These terms are complex and difficult to define. Many transgender people might have different opinions, which are equally valid. This short summary is not meant as a definitive account of gender, but just a brief introduction and guide for further reading.
[Last updated 2020]
Gender = How a person relates themself to socially constructed behaviours and attributes. A person’s inner sense of gender is theirs to define and there is no limit to the number of genders, as there is no limit to human variation. In the UK’s history, mainstream society has only recognised the genders ‘man’ and ‘woman’, but this societal limit is not universal across time and regions. If you would like more information about the historial and geographical variations in gender, please see the suggested reading.1
Sex = Categories based on things such as anatomy, physiology, secondary sex characteristics and chromosomes. Depending on the individual, sex and gender can be related in varying ways. There are three main sex categories: female, male and intersex. Intersex people, who make up around 1.7% of the population,2,3 have a mixture of sexual characteristics, but are normally forced into ‘female’ or ‘male’ categories from birth, which can be physically and mentally harmful.
The ‘Traditional’ Binary Genders = ‘Woman’ and ‘man’. These two genders are often presented as the only options, but this is affected by societal influences such as tradition and religion. It is not a universal concept.
Non-Binary (adjective) = An umbrella term for any genders which are not ‘woman’ or ‘man’. Within this umbrella, some people use more specific terms for themselves and there is no limit to non-binary gender descriptors. However, often people will just call their gender ‘non-binary’.
Agender (adjective) = A term meaning ‘no gender’, for people who not do relate to gender at all. It is often included within the non-binary umbrella.
Cisgender (adjective) = A term for people who identify with the gender that was assigned to them at birth. For example: a person who was called a ‘girl’ from birth, and continues to identify as a ‘girl/woman’ through life, is a cisgender woman. ‘Cisgender’ is normally abbreviated to ‘cis’.
Transgender (adjective) = A term for people who do not identify with the gender that was assigned to them at birth. For example: a person who was called a ‘girl’ from birth but later identifies as a ‘boy/man’, is a transgender man. ‘Transgender’ is normally abbreviated to ‘trans’.
Transphobia (noun) = Prejudice or discrimination against transgender people. Transphobia can manifest in a range of negative attitudes or actions that cause harm to trans people. Common forms of transphobia include ridicule, bullying, denial of services, lack of effort to use correct names and pronouns, disclosure of gender history without consent, harrassment, violence, etc.
Pronouns = Words used to refer to a noun. Common pronouns for people are ‘she/her/hers’, ‘he/him/his’ or ‘they/them/theirs’. Non-binary people often (though not always) use gender-neutral pronouns, such as ‘they/them/theirs’ – which have always been used to refer to individuals, including by authors such as Shakespeare and Austen4 – or newer pronouns like ‘ze/zer/zers’. You should always use the pronouns somebody asks for, and understand that language is constantly evolving.
Gender Expression = The way that somebody expresses gender through their presentation, such as appearance and behaviour. It is important to note that someone’s gender expression does not necessarily tell you what their gender identity is (see note below on ‘gender identity’). There are many reasons why someone might not want, or be able, to express their gender through their appearance or behaviour. In addition, people of all genders should be free to present themselves however they like, regardless of traditional expectations of clothing, hair, make-up, etc. It is understandable that you might make assumptions based on appearance but it is good practice to ask what pronouns someone uses when you meet them.
Misgender (verb) = To refer to someone using an incorrect gendered term or pronoun. This is a form of transphobia because, whether malicious or not, it tells the person that you are not respecting them. By practising in your own time, you can learn to use someone’s correct pronouns; it is rare that anyone is incapable of this. An easy way to avoid accidentally misgendering somone is to use gender-neutral pronouns (such as ‘they/them/theirs’) until they tell you which pronouns to use.
Things to avoid!
‘Gender identity’ is a controversial term, because it is normally only applied to trans people, which can imply that trans people’s “gender identities” are not as valid as cis people’s “genders”. The only time this phrase is useful is when distinguishing between gender expression (outer presentation) and gender identity (inner feeling) – see definition of gender expression above.
- Avoid listing ‘gender and gender identity’ as separate issues, for example when trying to refer to sexism and transphobia as types of discrimination. Instead, you could simply say ‘sexism and transphobia’ or include them both under the umbrella of ‘gender-based discrimination’.
‘Preferred pronouns’ or ‘preferred name’ are phrases that suggest that the use of trans people’s pronouns or names is optional. Whether or not someone has changed their name or legal gender marker, misgendering or misnaming someone is transphobia.
- The use of a trans person’s chosen name and pronouns is compulsory, so avoid saying ‘preferred’.
“A man/woman might want to take his/her suitcase with him/her.” Sentences like these use unnecessarily gendered language, which both confuses the sentence and erases non-binary people. “A person might want to take their suitcase with them” is a simpler and more inclusive way to write this.
- When the gender of a person is unknown or irrelevant, use ‘they’ rather than ‘he/she’.
- 1 Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman by Leslie Feinberg, 1996 (Beacon Press: Boston)
- 2 How Common is Intersex? An Explanation of the Facts, by The United States affiliate of the Organization Intersex International (OII), 2015
- 3 Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto-Sterling, 2000 (New York: Basic Books) ISBN 0-465-07713-7
- 4 Everyone Uses Singular ‘They,’ Whether They Realize It Or Not, By Geoff Nunberg, 2016
- Understanding Gender, by Gender Spectrum (no date)
- A Guide to Transgender Terms, by BBC Magazine (2015)
- Where a Gender Spectrum May Be Taking Us, by Rosemary Joice, 2013