Every year in November, we celebrate Transgender Awareness Week. This week is an opportunity to pause, remember, and uplift trans voices—and a reminder that it is something we should do all year long. While society as a whole has come a long way towards accepting LGBTQIA+ individuals, trans folx continue to experience higher levels of homelessnes and violence, and this is even more true for trans folx who hold additional marginalized identities.
There also continues to be rampant misunderstandings about what it means to be trans. Consider this your primer to gender and sex: what they are, how they differ, and why it matters.
Biological sex is not the same as gender identity
Long before a baby is even born, society begins obsessing about their genitals, using them as an indicator of the forthcoming baby’s gender. Gender is then used to determine how the child is dressed, what toys they receive, and so on. Once the baby is born, the doctor typically looks at what’s between their legs and declares, “It’s a [gender]!”
Unfortunately, this conflates biological sex with gender identity, one of the two components of gender. The former is all the physiological stuff; your internal and external reproductive organs, chromosomes, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics. The latter, is your internal sense of gender. As the name implies, it’s how you see yourself and how you identify.
Its also worth naming that while sex is typically thought of as a binary—male or female—about 2 percent of the population is intersex. This means they have natural variations in this physical components that make up biological sex. It’s also roughly the same as the percentage of redheads! Some of these are present at birth, some show up at puberty, others may be an issue when trying to get pregnant, and others may never be apparent.
There are several common gender identities
Some of these fall into the gender binary—male or female—while others exist beyond or outside of it. All identities fall somewhere on the gender spectrum.
Some common gender identities include but are not limited to:
Cisgender: when your gender matches the gender you were assigned at birth. Cisgender is often shortened to “cis” and means “this side of” in Latin. Someone can be a cis man or a cis woman.
Transgender: when your gender doesn’t match the gender you were assigned at birth. Transgender is often shortened to “trans” and means “on the other side” in Latin. Someone can be a trans man or a trans woman.
Non-binary, genderqueer, and gender-nonconforming: when your gender exists outside of the man-woman binary. Folx may identify with neither, both, or a combination of genders. Some people use these terms interchangeably, while others solely or primarily identify with one or two.
– Non-binary: often shortened to “enby” or “NB.” More often used by folx who identify outside of the binary.
– Genderqueer: May be used by folx who identfiy within the binary but who play along the gender spectrum. Can have a more political slant.
– Gender non-conforming: often shortened to GNC. Some may use this more in reference to gender expression (see below) than identity.
– Agender: when you don’t identify with any gender.
Gender identity is personal and can evolve
At the end of the day, one’s gender identity is unique to themselves. Each of us gets to claim our gender for ourselves, period. As increased acceptance of trans and non-binary folx grows, more folx may come to understand themselves as not-cis later in life. That doesn’t make any of their lived experiences any less valid or real—or make them any less of their real gender.
Gender identity is not the same as gender expression
Gender identity isn’t something others can see. Gender expression, on the other hand, is how you show up in the world and present yourself.
It can include things like your name, pronouns, clothing and accessories, hair and makeup, behavior, voice, and body characteristics, among others. Under this umbrella, there is a rich diversity of terms including, femme, masc, butch, androgynous, and many more. Of course, the meanings of these, as well as what’s considered “masculine” or “feminine” vary by culture and society, both in perception and acceptability.
People of all genders can play with their gender expression may or may not align in the “expected” ways—whatever that looks like for your society—with their gender identity. Gender expression is what’s being discussed when trans folx talk about transitioning. Some, but not all, transgender folx want to align their gender expression with more “traditional” markers of their gender identity. However, it’s important to name that their identity is not tied to any markers of gender expression. A trans man who chooses to keep their breasts, uterus, long hair, and wear dresses is not any less of a man than one who chooses to have top and bottom surgery, cut their hair, take testosterone, and shop in the “men’s” section. It’s a highly personal decision, influenced by individual desires as well as access and safety.
What about pronouns?
Like your name and nickname, pronouns are a unique way to identify yourself. Common ones include he/him; she/her; they/them; ze/zey; and, just one’s name.
To paraphrase sexuality educator, activist, and model Ericka Hart: just as you can’t know someone’s name by looking at them, neither can you know their pronouns. Just ask. And, if you slip up, apologize and correct yourself and move on—then, practice on your own time, if needed.
Lastly, the language around pronouns has evolved. They aren’t preferred, they just are.
Gender identity has nothing to do with sexuality
People of any gender can be gay, straight, bi, pansexual, asexual, etc.
Furthermore, your sexuality doesn’t change if the person you’re attracted to isn’t cisgender.
What does this look like in action?
This means that each of us has around four identifiers: one each for our sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality. Of course, some of these can be in flux. That’s the beauty of being a human who changes, grows, and discovers new things about themselves—like all the straight ciswoman on lesbian TikTok who are disocvering they might not be so straight after all.
For example, I’m a queer cis woman who’s femme-lite (my own term to describe my competing love of dressings and expediency).
All gender identities and expressions are valid and real
Trans women are women.
Trans men are men.
Agender folx are agender.
Nonbinary folx are nonbinary.
People are people and all of us, regardless of sex, gender identity, or gender expression deserve to find freedom in pleasure.