One of the relatively few truly useful things I learned from my brief foray into formal debate during high school was to always start with definitions. Not so much because it’s required by the rules, but because a lot of the time people end up talking past each other when definitions are left implicit. Especially in any sort of multicultural discussion, because different cultures often have very different understandings of key concepts.
So, here are my definitions. I’ve written them based on my current best understanding of biology and psychology and sociology, which I maintain to be pretty damn good considering that they are not only my professional field of study but also matters which deeply affect my personal life.
Identity Definitions: Sex, Gender, and Sexuality
Sex is a set of biological characteristics which are broadly associated with reproduction in humans and most other known animal species. Sexual characteristics can be grouped into four general categories: genetic, hormonal, anatomical, and neurological.
Genetic sex refers to the configuration of an individual’s genetic code — the biochemical “blueprints” from which every single cell in their body is built. In a typical human, the genetic code consists of 46 chromosomes: 22 matching pairs of “regular” chromosomes known as autosomes, and one pair of specialized chromosomes known as allosomes or sex chromosomes. Like most mammals, humans have an “XX/XY” sex determination system in which females typically have two “X” allosomes and males typically have one “X” allosome and one “Y” allosome; maleness is a consequence of successful activation of the “SRY” gene which is in the “Y” allosome.
Like pretty much everything in biology, genetic sex is much more complicated than it seems at first glance. The straightforward dichotomy of XX and XY is only the beginning of genetic sex: there are countless natural variations beyond this simple binary, such as additional allosomes, the presence of the SRY gene on an “X” allosome, or incomplete activation of the SRY gene.
Hormonal sex refers to the balance of an individual’s hormones — the internal messenger chemicals which are produced by activated genes and regulate the development of the physical body. The primary sex hormones in humans are estrogen and testosterone; both are present in all individuals, but estrogen is typically predominant in females and testosterone is typically predominant in males.
Anatomical sex refers to the differences in physical development which arise in response to hormones. The organs of the reproductive system are referred to as “primary sex characteristics” and develop prior to birth, while other anatomical sex traits are referred to as “secondary sex characteristics” and develop during adolescence.
Neurological sex refers to the differences in brain development which arise in response to hormones.
Gender is the set of psychological characteristics which are broadly associated with biological sex. Gender consists of three interlinked components: identity, role, and presentation.
Civil Rights Definitions: Prejudice, Discrimination, Bigotry, and -Isms
Prejudice is the act of evaluating another person based on outside information instead of strictly on the basis of their own behavior, performance, and qualifications. The most common form of prejudice is to make assumptions about a person based on stereotypes and generalizations about the demographic group(s) they appear to be a member of. Prejudice is not necessarily unfavorable to the person being judged, but it is always a negative influence on society because it is an irrational behavior.
Discrimination is the act of making a decision on the basis of prejudice. Discrimination may be either individual or systemic: individual discrimination consists of knowingly making biased judgement calls on the basis of personal prejudice, whereas systemic discrimination consists of knowingly or unknowingly making biased judgement calls on the basis of ingrained cultural prejudice.
Bigotry is intense and implacable prejudice against a specific group or groups. Bigotry is almost invariably based on a conscious ideological belief that the target group(s) are innately inferior in some way and therefore deserve to be subjugated and dominated by one’s own group. Bigots will often concoct elaborate philosophical justifications and/or conspiracy theories in order to create a pseudo-rational basis for their opinions, and typically react with extreme violence to any disagreement.
-isms — racism, sexism, ableism, etc — are large scale patterns of prejudice and/or bigotry reinforced by systemic disparities in power and privilege. Because these systemic disparities are always for empowered groups and against disempowered groups, -isms are only experienced by individuals who are in a disempowered group. Although -isms may have negative effects on people in empowered groups, that is a mere side effect and completely different from being the actual target of an -ism.