. 

“The idea people are moving toward is that gender is really something you can define for yourself,”  Joseph says.

What is gender identity?

The term gender identity has been around for a while. It was coined back in the 1960s by the psychiatrist Robert Stoller, who used the word to describe a person’s deeply felt, internal experience of gender. Gender identity does not need to correspond with a person’s assigned sex. 

For example, a person assigned female at birth can describe their gender identity as male and would be considered transgender or trans. Some people feel neither male nor female and may use terms like “genderqueer” or “gender fluid” to describe themselves. And for some people, their assigned sex and gender identity are more or less aligned — they’re considered cisgender.