Understanding Gender Identity

Starting at birth, we are all assigned a gender (typically either boy or girl) based on our body parts. From there, we are expected to speak, dress and act in alignment with social and cultural expectations for that gender. As we grow up, however, our understanding of who we are may not match our assigned gender. It may take some time to figure this out, and we may run into roadblocks when the outside world doesn’t recognize our gender the way we do.

What’s the Difference Between Sex and Gender?

People often use “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, but they are two different things. Sex is a biological term based on body parts, chromosomes, and hormones. Sex is not as binary as many think it is. There are some people (known as intersex) whose sex is not strictly male or female, but instead falls on a spectrum between these. Gender, in comparison to sex, refers to our internal sense and understanding of ourselves relative to the social and cultural associations and roles that we grow up with.

Gender Identity is a Spectrum

As we grow up and get to know ourselves, each of us tends to develop a personal sense and experience of our gender identity. Some of us fall into a binary gender category (male or female), while others of us are somewhere in between (nonbinary) or don’t feel connected to either gender (agender). Those whose gender identities match their sex assigned at birth are referred to as cisgender, while those whose identities do not match their sex assigned at birth may identity as transgender.

Expressing Gender Identity

While gender identity is our internal concept of our own gender, gender expression is how we present our gender identity through our appearance—including how we act or talk, what we wear, and how we style our hair or makeup. How we express our gender may or may not conform to what our families, friends, or society associate with our sex or gender identity.

What’s In a Name?

Our names are part of our identities. For some people, the name they were given at birth—like the sex they were assigned at birth—doesn’t match their gender identity. Sometimes when someone comes out as transgender or nonbinary, they also ask to be called by a new name, one more in keeping with their personal sense of identity.  For some, choosing to change their name can be an affirming act. It can also alleviate discomfort that may be associated with their old name.

The name that the person used before they came out or transitioned is commonly referred to as their deadname. It’s respectful to avoid using someone’s deadname unless they proactively say we can.

Gender Pronouns

Another common way of expressing our gender identity is through the pronouns we choose to use. Pronouns are the words that a person uses for themselves, and would like others to use, when referring to them not by their name. Some examples of pronouns include:

  • She/her/hers
  • He/him/his
  • They/them/theirs
  • Xe/xem/xeirs

Some people might let you know that they use more than one pronoun (for example “she/they”) which means they are comfortable with either pronoun set.

It’s important to be respectful when someone tells you their gender identity, name, and pronouns. When in doubt, ask “what pronouns do you use?” or “what name should I use?” Asking these questions respectfully is better than misgendering someone—referring to them in a way that doesn’t reflect their gender identity—or using their deadname. If you hear someone else misgendering or deadnaming a trans or nonbinary person, speak up if you feel safe doing so.

In group settings where you feel safe doing so, you can introduce yourself using your preferred name and pronouns. For example, “Hi, my name is [your name] and my pronouns are [your pronouns.]” This can help encourage others to do the same.

What’s the Difference Between Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation?

The term LGBTQ+ is often used to refer to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer and questioning community. While transgender is a gender identity, the terms lesbian, gay, and bisexual are all examples of sexual orientation: a person’s inherent physical, emotional, or romantic attraction to another person.

Your gender identity isn’t the same as your sexual orientation. Gender identity is about who you are, and sexual orientation is about who you want to be with.

Like gender identity, sexual orientation is a spectrum: there are a range of sexual identities, including but not limited to asexual, bisexual, pansexual, gay, lesbian, and straight.

It’s important to understand that a person’s gender identity doesn’t dictate their sexual orientation. People of any gender can have any sexual orientation.

Respecting Your and Others’ Identities

It can feel intimidating to explore something as complicated as gender identity, but it can also be exciting and affirming to find the identity that feels right to you. It can also take time to discover the identity that feels right to you. There is no “right” age to explore and understand your gender identity—some people understand their identities early on in life, and others come to their identities later.

However you identify is valid, and your gender identity should be respected. But research shows that people who identify as transgender or nonbinary often face increased challenges like bullying and discrimination at home, work, or school.

You're Not Alone

If you or someone you know is struggling with challenges related to gender identity, or struggling to get others in their life to accept their identity, it’s important to reach out for support. Try contacting The Trevor Project, a leading national organization providing crisis intervention services for LGBTQ youth, by texting “START” to 678-678 or calling 1-866-488-7386.

Sometimes we may have feelings of depression, distress, or loneliness related to how we are treated based on our gender identity. If you need help for these kinds of feelings, you can also reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, by texting “START” to 741-741 or calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free and confidential conversation.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.