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What is Gender Identity.

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WHAT IS GENDER IDENTITY?

Gender identity refers to how you experience and define gender in your own mind– and whether it aligns with the gender that is traditionally associated with your sex assigned at birth (SAAB). 

Mainstream society relies on the gender binary, a strict social construct that only recognizes two genders: boys/men and girls/women. These labels are usually based purely on the external genitalia seen on an infant immediately after birth– a baby with a penis is a male/boy and a baby with a vulva is a female/girl. This ideology also assumes that anyone assigned female/girl at birth should express their gender with strictly feminine markers, while someone assigned male/boy at birth should express their gender with strictly masculine markers. 

In reality, sex and gender have always existed outside of any pre-determined constraints or categories. Many indigenous cultures, for example, continue to support and celebrate the transgender and non-binary genders that have existed among their people since before the “discovery” of America. In fact, it was the violent invasion of “The New World” and its Native American populations that introduced the gender binary and its various oppressive roles to our society; gender scholars suggest that European colonizers enforced the gender binary as a means of patriarchal control and European nationalism

Understanding the intricacies of gender identity and the various societal marginalizations that come with trans and non-binary experiences is the first step to offering authentic, empathy-driven validation to trans folks. Read on to learn more about gender identities and the affirming language you can use to support gender-diverse folks!

Anatomical sex refers to the label given to people at birth and is based on the combination of biological sex markers (external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, chromosomal makeup, etc.) seen in an infant. Our mainstream, cisgender-centered society traditionally assigns only “female” or “male” based on external genitalia– this binary minimizes the complex spectrum of sex markers and identities.

At least 1 in 100 people born in America are intersex– they have a combination of sex markers and reproductive anatomy that is not exclusively “female” or “male.” And at least 1 in 2000 babies are born with genitalia that is noticeably “different,” sometimes leading to unnecessary and harmful surgery to “correct” the genitalia so that it’s closer to a “standard” penis or vulva. These surgeries (which are always performed without the infant’s consent and sometimes without the parents’) can worsen gender dysphoria in intersex folks as they grow older. 

Cisgender folks identify as the gender traditionally associated with their SAAB– women who were assigned “female” at birth and men who were assigned “male” at birth, for example. Sometimes shortened to “cis” (“cis man” or “cis woman”). 

Transgender folks do not identify with the gender that is traditionally associated with their SAAB. Some trans folks exist on the gender binary as women or men, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they express their gender with traditional gender roles (trans women don’t have to look or act feminine, for example). And it’s best to avoid “trans woman” or “trans man” when referring to trans folks who exist on the gender binary (unless a trans person prefers that language for themselves!). For some trans folks, the inclusion of “trans” before “woman” or “man” implies that they are different from “real women” or “real men.” Sometimes shortened to “trans” or “trans*” (the asterisk highlights the variety of trans experiences).

Non-binary is a popular umbrella term for those who do not exist within the gender binary; they do not identify as either a female/male or woman/man. Some trans folks identify as non-binary, but not all non-binary folks identify as trans. Other identities that fall under the non-binary umbrella are genderqueer, gender fluid, agender, gender non-conforming, and two-spirit.

It’s important to remember that cisgender, transgender, non-binary, etc. are adjectives and not identifying nouns, like “woman” or “man.” Consider using non-gendered terms for someone until they offer the information, themselves– then you can mirror their language!

Pronouns are words that we use to refer to others in place of their names; popular pronouns are “they/them/theirs,” “she/her/hers,” and “he/him/his.” Most people automatically use pronouns for someone based on how they perceive their gender from the outside– but since what they see is their own unique perception of someone else’s external image, not their gender identity, choosing a pronoun based on appearance is simply wrong. It’s always best to use gender-neutral pronouns with someone who hasn’t willingly and explicitly offered their own yet so that you don’t misgender them! This practice also combats the assumption that image, or gender expression, is equivalent to identity– that femininity is exclusive to women, masculinity exclusive to men, and androgyny exclusive to non-binary folks.

