Gender Identity and Associated Gender Language: A Primer

Gender: life is usually much more complex than fits in a box. Image by Ken Denmead
Gender: life is usually much more complex than fits in a box. Image by Ken Denmead

There is a lot of talk about transgender issues lately. Some people think we are at a “trans tipping point.” The reality is, we have barely scratched the surface. I’d say we are today with transgender issues where we were with LGB issues in the early 1980s when HIV/AIDS became part of public consciousness.

In the GeekDad and GeekMom Slack chat, an article was linked that attempted to describe the term “gender-fluid.” The resulting conversation was that most of us born in Generation X and before were never taught the language of gender and find ourselves woefully underprepared. How can we talk with our children about gender, in a time where discussions are happening all over the internet, when we don’t know what it means?

The following day, I was attacked by a number of trans-exclusionary radical feminists because I am transgender. Horrible things were said to me. My body was policed, yet again.

And, again, people who want to support not only me, but maybe their children or their children’s friends, found themselves not understanding all of the nuances.

So, here is a primer of some terms often used in discussions about gender. Some of it is more on the personal side because these issues and how gender language is used affect me very personally. Also, there is still a lot of debate within the community on all of these things, and terms can change tomorrow as we learn more. But as of now, this is how a large number of transgender people think and feel about the following, and what we consider to be acceptable language when discussing gender.

The Basics

Biological Sex: The scientific understanding of biological sex has changed a lot in the last few years. It’s not as simple as XX and XY, and you can have a combination and not be intersex. So, I’m not even going to get into this one as new research comes out so fast that I have difficulty keeping up with it all, other than to say: biological sex is not that simple.

Intersex: This definition is constantly changing as scientific understanding of biological sex changes. However, in a nutshell, this is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with sex organs (reproductive and/or anatomy) that don’t fit the understanding of default binary biological sex.

But that is why we say the following because our understanding of biological sex is really bad:

AFAB (assigned female-bodied at birth): People who are born and labeled “female” based on an antiquated idea of biological sex and associated sex organs.

AMAB (assigned male-bodied at birth): People who are born and labeled “male” based on an antiquated idea of biological sex and associated sex organs.

It is really important to understand the “assigned” part. I’m a trans man. My body was assigned “female,” but it is a male body and my sex organs are male, because they are on a man’s body. Cisnormative society forcibly imposes different labels as part of the cis-white-hetero-male default society in which we live.

Cisnormative: The assumption and default that everyone is cisgender (see below in “Gender Identity”).

Sexual Orientation: The sex and/or gender to whom a person is sexually attracted; includes, but is not limited to: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and queer. This is not a choice.

Gender Identity: An individual’s innate, deeply felt sense of self and gender; the gender with which they identify. This is formed independently of the gender roles society tries to dictate and assign. This is not a choice.

It is really important to understand sexual orientation and gender identity are two different things; neither of which are a choice or a preference. So, please avoid using terms like “sexual preference” or “gender preference.” Both are pejorative.

Gender Identity

Cisgender or Cis: An individual whose innate sense of self-aligns with the gender associated with the sex assigned to them at birth. The default gender identity.

Transgender or Trans or Trans*: A huge umbrella with different terms to describe individuals who do not identify with the gender associated with the sex assigned to them at birth. Below is a list of some of those most common terms.

Trans Man: Someone who was AFAB but whose innate sense of self-identifies as masculine/male/boy/man. They are a man.

Trans Woman: Someone who was AMAB but whose innate sense of self-identifies as feminine/female/girl/woman. They are a woman.

Gender-Fluid or Non-Binary or Pangender: Someone who was either AFAB or AMAB but whose innate sense of self doesn’t identify with only one gender, and/or their sense of gender can change constantly. This category also includes terms like two-spirit, bi-gender, thirdgender, and more.

