Growing up most of us were socialized to acknowledge that as far as biological sexual identity goes, there’s only the binary: boy or girl. This paradigm becomes quickly integrated into our lives. Moreover, we also live in a culture that uses “gender” and “sex” interchangeably. However, these two aspects that contribute one’s sexuality and identity are actually two separate entities.
Gender identity is an individual’s deeply held sense of being male, female or another gender. This is separate from biological sex. Some children become aware at a very young age that their gender identity does not align with their physical sex characteristics, even expressing the disconnect as soon as they can talk. Others recognize their gender identity during adolescence or adulthood. Individuals whose biological sex and gender identity “match” rarely think about the alignment of biology and identity because they have the privilege of being considered normal by society.
Here are some of the most common words and labels that people use to describe their gender characteristics and identities.
Cisgender : A word used to describe people whose gender agrees with their body sex or assigned sex.
Trans and gender diverse: A general word for people whose gender is different from their physical sex, including transgender people.
Transgender : A person whose gender identity or gender expression does not conform to that typically associated with their sex assigned at birth.
Gender-queer/Non-binary : Any gender identity that sits within, outside of, across or between the spectrum of the male and female is binary. A non-binary person might identify as gender-fluid, trans-masculine, trans-feminine, agender, bigender, etc.
Intersex: A person born with reproductive organs, hormone levels and/or sex chromosomes that isn’t exclusively male or female. There are many different states of being intersex. They are not always obvious on the outside or even diagnosed.
Gender expression can be defined as the way we show our gender to the world around us. This can be through clothing, hair, interests, and other physical forms of expressing yourself. A person’s chosen name and pronoun are also common ways of expressing. Someone’s gender presentation doesn’t dictate their gender identity.
Societal expectations of gender expression are reinforced in almost every area of life. Even very young children are clear about the gendered choices that boys and girls are “supposed to” make in relation to toys, colors, clothes, games and activities. But people can express their gender in ways that don’t match the traditional expectations of the gender they are. For example, a woman can dress in a masculine way and still be a woman. This concept doesn’t change if a person is trans or non-binary. A trans man is still a man even if he wears makeup every day and a trans woman is still a woman even if she doesn’t have long hair. Non-binary people also do not have to present androgenously to be considered valid in their gender.
Through a thoughtful consideration of the uniqueness and validity of every person’s experience of self, we can develop greater acceptance for all. Not only will this create greater inclusion for individuals who challenge the norms of gender, it will create space for all individuals to more fully explore and express who they are.