Gender and sex: Defining our terms

Gender chart

Much of the clash over transgender facilities accommodations has been in attempting to define (or redefine) the common understanding of “gender.” What does the term “gender” refer to? Is one’s gender, as LGBT supporters argue, different than one’s sex?

As any policy debater knows, defining critical terms up front is not only necessary to the productivity of a debate, but typically the advocate that successfully defines the terms favorably to their side wins.

In this debate, no one seems to have a clear understanding or agreed upon definition of “gender.” I’ve seen numerous contentions that gender (as opposed to sex) is not biologically determinable and based on the physical anatomy of the human body, but rather is the personal conception of one’s self as more or less male or female in personality. Thus, “gender identity” becomes tacitly defined as outward manifestations of personality that reflect one’s subjective gender choice.

So, goes the liberal argument, one’s physical sexual anatomy, or “sex,” is entirely irrelevant to the outcome of gender determination. A person can be a female in “gender” while having male physical anatomy. (Exhibit A: Bruce Jenner.)

This is the classic tactic used by the Left to achieve their social reconstruction: redefine the terms, and then argue according to the new “truth.” It’s the exact same way the Left was able to convince an entire nation and the majority of the Supreme Court that abortion should be legal. Once society redefined “life” and decided that “personhood” can be separated from the physical anatomy of a live infant human being in gestation, the argument was no longer about killing a person.

Understanding and responding to this asserted definition of gender is critical to the debate. We cannot allow this dualistic (and fundamentally wrong) definition of gender to stand, otherwise, this debate will follow the same course as all the redefinitions of truth and fact before it: “Gender” as a personality characteristic will trump biological facts. This is the end game of the redefinition of terms.

We have to stand firm that the new definition of gender employed by the Left is fundamentally flawed and must be rejected because it is inconsistent with the truth and fact about physical reality. The truth is that a person’s gender (i.e. the state of being male or female) is biologically and anatomically determined—even before birth. Ultrasounds show the physical anatomy sufficient to determine the biological gender of a person mere weeks into a pregnancy.

“Gender,” according to the accurate and standing definition, is the state of being male or female. This state of being is not contingent on how an individual person feels or looks, what he or she believes about his or her personality or “identity.” Gender is synonymous with “sex” in this context.

Linguistically, “gender” can also refer to a grammatical tool or classes of words syntactically associated with a feminine, masculine, or even “neutral” form of a word. Clearly, this meaning is separate from the meaning given to the human being. This is the difference between “gender” being used as a noun (the state of being male or female) and “gender” being used as a grammatical tool.

Similarly, “sex” also has various definitions, depending on the context. It can be a noun, referring synonymously to one’s biological anatomy, or it can be used as a verb to refer to specific physical acts.

But just because a word can have different meanings depending on the part of speech employed does not mean it can be so easily redefined and attributed a new meaning.

In this debate, we have to be clear that “gender” is the state of being male or female from before birth. Non-negotiable, non-changeable, and absolutely empirically ascertainable.

The idea that “transgender” is even a logical possibility should be immediately disregarded as a physical impossibility. An analogous physical impossibility would be the idea that a person can identify as a “trans-ageist”—deciding purely on the basis of their subjective assertion that they are no longer the age that is biologically determined at conception, but “feel” like they are either older or younger than they actually are.

This is positively ridiculous. A person’s age is an immutable characteristic—i.e. something a person cannot change about him or herself. I cannot change the day and year I was born. It is a physical impossibility.

Defining terms matters. Gender or sex, when those terms are used to designate a human being as either male or female, is an immutable characteristic and is the state of being male or female, empirically and biologically determined. Period.

Applying this to the current debate is essential. Just because a person “feels like” they are or want to be a different gender / sex does not give them the right to invade the facilities of their choosing. Any more than a 10-year-old who “feels like” being a 21-year-old may legally consume alcohol. A 10-year-old is factually not 21 in age.

Immutable characteristics cannot change based on a subjective feeling, nor should the law entertain accommodations of “feelings” over facts.


Jenna Ellis

Jenna Ellis is an attorney, professor of law at Colorado Christian University, and international speaker.

She is the author of the book, The Legal Basis for a Moral Constitution. You can read more about her at

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