Sex/gender symbols

From Kim Darnell on Facebook, a story from a year ago (4/17/12) about the adoption of a gender-neutral pronoun in Swedish, with this handsome accompanying graphic:


The graphic has three interlinked components: The “female symbol” (or “mirror of Venus”), a circle (representing a body) with a cross below it (♀ in biological literature); the “male symbol” (or “spear of Mars”), a circle with an arrow at the upper right (♂ in biological literature); and a plain circle in the center, representing a body unspecified as to sex. Turning to grammatical gender rather than biological sex, the mirror of Venus represents feminine gender (as in the Swedish pronoun hon ‘she’), the spear of Mars the masculine gender (as in the Swedish pronoun han ‘he), and the plain circle the new gender-neutral 3sg Swedish pronoun hen).

A complexity here is that this symbol is sometimes taken to be a transgender symbol, the central circle represeting someone who in some sense is *both* female and male. And for this purpose there are a number of competing symbols.

The move towards hen was noted briefly in Language Log last year, where Geoff Pullum observed that it dates back to the mid 1960s. Geoff was reporting on a Slate article lambasting this move — an article confounding grammatical gender with (reference to) biological sex (which is now commonly referred to as gender, as in gender equality).

Let’s move now to biological sex in human beings. Opposite-sex coupling is represented symbolically by linked ♀ and ♂, sometimes with both symbols in the same color, most commonly black, but often with the sexes color-coded, most often with pink (or red) for Venus and blue for Mars, though other choices occur: there are somewhat queered versions with Venus in magenta and Mars in purple, and then there’s this oddity (from journalism students at Coventry University) in neon green and yellow:


Then there are same-sex couplings, commonly represented by linked Venuses or Marses aligned in the same direction. Again, most commonly in black, but sometimes with the Venuses in pink and the Marses in blue. Or there’s the possibility of distinguishing the two partners in a same-sex linking by color, as here (with purple and pink):


This at least *looks* like the imposition of opposite-sex differences on those in a same-sex pairing, with one of the couple as “the woman” and the other as “the man”. A similar imposition occurs when a same-sex pairing is represented with one of the symbols significantly smaller than the other.

On to trans (for transgender) people, for whom there is one body (so only one circle in the symbol) but in some sense two sexes — most commonly, the birth sex and the sex of self-image, which moves many such people to transition from the birth sex to the sex appropriate to the self-image. There are two straightforward ways of representing this situation, both simple combinations of Venus and Mars: combining the auxiliary portions of Venus annd Mars into a compound:


or using both auxiliary portions, in their usual places (in this case, with color coding as well):


Somewhat remarkably, what seems to have become the trans symbol of choice uses both of these schemes at once (here, with color coding for all three of the auxiliary portions — pink, blue, and purple):


Here’s a variant with no color coding, but with the trans symbol within a pink (gay / queer) triangle:


4 Responses to “Sex/gender symbols”

  1. Kim Darnell Says:

    the other interesting implication of the infinity symbol that is integrated into the initial graphic is polyamory (see

  2. More sex/gender symbols | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] follow-up to my posting on sex/gender symbols, taking up some further cases in which the borders between male and female are erased, and how […]

  3. Symbols at ease | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] on this blog (on 4/13/13), the mirror of Venus and spear of Mars as sex/gender symbols: “Sex/gender symbols” and “More sex/gender […]

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Apparently image #1 was intended as a symbol of bisexuality; see the site here.
    This from a reader using the name AnonMoos, who suggests this site as a source of a unisex symbol.

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