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I’ve Got a Penis But I’m Not a Boy…. Sex and Gender Explained

By Leslie Massicotte, Teens Climb High Program Assistant



What makes someone a boy? Is it the fact that he has a penis or liked playing with trucks as a kid? Or is it because he has a deep voice and likes sports? Maybe it’s because he likes girls and wants to be an astronaut one day?


In reality, none of these things necessarily make someone a boy. Our society has a lot of stereotypes about what it means to be a boy or girl, but there’s actually a lot more to consider than many of us realize.


Specifically, we need to consider that sex and gender are actually two different things.


Let me explain. Sex is your biological makeup and is typically determined by looking at your private parts. If you’ve seen any TV shows with someone having a baby, you’ll know that typically a doctor pulls the baby out, holds it up to check its genitals (or private parts), and says confidently, “It’s a girl!” if they have a vulva or “It’s a boy!” if they have a penis. This is called their sex assigned at birth.


Gender, however, is different. Gender is how someone identifies and isn’t based on private parts. A person with a penis might identify as a girl or queer or trans*. A person with a vulva might identify as a boy or nonbinary or transgender. And a person with ambiguous genitalia (meaning that they don’t have just a penis or vulva but a variation), might identify as a girl, a boy, or anything else. If a lot of this language is unfamiliar to you, check out this language guide for more.


If all of that is making your head spin, it’s ok. This is a new concept for a lot of people so take time to explore what it means and how it impacts your life.


The bottom line is we can’t tell someone’s gender (or sex!) just by looking at them.


Knowing the difference between sex and gender matters because people whose gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth often face really intense discrimination, self-shaming, and even violence. Check out these youth’s stories to hear more.


It’s important that we affirm and accept everyone for who they are, no matter how they identify.


So what can you do? Here’s a short list of practical steps you can follow to work on separating sex from gender:


1. Figure out what your own pronouns are and share them. For a lot of folx in this country, pronouns (or how we refer to someone when they’re not around) matter. For example, I prefer that people say “She wrote a fantastic blog post!” or “They are such a great writer” to refer to me and what I’m doing if you’re not going to use my name. Pronoun options can include: they/them, she/her/hers, he/him/his, z/zir/zirs, z/hir/hirs, and so many more! Practice sharing your pronouns and don’t assume others know what pronouns you use.


2. Practice using gender neutral pronouns until you know someone’s pronouns. Use the person’s name or the neutral “they” pronoun until you find out. For example: “MJ is so cool, I love MJ’s style!” or “They are such a sharp dresser!” If you’re a stickler for grammar, Merriam Webster dictionary actually named the singular “they” as Word of the Year in 2019 so it’s actually grammatically correct to use “they” for a singular person!


3. Question your assumptions about people. We all know that boys aren’t the only ones who can play sports and that girls don’t only like playing with dolls. Question gender stereotypes. In fact, did you know that before the 1940s, folx thought that “pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl”? Crazy, huh? Gender norms and cementing sex and gender together are not set in stone. They change with the times.


Just remember: You can’t tell someone’s gender or sex by looking at them. Spread the word!


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