The terms “sex” and “gender” have been used interchangeably for years. However, as the uses of the words become more distinct, some faculty members at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette say it is important to understand the difference between the two words.
“The difference between sex and gender is that sex is what you were born with, you could be a male or female typically, or also intersex, based on different features of your physiological structure,” said UL Lafayette psychology professor Manyu Li, Ph.D. “But gender is what people identify with in their later life. And we know that the list of gender identities is adding every day. There are a lot of definitions of different gender identity based on how one identifies themselves.”
In Li’s sexuality and gender studies classes, students discuss definitions and social issues such as discrimination and prejudice that certain groups experience, especially gender non-conforming groups.
“Students here come from different backgrounds, and especially in this part of the country, some may not grow up with as much understanding of what’s going on in all the gender identity discussions,” Li said. “A lot of times, I let them openly discuss. The students who know more can share, and the students who don’t know can ask.
“What I’m trying to foster in the classroom is that, no matter what your belief is, you should feel safe. Whether it’s people who openly support the different gender identities, or the people who don’t know about it at all, who grow up thinking it’s just male and female. So I let them discuss, and then I close the discussion with what professional psychologists have identified so far.”
The sociology faculty at UL Lafayette also teaches the distinction between one’s sex and one’s gender identity.
“Generally, in the sociology department, we make a distinction between sex and gender,” said sociology professor Emily Blosser, Ph.D. “Sex is usually based on things like genitalia, chromosomes; gender is usually based off of cultural roles and behaviors that are learned from society. The way people view gender is often different in different societies, learned from families.
“Sometimes, the two don’t match,” Blosser continued. “Someone may be born one sex, but it doesn’t match their gender identity, and that’s usually identified as transgender. In my social problems class we just had a discussion about transgender individuals using the bathroom that matches their gender identity, and how some people want everyone to use the bathroom that matches their sex.”
Some of the professors had varying opinions about how their students handled the topic. Li felt that there was no disrespect in her classes between the students’ varying opinions.
“What I appreciate the most is that there are no very heated arguments at all and they respect one another,” Li said. “(The students) talk about what they think, and, at the same time, they respect each other’s opinions.”
Blosser felt that not every student here is as tolerant.
“We had a transgender guest speaker come talk to my class today,” Blosser said. “After (the speaker) left, one of my students said: ‘This is all ridiculous because I believe in biology. I don’t see why you should be able to use whatever bathroom you want.’”
Psychology department head Amy Brown, Ph.D., said there can be some correlation between sex and gender.
“It’s my understanding that sex and gender are not the same thing, but they are generally correlated. I think about it as sex being a biological construct, being determined by hormones and chromosomes and physical features, but those are sometimes inconsistent.
“Even when you think about sex as a biological construct, it’s not really accurate to think that there are only two categories,” Brown continued. “We generally think of male and female, but there’s actually good scientific evidence that there’s more variation than that. If you look at the animal kingdom, for some species, the dichotomy of sex as male and female, it doesn’t hold up as well.”