This area of the gender rainbow is one that, in my experience, my Generation X peers have a really difficult time understanding. They understand the binary of masculine and feminine, but don’t understand how it can be fluid, or changing from day to day, or how someone can identify as both genders at the same time. It is also this area of the spectrum that is most erased because society defaults to a binary.

I don’t want to confuse sexual orientation with gender identity. However, try to think of this area of the gender spectrum kind of like the bisexual area of sexual orientation. If you are bisexual, you may be more attracted to the different sexes 50/50, or maybe 90/10, or maybe 50/30/20, or maybe that changes depending on the person. Now apply this understanding to gender identity, but instead of sexual attraction, this is a person’s deep understanding of sense of self and gender.

Agender: Someone without a sense of gender. They identify as being genderless. Think of the J’naii in “The Outcast” from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is still an excellent episode even if the gender language is outdated. You should probably watch it. Agender can also fall into the non-binary category.

Transition-Related Terms

Transition: Moving from a person’s assigned sex and gender to their authentic gender AKA authentic self–whatever that is in the huge umbrella of the term transgender. Transition is not one thing and looks different for everyone. Transition is fluid. One of the most important things to understand is that transition does not equal surgery.

For some people transition is as simple as stating the gender(s), or lack thereof, with which they identify. They are done. Some people may legally change their name. Some may change their pronouns; sometimes multiple times throughout this fluid process. Some may change the sex marker on identification. Some may change the way they present themselves. Some may have hormone replacement therapy or make use of hormone blockers. Some may have surgery. Some may do a combination. Each is an equally valid form of transition.

Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) or Gender Reassignment Surgery (GRS) or Gender Confirmation Surgery (GCS): A number of therapeutic surgeries available to transgender people to make their physical bodies become more in line with their gender identity. The first term is out of favor but is still used in the medical community. The second is slowly falling out of favor because it implies that their gender is being reassigned when it has nothing to do with changing gender. The third is the most favorable because it properly describes the process. So, use GCS.

A lot of transgender people would not have surgery if were not for cisnormative pressures that our bodies must look a specific way in order to be male or female. This societal pressure is one of many factors that contribute to the 46 percent suicide rate for trans men, and the 42 percent rate for trans women. Sadly, the cost of such surgery makes it unobtainable for most transgender people.

In most states in the US, you must have surgery in order to get a correct birth certificate. In Canada, most provinces allow people to self-identify in order to change birth documents and treat the assigned gender as a clerical error. Hopefully, in my lifetime, everyone’s right to self-identify will be recognized.

Transsexual: A once widely used word to describe transgender people. Now, it is mostly reserved for transgender people who have had some type of GCS.

This term is falling out of favor and a lot of people in the transgender community view it as a pejorative. Some of the reasons it is viewed as pejorative are because it reinforces cisnormative ideas that one must have GCS in order to transition and, also, it really is no-one’s business what is in anyone’s pants and whether or not they have had “the surgery.”

However, some transgender people still like to use it as a self-label to easily identify to other transgender people what their transition has looked like. But if you are cisgender, don’t use it.

Associated Gender-Related Terms

Gender Questioning: When someone questions their gender identity and whether or not it matches their assigned gender and sex. Both cisgender and transgender people question their gender as a normal part of figuring out their identity. They may “try on” different gender roles to see if they “fit.” It’s also a part of normal childhood development and why some boys want to try makeup and why some girls want to wear dad’s clothes in families where the parents are of the opposite sex, for example. This can happen multiple times throughout someone’s life. Their gender identity may or may not change. As it is a part of normal childhood development, few people never question their gender.

Gender Expression or Gender Presentation: How someone outwardly expresses or presents themselves. This includes, but is not limited to, outward appearance, such as clothes, body language, and verbal language, general behaviors, and any other behavior associated with gender and gender roles. Gender expression and gender identity are not synonymous. A woman (whether cis or trans) can dress “butch” or “masculine” but is still a woman. Or, their gender expression may fall in line with assigned gender roles, like wearing dresses and makeup.

