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A Closer look at Gender Identity

Gender identity is often confused with sexual orientation, but they are separate concepts. Put simply, gender identity is about who you are, sexual orientation is about who you are attracted to. The word "gender" can mean a lot of different things in different contexts. Lets go over some of these different meanings.

  • Gender—A complex system of identities, expressions, and roles that are usually assigned to people based on the appearance of their genitals at birth and that vary from culture to culture and from person to person.
  • Gender identity—The language a person uses to define their gender.
  • Gender expression—How one expresses oneself in relation to gender, whether with clothes, mannerisms, hairstyle, names, etc. A person's gender expression is not necessarily in line with what is expected for their assigned sex or with their gender identity.
  • Gender roles—Societal expectations of ideal masculinity or femininity

The Gender Binary

The gender binary refers to the idea that men and women are the only two genders, that these are opposites, and that every person must be unambiguously gendered as either/or in accordance with their assigned sex at birth.

The expectation is that a person be comfortable in the gender identity, expression and role that is assigned to them.

Recall the problem of linked binaries discussed earlier in this course. We can establish that these binaries are limiting, and do not reflect the diversity of genders that are possible. Let us use our knowledge of gender binaries and their limits to understand some of the vocabulary associated with gender diversity.

Gender Identity: Some Introductory Vocabulary

A transgender person is someone who does not fully identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Sometimes this is abbreviated to the shorter word trans.

  • A trans woman is a woman who was assigned male at birth.
  • A trans man is a man who was assigned female at birth.

Transitioning is the process of adopting a new public gender identity, changing gender markers or names in documentation and/or medically altering one's body to be more congruent with the gender and/or sex with which one identifies.

Note: Sometimes, transgender is confused with being a drag queen, drag king or the more outdated terms crossdresser or transvestite (both of which are often considered offensive). Dressing up in "drag" is considered the performance of another gender. Drag queens and drag kings represent characters while transgender people are real-life people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

A cisgender person is someone who feels comfortable with the gender identity commonly associated with the sex they were assigned at birth: in other words, a person who is not transgender. This word was coined because the prefix trans- means across from and the prefix cis- means on the same side. We use the word cisgender so that "transgender" is not contrasted with what is "normal." In this sense, "cisgender" relates to "transgender" in much the same way that "straight" relates to "gay."

  • The term cisgender is sometimes shortened to cis. 
  • A cisgender or cis woman is a woman who was assigned female at birth.
  • A cis man is a man who was assigned male at birth.

Transgender Identities

Transgender is a term and concept that includes a wide variety of gender labels, including transmasculine, transfeminine, genderqueer, agender and more.

People who were assigned male at birth whose identity is closer to female often use the term trans feminine. People who were assigned female at birth whose identity is closer to male often use the term trans masculine. People who identify as trans feminine or trans masculine do not necessarily identify as women and men, they may simply identify stronger with femininity or masculinity respectively. Sometimes these terms are used more broadly to also include trans women and trans men.

A person may use the label "transsexual" to refer to themselves, and this usually refers to people who seek medical interventions (hormones, surgery, and/or other procedures) and legal interventions (name and gender changes on government identification) to match their inner sense of their gender and/or sex. Not all people who transition identify as transsexual. Many people treat their medical and/or legal transition as a very private, personal experience, so it is important not to label a person as transsexual without their permission.

Note: Some men who were assigned female at birth do not embrace trans labels, and some women who were assigned male at birth do not embrace trans labels. These folks may fall under the transgender umbrella conceptually and identify themselves as a man or a woman exclusively.

Non-Binary Identities

A non-binary gender is a gender identity other than man or woman. Non-binary genders are a spectrum of gender identities, and point to the inadequacy of a binary model of gender. The existence of non-binary identities are a rejection of the assumption that gender must be male/man/masculine or female/woman/feminine. Non-binary genders could include:

  • Agender people, or people who do not identify with any gender
  • Genderqueer, gender-fluid, or bigender people
  • Many trans feminine or trans masculine people who do not identify as a woman or a man

A gender non-conforming person, either by nature or by choice, does not conform to cultural gender-based expectations.