By sharing your own pronouns when you introduce yourself to others (especially if you’re cisgender!) you can normalize their use while demonstrating that you understand the significance of, respect, and support gender-diverse people. If someone has pronouns that fall on both sides or outside of the gender binary (like the pronouns “she/her/they/them” and “zie/zim/zir”), it’s best to interchange their usage at an equal rate until they explain what their preferred usage looks like. You can also respectively ask them to explain how, where, and when they want the pronouns to be used!

Gender expression is how you use external behaviors, pronouns, clothing, hairstyles, and voice to represent your gender. Traditionally, gender expression exists on a binary and is expected to parallel gender identity and sex; anyone assigned female at birth is a woman and should express that womanhood with strictly feminine markers, while those assigned male at birth is a man and should express that manhood with strictly masculine markers. Femininity and masculinity are social constructs– there is no “right” way to express your gender. And the way you express it can change over time!

Sexual orientation refers to which gender(s) you experience romantic, sexual, physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual attraction with– and in what ways you experience these different types of attraction with others. Everyone has a sexuality and the way you define it can change over time! You also don’t have to define it at all– some folks find validation when using labels for themselves, while others might feel uncomfortable and restricted. A supportive friend or partner will respect and validate the terms you use for your sexuality, no matter how often they change!

Sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality exist in unique ways within everyone– see below for a more complete list of terms, including examples of different gender identities!

GLOSSARY

AFAB & AMAB 

Acronyms that stand for “assigned female/male at birth.” These terms allow trans folks to reference their SAAB in a more affirming way, one that recognizes the passive and nonconsensual assignment of sex (and the gender binary) at birth. 

Agender

Refers to someone with no gender or neutral gender. Agender folks might feel like neither man nor woman, feel like they have an unknown or undefinable gender, not know or care about gender as an internal identity and/or external label, or choose not to label their or one that doesn’t align with any binary or non-binary gender, Some folks prefer the term genderless, gender-neutral, gendervoid, ungendered, non-gendered, genderblank, genderfree, or null gender. 

Bigender

Refers to someone who identifies as two or more genders (not to be confused with “Two-Spirit,” which is exclusive to Native American and indigenous cultures).

Cisgender

Refers to someone who identifies as the gender that is traditionally associated with their SAAB– women who were assigned “female” at birth and men who were assigned “male” at birth,” for example. Sometimes shortened to “cis” (“cis man” or “cis woman”). 

Femme

An identity and/or gender expression that embodies and celebrates femininity while not necessarily equating it with womanhood. While this term was once exclusive to feminine-presenting lesbians and queer women in their own communities, it is often used today by other LGBTQ+ folks in similar ways.

Gender Binary

A social construct (something that does not occur naturally and is a result of humans agreeing on and then enforcing something that didn’t exist before their interactions) that only recognizes two strictly separate and unique genders– boys/men and girls/women. And this binary extends to sex, gender expression, and sexuality, too. Anatomical sex (which is also only allowed to exist within the male vs. female binary) is supposedly equivalent to gender identity– which can only be expressed using binary gender markers (exclusively feminine or masculine appearance and behaviors). 

Gender Dysphoria

Psychological distress, anxiety, and/or discomfort because someone’s sex assigned at birth doesn’t align with their gender identity. While this term can be used informally to describe someone’s experience, it is also a diagnosis in the American Psychological Association’s DSM-5. While the APA has a history of dehumanizing and medicalizing transgender folks, the relatively recent replacement of “gender identity disorder” with “gender dysphoria” in 2013 is a significant step when it comes to harm reduction.

Gender-Expansive

Refers to someone whose gender identity and/or expression extends beyond the gender binary in a fluid or flexible way. 

