Sexuality and Gender

Why I’ve Stopped Using the Word “Gender”

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 09/12/2023

I’ve stopped using the word “gender” unless I qualify it. If I’m talking to someone about transgenderism (or a related subject), I’ll either say “biological sex” or “gender identity.” Biological sex refers to a person’s biology (chromosomes and sex organs). Gender identity refers to a person’s internal psychological perception of whether they are a man or a woman (or something else). I never want to use the term “gender” without qualification because it’s ambiguous.

My main concern is that, too often, people use the word “gender” and equivocate on its meaning. In modern parlance, gender can refer to biological sex, gender identity, gender roles, gender expression, etc. I find that some people intentionally or unintentionally equivocate on its meaning, thereby creating confusion or simply leveraging the ambiguity of the word to make their point.

If someone else uses the term “gender,” then I always ask them to explain what they mean by the term (the first Columbo question). I think it’s essential to define your terms before you continue a conversation. Otherwise, it’s likely you’ll talk past each other.

For example, if someone tells me that “gender is fluid,” I might reflexively respond with, “No, it’s not.” After all, in my mind, gender is synonymous with biological sex, something that is not fluid. They, however, might be using “gender” to refer to gender identity, a person’s psychological state, which is fluid (not that I’m agreeing it’s normal if your gender identity is incongruent with your biological sex). Our conversation is already off to a bad start with confusion and unnecessary disagreement.

A better approach would be to clarify the meaning by asking, “What do you mean by ‘gender?’” Even if I don’t ultimately agree with their point, at least I’ll understand what they mean by the term, which increases the chances the conversation will be more fruitful.

Word meanings change over time. That’s unavoidable. The word “gender” has been infused with all kinds of new meanings in the last couple of decades. That’s why I never use the word on its own or leave it undefined if someone else uses it.