Words have meanings. This is how we communicate with each other. The words I use have specific meanings and I use the words that communicate the ideas I am trying to talk about. When I say apple you know what an apple is and you might picture an apple or remember eating an apple and the word conveys to you the idea of the appleness of an apple. When you ask me to buy you some apples I come back home with a bag full of stuff and in due course we have an apple pie on the kitchen table which is what you wanted when you asked for apples. Words have meanings.
Unfortunately, language also evolves. This means that the meanings of words change over time. Take the word gambrel, for example. It derives from the French word gamberel which comes from gambier meaning a forked stick. Its original use was in the forestry trades where sheep hurdles, shepherds crooks, and walking sticks are made but over time it came to be applied to other things bent in the same way and in due course became the name for a joint in the upper hind leg of a horse. It then travelled to the United States where it was applied to roofs with two different slopes. At the bottom the roof has a steep slope and then the roofline bends like the stick and the slope becomes more shallow. Such a roof is referred to as a gambrel roof and the term can be found quite liberally sprinkled through the short stories of H. P. Lovecraft.
“Then he went back to Arkham, the terrible witch-haunted old town of his forefathers in New England, and had experiences in the dark, amidst the hoary willows and tottering gambrel roofs, which made him seal for ever certain pages in the diary of a wild-minded ancestor.” The Silver Key (1929), H. P. Lovecraft
Language evolves, which means that anyone can use the, “language evolves” defence to cover up their mistakes. Any infelicitous, incorrect or inappropriate useage can be defended in this way and “language evolves” becomes a hedge behind which anyone can hide, whether they deserve the protection of the hedge or not. Which is why we need to talk about sex.
Sex, as a noun, is a binary distinction between male and female. For some species to reproduce requires a male and a female to interact in some way to create offspring. They might lay eggs as do both fish and birds or they might produce live young as do both bears and humans, among many other species. But the start of this process is one individual of each sex getting together to mate. The mating process itself uses sex as a verb.
In grammar, the word gender is applied to the labelling of objects as either male or female. In some languages, but not in English, pencils and chairs have gender. They are either male or female objects. The French say le pencil or la chair according to the gender of the object. In German they use der, die and das in the same way and in Spanish they use el and la. But this is a randomly applied label that has nothing to do with what the object actually is. There is no sense in which a pencil is either male or female, a chair does not have male or female characteristics, it has simply been decided, by fiat, that each noun will have a pre-determined gender and the rules of such languages then label the objects in the appropriate way. Here, gender is a grammatical category that has nothing to do with sex, or biology, or reproduction, or with anything really. It is just a construct.
It is also worth noting that it is a construct that has nothing to do with the English language and has exactly zero influence on the way English is used written or spoken.
Outside of grammatical constructs, gender, as a noun, insofar as it applies to individuals of a species, is a label for a position on a spectrum. It is not a binary distinction but one with infinite variety. As it applies to humans it is a self-assigned label for a person’s sexual identity.
It is used for the relatively recent discovery that people do not all fit into two big boxes. A person can be born with male sexual organs but not identify as a male. A person can have female sexual organs but not identify as a female, or not identify that way all the time, or for all time. A person is free to choose who they are and to identify themselves in any way they choose. And they are free to change their mind about this and to identify differently to different groups at different times. It’s your body, so you get to choose who you are.
This means that I know what my gender is and you know what your gender is but neither of us can tell what gender the other is just by looking. The only way for me to know what gender you are is to ask you.
It also means that there are many more than two gender. I don’t know how many gender there are. There are as many as are required. If there isn’t a box into which you fit then you are free to invent your own box, including the box labelled, “I identify as being gender neutral,” and if you end up being the only person in your self-assigned box then that’s fine too.
Our language has evolved to deal with this idea so that not everyone has to subscribe to the old-fashioned idea of being either male or female or of using male or female pronouns. You don’t have to be a he or a she but you can choose your own pronoun and if you want to be known as, “they” then you can. You can also choose something else if you want. It’s your choice. Individual autonomy is the new Model T Ford. Where, once upon a time, everyone, supposedly, aspired to owning a Model T Ford, we can now all aspire to exercising autonomy over our own body and identity.
Feminists, however, have not embraced the word gender in quite the same way. They use the word gender as a synonym for sex. Feminists talk about the, “gender pay gap,” when they mean the apparent difference between what men and women get paid. They talk about, “gender equality,” and they unfortunately make comments about, “gender stereotypes” where, in each case, they are using gender to make a binary distinction between the male and female sexes. This happens because, basically, they are too coy to say sex when that is exactly what they mean. If you mean sex then say sex. If you are making a binary distinction between men on the one hand and women on the other then you mean sex and should say so.
This habit has some consequences and the reason I mention feminists is because those consequences are more important in feminist debates than they are in, say, completing official forms. You will have come across a form that asks you to enter your “gender” and then provides you with only two options, male or female, and in such situations it is obvious what is meant. It is disappointing that they couldn’t say what they mean but we do at least understand what is meant. When a feminist uses the word gender instead of sex it has more serious consequences because feminism is supposed to be about equality. When a feminist uses “gender,” as a coy synonym for sex what she is doing is erasing the distinction between gender that true equality and respect for individual autonomy requires, and then lumping all those born with bodies similar to hers into the single category she calls, “women.” She is, ironically, denying anyone who looks like a woman the right to choose who they really are. She is essentially saying that her definition of what equality looks like is the only one that applies and that people are not allowed to choose their gender for themselves.
Feminism does have a point, and there are still wars to be fought over the ways in which society discriminates against various groups of people, but feminists are not doing themselves any favours by denying others their right to define themselves and pick the battles they want to fight. Feminists should give, “gender,” back to those who need it and use, “sex,” instead. Words have meanings, and if you start by saying what you mean then people might eventually take you to mean what you say.