Gender Expression

How you use external behaviors, pronouns, clothing, hairstyles, and voice to express or “do” gender. Traditionally, gender expression exists on a binary and is expected to parallel gender identity and sex; anyone assigned female at birth is a woman and should express that womanhood with strictly feminine markers, while those assigned male at birth is a man and should express that manhood with strictly masculine markers. Femininity and masculinity are social constructs– there is no “right” way to express your gender. And the way you express it can change over time!

Gender-Fluid

Refers to someone with an unfixed, fluid, flexible, and/or changing gender identity. 

Gender Identity

A social construct that refers to how you experience and define gender in your own mind– and whether it aligns with the gender that is traditionally associated with your sex assigned at birth (SAAB). 

Gender Transition

The process of changing and/or forming one’s gender expression so that it better matches their gender identity. These changes might be physical, social, or legal: coming out to friends and family, changing pronouns or names informally, making official name changes on legal documents, starting hormone therapy, or undergoing a surgical procedure. There is no “right” way to transition– you are the only expert on what your gender looks and feels like!

Genderqueer

A broad term that refers to someone who does not exist within the gender binary. 

Intersex

Describes folks with a combination of sex markers and reproductive anatomy that is not exclusively “female” or “male.” 

Non-Binary

A popular umbrella term for those who do not exist within the gender binary; they are neither female/male nor woman/man. Some trans folks identify as non-binary, but not all non-binary folks identify as trans. Other identities that fall under the non-binary umbrella are genderqueer, gender fluid, agender, gender non-conforming, and two-spirit.

Pronouns

Words that we use to refer to others in replace of their names. Most people automatically use pronouns (like the binary “she/her/hers” and “he/him/his”) for someone based on how they perceive their gender from the outside– but since what they see is their own unique perception of someone else’s external image, not their gender identity, choosing a pronoun based on appearance is simply wrong. It’s always best to use gender-neutral pronouns with someone who hasn’t willingly and explicitly offered their own yet so that you don’t misgender them! This practice also combats the assumption that image, or gender expression, is equivalent to identity– that femininity is exclusive to women and masculinity exclusive to men. 

Queer 

Once a purely hateful slur but now reclaimed by much of the LGBTQ+ community, this broad term refers to gender and sexual minorities (those who are not cisgender and/or heterosexual). Since many LGBTQ+ folks are still offended by the term, though, it’s especially important to only use it when you know someone finds it supportive (and only if you self-identify as queer, yourself!). 

Sex Assigned At Birth (SAAB)

Refers to the label given to people at birth and is based on the combination of anatomical sex markers (external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, chromosomal makeup, etc.) seen in an infant. Our mainstream, cisgender-centered society usually assigns only “female” or “male” based on two forms of external genitalia (vulva and penis)– this binary minimizes the complex spectrum of sex markers and identities.

Sexual Orientation

Refers to which gender(s) you experience romantic, sexual, physical, emotional, spiritual, and/or intellectual attraction with (and in what ways you experience them).

Transgender

Describes folks who do not identify with the gender that is traditionally associated with their SAAB. Some trans folks exist on the gender binary as women or men, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they express their gender with traditional gender roles (trans women don’t have to look or act feminine, for example). Some trans folks make changes to their gender expression so that it better matches their identity, but not all do!

Two-Spirit

An umbrella term that is exclusive to indigenous communities and describes the traditional third-genders and gender-variant identities that often play important social, spiritual, and/or leadership roles.

SOURCES

https://eprints.bbk.ac.uk/id/eprint/25144/3/25144.pdf 

https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms 

https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/gender-identity/transgender/transgender-identity-terms-and-labels 

https://genderspectrum.org/articles/language-of-gender 

https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/gender-identity/sex-gender-identity/whats-intersex 

https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/07/25/i-want-be-nature-made-me/medically-unnecessary-surgeries-intersex-children-us 

https://interactadvocates.org/ 

https://www.outrightvt.org/terms-definitions/ 

https://www.jstor.org/stable/189945 

https://www.ihs.gov/lgbt/health/twospirit/

If you’d like more information about gender identity, reach out to Inspire Recovery.

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