What do people mean when they say “gender”? One possible answer is that they’re talking about grammar. In some languages, nouns are assigned a gender and other words in a sentence must agree with that gender. You may have noticed how nouns in Spanish begin with la or el. That is a word that tells us what gender the noun is, masculine (el) or feminine (la). Languages like Spanish or French have two genders; others, like Russian or German, have three. Nouns in those languages can be masculine, feminine, or neuter.
It’s fun to learn new languages, but when most people talk about “gender,” they aren’t talking about grammar. Many times, they’re asking about a new baby: “Do you know the gender yet? Are you having a boy or a girl?” Or, they might be asking: “Is this a girl’s sport, or is it open to both genders?” Here, gender usually means boy or girl—male or female. In fact, what most people mean when they say gender is actually biological sex. We can think of biological sex as how your body is made: from what chromosomes you have to what body parts you have. For a baby, ultrasounds or blood tests can help us know their biological sex before they are born.
Gender is a little more complicated than what DNA tells us because gender is partly decided by our culture. How can that be? Think about when you meet a new friend at the park or at school. How do you know if they are a boy or a girl? You might look at their hair or their clothes, what kind of jewelry they wear. You might look at what toys they play with and what they like to do. All of these things can be clues to their gender. You might guess that someone wearing a dress and playing with a doll is a girl. That is because it is a gender norm in many communities: that girls wear dresses and play with dolls. Of course, because something is a gender norm does not mean that everyone follows it—just that it is what is usually done or what people expect. We learn these patterns in our culture by living in it, so we automatically “know” what our culture’s gender norms are. It can be hard for kids who don’t fit into gender norms, or what we usually expect from a girl or boy in our culture. Have you ever liked something that others said you weren’t “supposed to” because of your gender? How did it make you feel?
Of course, there isn’t just one culture in the world. There are many, many different cultures. There may be many different cultures even in the same country! That means that things like gender, which depend on your culture, are different in different places or in different groups. Many believe that there are two genders: male and female, boy and girl. In some cultures, or in some places, people believe that there are more than two. For example, some Native American or Indigenous people believe that there are three or four genders. People that don’t fit into “girl” or “boy” are often called “two-spirit.” The idea of two-spirit people is part of many Indigenous cultures’ gender norms. In India’s Hindu culture, there is a third gender as well. Hindu people who are third gender are called hijra, and they have been an important part of Hindu culture for over 2,000 years!