Sex vs Gender label usage


I also just realized that Sex appears to be identified as Gender in the FamilySearch interface and comes across as such and in the person profile you also refer to it as Gender. It is unfortunate but FamilySearch should refer to Sex as Sex and not Gender in the API, particularly since when editing the vitals for a person there it is labelled as such.

While historically Sex and Gender were considered the same thing it seems these days to be more widely accepted, at least in the social sciences, that they are two different concepts with Sex normally referring to the biological aspect and Gender to the social role or sexual orientation. In that vein as well I know FamilySearch only has categories for Male, Female, and Unknown and they are missing the Intersex label for those with mixed characteristics, admittedly a very small percent of the population, which is unfortunate.

It’s interesting when you think about large family trees where sometimes an early record for a child indicates one sex and later records another that they may have actually been Intersex. I think I have two of those cases in my tree and if memory serves right in neither case did the person marry, and that may well have had something to do with it although that is just speculation.

Anyway, I wanted to point all this out as it is something a majority of us don’t typically think about. I know FamilySearch is working on adding support for same sex relationships so maybe they will fix that too at the same time if any of them have given it any thought.


My grandfather was identified as female (5 months old) in the 1880 census but male in all subsequent census. Undoubtedly, this was a case of enumeration error. It seems to me that Sex (or Gender) should be kept as a binary variable. Will genealogists of the future be able to interpret records that might have social meaning today but not 100-200 years from now?

I do think the Gender label should be changed to Sex to make it very clear what it denotes but that is personal opinion. Note it is currently not a binary variable as Unknown is supported, and maybe the intent was that covered it but I see that as being provided for cases of stillborn infants in records whose sex was not mentioned.

It was interesting reading the Wikipedia article on the Intersex topic, and enlightening as before hand I knew nothing about it, as in the legal discussion it said that in some countries like Australia it is supposedly recognized as a third sexual classification.

For 90% or more of us they are one and the same and for us today looking back 100 to 200 years we know they were seen and interpreted as the same. It’s only in recent decades that the meaning has begun to diverge because of the social sciences and so it may not be unreasonable to think 100 or 200 years from now they may look back and wonder why we ever considered them the same.

I absolutely agree enumeration errors were not uncommon, as I said speculation on my part about the possibility as in the two cases I recalled the individuals did not marry. There could be plenty of other reasons for that too, and those are statistically far more likely, I had just never really given it any thought as another possibility before. An enumeration error is obvious if the person does marry and have offspring as was the case with your Grandfather.

Kind regards,

I didn’t know there was a difference until I read your message. I wonder how many other genealogists do? I’m ok changing Gender to Sex, but it seems like a low priority to me.

The Apple dictionary on my Macintosh explains the difference between gender and sex:

“The word gender has been used since the 14th century as a grammatical term, referring to classes of noun designated as masculine, feminine, or neuter in some languages. The sense denoting biological sex has also been used since the 14th century, but this did not become common until the mid 20th century. Although the words gender and sex are often used interchangeably, they have slightly different connotations; sex tends to refer to biological differences, while gender more often refers to cultural and social differences and sometimes encompasses a broader range of identities than the binary of male and female.” (Source: Apple Macintosh Dictionary)

My 2 cents: Birth and death certificates as well as census records use the word “sex” instead of “gender.” So it would seem that “sex” as a binary variable would be the preferred genealogical term. If biologic sex is unknown, leave the field blank or use a special symbol like the asterisk (*) to denote a missing value. A missing value for sex doesn’t create a third sexual classification.

by definition Gender refer to Biological designation?
Spouse does not specify Biological designation “solved” ?

Hi Bill,

As used in Rootsfinder, I think the answer to your first question is that Gender usually refers to biology, male or female. Because it’s a free-form field, I suppose one could define Gender to be something other than male or female.

Spouse is a partner in a relationship. It’s a neutral term, so by itself, the word doesn’t tell us whether male, female, or otherwise.

Does that help?

that is My Point spouse is neutral the profile would indicate male or female and would designate the role Husband or Wife
have I missed something is there another (Otherwise) or (other than male or Female)?

Actually, yes, the 1% or less than 1% of the population that fits neither category.

You could lump them in with unknown/undetermined or create a separate category.

Apparently some countries allow the recording of it on birth certificates now. How do you preserve that information and record that fact about someone?

My personal opinion is that unknown/undetermined should be for cases where it really is unknown, the most common being a stillborn whose sex was not recorded.

I had never given the Gender vs Sex label any thought before until I was experimenting with entering evidences. So we have the “Gender” label for the person in the person profile properties but then I ended up with Gender and Sex facts listed separately for the person as well and that is what made me look it up and start thinking about it. I didn’t realize at the time the Gender in the profile properties is altogether separate from the other facts though.

My understanding is that the Gedcom standard uses the SEX tag, there is no Gender tag although maybe there is a commonly accepted extension for one. As documented the SEX tag appears to only support values of M, F, or U so the idea of a separate category for those who are neither can not be supported in the current standard.

I am not sure how RootsFinder would export separate Sex and Gender facts about a person. Is the profile property the one mapped to the SEX tag and then what happens to the other entries and their supporting evidences? What if they do not all agree? If some attempt is made to consolidate them all into a single SEX tag which takes precedence, the one with the most supporting evidence or last entry processed? What if the recorded facts are not strictly Male or Female, how is it handled? In the end is any information lost in the export process?

In the end I don’t know that anything really needs to change, these are all just things that come to mind when thinking about it.