Understanding Gender Identity

We come into the world with reproductive parts that lead our parents and others to assign us a gender as either a boy or a girl. From there, most of us are expected to speak, dress and act in alignment with social and cultural expectations for our assumed gender. As we grow up, however, our ideas about who we are and how we want to be and be identified in the world often become more clear. When our sense of our gender identity does not match what has been socially assumed, it can be really confusing. This is especially true when we do not identify with one of the binary (female/male) options typically assumed and assigned at birth. These feelings can cause a sense of disconnection from our family, other people in our lives, and even ourselves.

It is safe to say gender identity is much more complicated than the male/female binary that so many of us grow up with. If you are questioning or having doubts about  your identity, that’s okay—there’s a lot to explore when it comes to gender. And ultimately, how you identify is up to you.

What’s the Difference Between Sex and Gender?

People often use “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, but that’s incorrect. Sex is a biological term—in most instances, a medical professional assigns you as either male or female at birth based on your hormones, chromosomes, and the genitals you were born with.

Sex doesn’t define gender. Gender identity isn’t about biology—it’s about our own internal sense and understanding of our gender 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. Common gender identities include:

  • Cisgender: People whose gender identity feels in line their assigned sex at birth
  • Transgender: People whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth
  • Nonbinary: People whose gender identity doesn’t fall into the male/female binary. Nonbinary is a broad term that encompasses a lot of identities, including agender, bigender, genderfluid, genderqueer, third gender, and more.

You may find that you associate yourself with one of these identities, or with an identity you would describe differently than any of the buckets above. However you identify is a personal experience and choice.

While each of us gets to decide how we identify, that doesn’t mean that people who are transgender or nonbinary are “choosing” to change their gender—rather, they are using these labels to more accurately reflect how they feel about themselves.

What is Gender Dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria is a clinical term for the distress someone may feel over their gender identity not matching their assigned sex at birth. People who experience gender dysphoria may feel isolated from their culture due to expectations around gender, or feel a strong desire to hide or remove parts of their body that don’t align with their identity, like breasts or facial hair.

If you or someone you know is struggling with feelings of depression, distress, or loneliness around your gender identity, text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free and confidential conversation. You can also reach out to 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.

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 associates with masculinity or femininity.

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. So 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 identiy.  For some, choosing to change their name can be an affirming act for themselves and with others. 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.

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
  • Or a combination of multiple sets, like “she/they/theirs”

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. Think about it this way: Gender identity is about who you are, and sexual orientation is about who you want to be with sexually.

Like gender identity, sexual orientation is a spectrum: there are a range of sexual identities, including but not limited to asexual, bisexual, gay and lesbian, and straight. Also like gender identity, your sexual orientation isn’t a choice—it’s something inherent within you.

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—cis, trans, nonbinary, or somewhere else on the spectrum—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. 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 to the Trevor Project for support.

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