Different gender expression descriptors include: female, femme, feminine, twink effeminate, androgynous, male, masculine, macho, butch, etc.

Gender Non-Conforming: Doing things that go against what society says is “normal” for assigned gender roles. Examples: A girl who likes to take things apart and figure out how they work; or, a boy who likes to cross-stitch and sew. This girl and boy may be cisgender or they may be transgender. What someone likes has nothing to do with their gender identity. Saying, “To hell with gender norms!” is being gender non-conforming.

Respecting Identity

Correct Pronouns: You may often see this stated as “preferred pronouns.” However, there is a perception flaw or bias that occurs when you use the word “preferred.” You would never tell a cisgender person that their pronouns are preferred. The default is that they are the correct pronouns.

Correct pronouns can change, especially during the fluid road of transition when someone is becoming more comfortable presenting as their authentic self. Whenever they change, they are still the correct pronouns; they are right for that person to use.

Something I do is never assume someone’s gender and never assume someone’s pronouns, because gender presentation does not always match gender identity. So, I always default to the singular “they/them/their” until I hear them state their pronouns or I can ask, “What are your pronouns?”

It’s always good to ask. In fact, it is very welcomed. Being misgendered hurts to the very core, as our entire sense of self is being erased. Respecting pronouns is one of the most important things you can do.

Deadname: The name assigned to someone at birth: one which they no longer use, with which they do not identify, and is dead to them. It is extremely disrespectful and harmful to use someone’s deadname. In many situations, doing so can also put a transgender person’s life at threat for physical harm and death. If you can call the U2 guitarist “The Edge,” then you can respect what a person tells you is their real name, even if they haven’t legally changed it. This is part of respecting someone’s right to self-identify.

Miscellaneous Terms

Cross-Dressing: Dressing the opposite way of assigned binary gender. There are a variety of motivations for this, some of which fall under gender non-conforming.

Transvestite: Pejorative term used mistakenly to describe transgender people but was once acceptable to use for cross-dressers and drag queens. Also, once considered a mental illness.

Queer: Once a pejorative term, it is now being reclaimed by the LGBTQIA+ community as an umbrella term for everything in the rainbow but does not include straight or cisgender people. The meaning of queer can be highly personalized.

Think About the Following 

Deconstructing the notion of “being trapped in the wrong body”: I’m going to attempt to be brief on this one. After reading all of the above, hopefully you’ll understand the following: transgender people are not trapped in the wrong body. Society assigns the wrong body to us. It’s all about the boxes a cisnormative-heteronormative society puts us into against our will. A lot of the dysphoria transgender people experience is the result of the cisnormative defaults: that a woman’s body ­must look this way and that a man’s body must look another way, and there is nothing in between.

If our right to self-identification was respected, and our bodies immediately viewed as those self-identifications, we wouldn’t be trapped. Suicide rates would go down. We are in the right bodies. Our bodies are not wrong and they don’t need to be fixed. The way society views all bodies needs to change.

And then, we can move to a place where we don’t assign labels at birth and allow everyone to play with whatever they want, dress however they want, enjoy whatever they want, without assigning gender roles to everything, and allow all people to self-identify from Day One.

The above primer is far from complete. It is exactly that, a primer. But, I hope that this basic primer will help you to reevaluate a few things and better understand the non-default, very valid way of existing. I hope you have a better understanding of gender language and how language can be used to help, hinder, and hurt, and that you now have tools to discuss these issues with others, including your children.


[Editor’s NoteWe welcome your questions and requests for clarification, however because the point of this post is to educate and inform, any comments seeking to debate or criticize the transgender spectrum will be deleted.]

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Jules Sherred is a parent, author, radio personality, blogger and freelance writer, gamer, tech enthusiast, website designer, science nerd, sci-fi freak, hard core Trekker, and has an unnatural obsession with Optimus Prime. He/him/his.