What's the Deal with the DHHS Definition of Gender?

The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recently announced that it is leading an effort to redefine gender as “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth,” and many people are absolutely furious. Some individuals may not understand the fuss about this, so allow me to break it down. First of all, gender is not the same thing as sex, which is not the same thing as sexual orientation, which is not the same thing as gender expression. These are incredibly common misconceptions, and for those people who are new to the conversation about gender identity and sexuality and related topics, it can be confusing to learn about these things.

Generally speaking, sex is related to a person’s biology and anatomy; i.e. chromosomes and genitalia, etc. While it is tempting to think that a person’s sex is either male or female, the truth is a lot more complicated. For example, some people are actually intersex, meaning that they have a combination of typically male and female biological characteristics. As the Intersex Society of North America puts it, ““intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” This can mean that a person was born with genitalia that fell between the preset markers of a male or female body, or that their chromosomes don’t match their genitalia, or that they have both XX and XY chromosomes, or any other number of variations. Even though many people have never even heard the term “intersex,” it’s actually a fairly common occurrence: an estimated 1.7% of the population is intersex, meaning that intersex individuals are as common as redheaded individuals.

Sexual orientation is defined by whom a person is attracted to, and sexual orientation is similarly complicated. A person can be attracted to women, to men, to anyone, to no one, to only people with whom they have an emotional connection, or something different entirely. Sexual orientation is also fluid, meaning that it can change over the course of a person’s lifetime. Sexual orientation may not align with a person’s romantic orientation, or whom they are emotionally or romantically attracted to. A person can be sexually attracted to both men and women but only romantically attracted to women, for example. A person can also be romantically or sexually attracted to no one, and those identities are part of the spectrum of sexual and romantic orientations as well.

Gender expression is how a person presents their gender; they may dress or act in ways that are typically considered masculine, feminine, neither, both, or something else entirely, and gender expression is also very fluid. Some days, people can present themselves in a very masculine way and other days, present themselves in a more androgynous manner. A person’s gender expression doesn’t need to match their gender identity, especially since mannerisms associated with a certain type of gender expression have been deemed that way by society and are more or less arbitrary and subject to change. For example, while high heels and the color pink are considered feminine, they actually used to be considered masculine. What’s considered masculine or feminine depends on the society, culture, and time period a person lives in. Gender expression is also linked with gender roles, i.e. the cultural and societal norms imposed on and associated with different genders.

Finally, gender is who a person is and knows themselves to be. Someone can be a man, a woman, non-binary, agender, gender-fluid, or they may have a different gender identity altogether. While for many people, their gender aligns with their sex, this isn’t the case for everyone, and it doesn’t make those individuals’ gender identity any less valid or real. A person’s gender is who they know themselves to be, whether that’s a man, a woman, both, neither, or something else. Gender is not determined by sex or by sexual orientation, and it exists on a spectrum. Cisgender individuals’ gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth, while transgender individuals’ gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth. Some transgender individuals identify as men, some as women, some as non-binary, and some identify differently. Some transgender people undergo gender affirming surgery (sometimes called sex reassignment surgery) and/or hormone therapy as part of a transition process, and some don’t, and as John Oliver said, “interestingly, their decision on this matter is, medically speaking, none of your f***ing business.” An agender individual doesn’t identify as either a man or a woman; they don’t identify on the gender spectrum at all. Someone who is gender-fluid or non-binary may identify as both a man and a woman or as a blend of both or may identify as a man one day and a woman a different day, or they may identify differently entirely. A person’s gender can change over their lifetime and it’s important to respect people’s identities. However they identify, whether their gender aligns with their assigned sex or not and whether they identify as a man or woman or neither or both, their gender is real and valid, as are their experiences, even if they don’t match your gender or your ideas of what gender is or should be or your experiences.

Gender diversity is not a new phenomenon; it has existed throughout history all over the world, and many cultures actually recognize or recognized more than two genders. What the DHHS is attempting to do by changing the definition of gender such that it is defined by assigned sex is horrendous and harmful. It would deny the existence of not only transgender individuals, whose gender identities don’t align with the sex they were assigned at birth, but also intersex individuals and anyone who isn’t a cisgender man or woman. These people exist, they have always existed, and they will always exist. Changing the legal definition of gender will not change this fact.

What it will do, though, is legitimize prejudice and discrimination against these individuals. DHHS plans to present the new definition to the Justice Department this year, and if the Justice Department decides to confirm the change as legal, the definition can be enforced in Title IX statutes, which deals with sex discrimination. Previously, legal disputes determined that bias and discrimination against transgender individuals was considered sex discrimination and thus illegal under federal laws like Title IX. If the definition of gender is changed, discrimination against transgender people will become legal, a terrifying possibility considering the already-horrific reality of societal discrimination and prejudice for many transgender people. In essence, changing the definition of gender is a matter of safety for many people who already face a multitude of obstacles and dangers from societies that are generally speaking, hostile towards them. Society doesn’t need another reason to abuse people; let’s not provide it with one.