Not all transgender people are gender non-conforming, and not all gender non-conforming people identify as transgender. Cisgender people may also be gender non-conforming.

It is ultimately best to use the terminology that a person uses to describe their own gender identity, rather than making assumptions or determining correct language for yourself. When in doubt of how to respectfully refer to another person, it is usually best to simply ask them privately.

Gender Across Cultures

Non-Western cultures often have different gender systems. In some cultures, people whom one would consider trans (in the West) are automatically classified as a third, or even fourth or fifth gender. In other cultures, they are described with the same terms used for gay people.

Among Indigenous and Native American communities, Two-Spirit is a general term for people within native culture who blend the masculine and feminine, and can have defined spiritual and societal roles. Many Indigenous communities have terms unique to their tribe for gender-variant members. Two-Spirit culture was and remains threatened by extinction in the face of European and American colonization, and many Native American members of the queer community identify as Two-Spirit today.

Here are some other names of transgender and third gender identities across the globe:

  • Hijra: South Asia
  • Yan daudu: Northern Nigeria
  • Muxe: Zapotec cultures of Oaxaca, Mexico
  • Fa'afine: Samoa
  • Fakaleiti: Tonga
  • Mahu: Hawaii 
  • Burrnesha: Albania
  • Kathoey: Thailand (while this term can refer to feminine transgender identities, the term is sometimes used pejoratively)

OPTIONAL: The National Geographic Association released a special issue in January 2017 on global variations of gender. 

Gender Dysphoria and Discomfort

Some transgender people experience distress and discomfort caused by a dissonance between their gender identity and their sex characteristics, restrictions and barriers to transitional medical care and/or social pressures to express a gender that is at odds with their identity. This condition of physiological distress is often referred to as gender dysphoria.

Although some people seek routes to medically affirm their gender, not everyone does. Not all transgender people experience gender dysphoria, nor is all stress or discomfort experienced by transgender people considered gender dysphoria.

It is important to name the devastating effects of gender dysphoria on a person's well-being while being intentional not to "diagnose" or assume a transgender person experiences gender dysphoria.

What about you?

Do you feel comfortable in the gender roles that are expected of you? Do you feel comfortable identifying with the sex and gender you were assigned at birth? Is there anyone you’re close to who doesn't?

Bias and Discrimination

Throughout this course we have introduced terms and concepts to aid in our understandings of gender, sex, and orientation. We can utilize these terms and concepts to reach a better understanding of ourselves and others. We can also utilize these terms and concepts to identify and prevent bias, discrimination, and oppression that one can experience on the basis of sex, gender or orientation.

Large systems and cultural norms impact how queer and transgender people experience the world (similar to how women, people of color, and disabled people can be impacted). There is a lot of language for bias, discrimination, and oppression against multiple identities: racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, transmisogyny, transphobia and more.

There are four levels at which individuals and systems can distribute bias, discrimination, or oppression: personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural.





Our internal values, beliefs and feelings

A person believes that legal marriage should not be granted to same sex couples.


Our actions, behaviors and language

A sales team gives an unsuccessful pitch to a potential buyer, and a man on the team tells a woman coworker, "You should have dressed sexier."


Rules, policies and procedures

 A high school has a bathroom policy stating, "students may only use restroom for the sex assigned to them at birth."


What groups value as true, right, beautiful

Fashion magazines predominantly feature white, thin, cisgender, heterosexual women

Multiple forms of oppression can happen at any one of these four levels, and often happen simultaneously.

Words to Avoid

“Tranny” – Frequently used to demean transgender people, particularly transgender women. Carries extremely negative connotations.

“Queer” – Still sometimes used against people of marginalized sexualities and gender experiences, has negative associations for many in older generations. In more and more communities, this is viewed as a neutrally charged, inoffensive, reclaimed term.

“Dyke” – Still sometimes used as a slur against lesbians. In more and more communities, this is viewed as a neutrally charged, inoffensive, reclaimed term.

"Faggot" or "Fag" – Some people marginalized by their sexuality or gender, especially gay men, will use this term in-community, but it would be very inappropriate for someone else to use.

About word reclamation

*See Quick Check Questions: Gender Identity*