Sex vs Gender: two sides of the same coin

So I know a lot of trainings, including many written by trans people, like to separate sex and gender into different concepts. But in my experience they aren’t all that different and are so integrally tied that you can’t actually separate the two. From an external perspective I think sex is what you are assigned at birth because doctors and parents make an assumption about a binary future for you based on your genitals (and sometimes force surgeries on intersex babies if they don’t match that vision because sexual characteristics aren’t binary either). Gender is what people assume about your genitals and often your behaviors and experiences based on visual cues later on. They are just two sides of the same coin. The only real difference is what external markers you are using. When I was born they assumed I was male based on my genitals and now people assume things about my genitals based on signs such as my beard and build.

Well this gets complicated of course when you are trans or nonbinary. You can do a lot to change your external appearance through clothing, hormones, and surgeries. And since sex isn’t actually based on chromosomes since most people have never been genotyped, I think those changes arguably change your sex tangibly as well. I don’t think I am a feminine person with a male sex. I now have breasts and an estrogen dominant body that is clearly and visibly nonbinary now. I would need to make major alterations at this point via surgery to go back to being a male.

So when I see forms that ask me what my sex is, I get annoyed. You can ask me what my sex assigned at birth was as a data point if you need. But my sex and my gender are the same thing viewed from different lenses.

Now internal gender is a lot harder to define but that’s a post for a future day.

AMAB Terminology

So as you may have noticed, I refer to myself frequently on this blog as AMAB which means Assigned Male At Birth. So I want to elaborate on what that means to me (aka, not an expert) and why it’s not a good idea to assume that someone else is OK with that descriptor.

The language to describe transgender and nonbinary experiences and identities has evolved A LOT recently. For example, unless someone self identifies as transsexual, it’s not social acceptable anymore to call someone that. There are definitely people who still use the term for a variety of personal and historical reasons such as Julia Serano. But similar to how many other marginalized communities have either rejected or reclaimed words, the trans community is currently in a linguistic revolution.

Which brings me to my point. For a while recently there seemed to be general consensus that the terms AMAB or DMAB (Designated Male At Birth) were the best terms to use to describe people born with a penis who no longer identify as cisgender men in relevant contexts. But part of why that term was used is because it refers to how society, medical staff, and often our families, chose to gender us against our will. Another term that was used similarly was CAMAB (Coercively Assigned Male At Birth) to indicate the non-consensual nature of it. The term MAAB (Male Assigned at Birth) was also used but mostly by TERFs (Trans Exclusionary “Radical Feminists”) in my experience.

But these days, many kids are lucky enough to not have to go through as much of the denial of their gender. Kids are smart and a lot of people know as early as 2-5 that they like thinks such as dresses and dolls or other rejections of masculinity. And more and more, progressive parents and communities are supporting that and either raising their kids as gender neutrally as possible or looking for the signs the kid is displaying and supporting their identity and social “transition” (if you can even call it such at that age). We also now have much better healthcare options such as gender clinics at Children’s Hospitals which allow kids to medically transition younger or use hormone blockers to prevent or delay puberty.

As a result, not all kids are assigned a gender in the same way that those of us who transitioned as adults were. They probably get assigned a letter on their birth certificate but they don’t always have to fight for their identity against constant coercion to be masculine. So I don’t think it is right anymore to simply call someone AMAB because of your assumption about the body parts or chromosomes they had at birth.

As some of my friends have pointed out, when cisgender people use AMAB terminology in conversation, it can often be a politically correct way of misgendering someone or even outing them non-consensually. Whether someone “passes” or not, it isn’t really a stranger’s business what they got assigned in the hospital and definitely not what body parts or assumed chromosomes they have. Don’t try to earn yourself ally cookies by using our identity to brag about your acceptance. For example, unless that person has said it is OK, don’t say things like “my AMAB daughter” or “my AMAB partner.” It often feels like we are being treated as less than real when those terms are used. Saying that a trans woman “was something else” by referring to her dead name or assigned gender is incredibly hurtful and offensive and is far too often used as a weapon against us by TERFs and other bigots.

The reason I use the term here in my blog is because I personally do claim the term AMAB as an important part of my identity. My path to discovering myself is long and complicated but I do think it is useful in understanding ME to know that I thought I was just a weird boy for a long time. I know that if my parents ever described me as their AMAB kid it would feel very affirming because it means that they understand me and have adopted my chosen language as well as my current frame of reference. I very much was assigned male in every sense of the word and it shaped me (though not always in the ways you think), especially in a very unique part of my gender presentation – my beard.

I know I have probably used the term AMAB too broadly when referring to my slice of community here. But I’m not going to go back and edit those right now because the reason for me starting this blog still stands. I want to create online representation for people like me who have beards and who were assigned masculinity and have adopted femininity instead.

So please, keep referring to me as AMAB. But practice removing it from your assumptions about other people.

“Socialized male”

In my mind this is one of the most transphobic things you can say. Right up there with “so you were born male?”

I found this great quote in an article talking about hormonal cycles that really resonates (though it is from a binary perspective).

Trans women are not men who decided to become women, we are women who were forced to live as men until we could find a way to express the truth of who we are.

I don’t understand men, or know what it’s like to really be one.
Because I always knew I wasn’t.

Not everyone has always known that they were trans; I certainly didn’t. But neither was I “socialized as a man” in the same sense that a cisgender boy is. Yes, I have some insight on what kinds of things are said to boys to enforce masculinity. But my experience of them is uniquely shaped by my nonbinary gender.

When I was taught about what I was supposed to be, I didn’t hear them as things that I could actually achieve. Masculinity was this unachievable standard that I never felt like I could reach, even in the times when I thought I wanted to. But more importantly, masculinity wasn’t something I really wanted. Even the “sensitive men” in my life who didn’t display toxic masculinity had some indescribable maleness that I admired but more like in the way that I hear cis women describe attraction to men.

I’ve tried many times to write down what I think masculinity is outside of the hegemonic hypermasculinity. But for each quality that I name, I can think of a woman who displays it just as well or better without compromising her femininity. So I don’t have an easy way to tell you what I felt like I was missing that made me not fit as a boy/man. But I always knew I didn’t fit, couldn’t fit, and deep down didn’t want to fit.