Gender Identity and Expression – A Primer

Do you consider yourself a boy or a girl? For many, those labels don’t apply. There’s more to gender identity than simply labeling people “boys” or “girls”. Current research shows that a child’s sense of gender identity is established as early as the age of three.

Because we are a language-based society, it’s important to understand what today’s gender terminology actually means. This understanding helps individuals feel seen and validated when they fall outside of people’s assumptions. Having the language to describe one’s gender identity outside of the gender binary is not only liberating, but it creates community among those experiencing gender in similar ways.

Everyone’s gender is unique to them. It’s important to understand there is not just one way to be.

The two most common gender identities are boy and girl (or man and woman), and often people think that these are the only two gender identities. The idea that there are only two genders is called the “gender binary.” If a child has a binary gender identity, that means they identify as either a boy or a girl, regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth.

But gender is a spectrum, and not limited to just two possibilities. Children may have a nonbinary gender identity, meaning they do not identify strictly as a boy or a girl – they could identify as both, or neither, or as another gender entirely. Agender people do not identify with any gender.

Intersex Identity

Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person could be assigned female at birth but could also have male-typical anatomy internally. A baby assigned as male could actually also have ovaries. Or, a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX and some have XY chromosomes. Sometimes people do not realize they are intersex until they reach the age of puberty. Some intersex people live and die without ever knowing that biological identity.

Very rarely do doctors look at internal genitalia for assigning sex at birth. In the past, doctors would force surgery at a very young age in an effort to try and establish either male or female gender.

In 2019, Colorado will begin issuing birth certificates with the Intersex gender option, which is also available on passports, in more school systems, and DMV services.

Gender Identity

Gender identity is how you identify and see yourself. Some identify as a girl or a boy and others may define themselves as agender, genderqueer, nonbinary, or just as a person. Everyone has a right to any identity, even if the term used today may not fit later, and gender identity should be respected.

If your gender identity matches the sex assigned to you at birth, then you are cisgender. For example, those identifying as a girl and were assigned female at birth, are cisgender. For those whose gender identity does not match their sex at birth may be transgender.

Gender Expression

Gender expression is how we present our gender in the world, and how society, culture, community, and family perceive, interact with, and try to shape our gender. It’s also related to gender roles and how society uses these roles to try to enforce conformity to current gender norms.

Gender versus Sexual Orientation

Gender and sexual orientation are often incorrectly thought to be the same thing, but they are actually two distinct aspects of identity. Gender is how we see ourselves and is personal, whereas sexual orientation is interpersonal, meaning who we are physically, emotionally, and romantically attracted to. Confusing these two terms can interfere with an individual’s ability to articulate aspects of their own gender. For example, it’s not uncommon for transgender or nonbinary youth to wonder if they are gay or lesbian, or any other sexual orientation besides heterosexual.

People who exist outside of gender norms can face many challenges and become targets of judgement and disapproval. This does not have to happen, because through thoughtful consideration of each person’s unique experience of self, we can develop greater acceptance for all. This means everyone will feel the freedom to fully explore and celebrate who they are. Just like a cisgender person can be gay, straight, or bisexual, a transgender person can have those identities as well.

Pronoun Usage

Using pronouns encourages inclusiveness of transgender, gender nonconforming, and gender nonbinary people. It’s the first step toward respecting people’s gender identity and it creates a more welcoming space for everyone. Simply put, it’s about respect.  

The misuse of personal pronounces can trigger a person who is being misgendered. Misgendering refers to the experience of being labeled by others as a gender other than the one with which the person identifies. After learning someone’s pronouns, it’s essential to remember to use them when referring to that person. If you accidentally use the wrong pronoun when identifying someone, it’s important to correct yourself in front of that person and begin using the right pronoun.

If you have a child who is transgender (let’s say she was ‘assigned male at birth’ but is a girl), then the expectation is to address that child as she/her/hers. If a person doesn’t identify solely as male or female, but somewhere in-between, then it is expected and totally acceptable (and now in to refer to the person as they/them/their.

It’s also important to use inclusive language: instead of saying ‘hi, guys,’ try saying ‘hi, folks’ or ‘hi, everyone’ or ‘hi, y’all’. And instead of saying ‘boys and girls’, try ‘students, or learners,’ and instead of ‘mothers, fathers, and parents,’ try ‘caregivers’ because not all people who raise children are parents, or identify as ‘completely female or completely male’ and it’s important to remember that not all families include two married heterosexual people.

Respecting People’s Personal Gender Pronouns (PGP)

Because you cannot always know what someone’s PGP is by looking at them, it’s important to ask what they are. Then by correctly using their PGPs, you are showing respect for their gender identity. That way they don’t feel invalidated, dismissed, alienated or dysphoric. Disrespect in this manner is not only hurtful, it’s oppressive.  

If you aren’t sure how to ask people their PGP, try saying, “what are your preferred pronouns?” or “which pronouns do you like to hear?” It may feel awkward at first, but it’s better than making hurtful assumptions. It’s understandable if you make a mistake, because everyone slips up from time to time. The best response in this situation is to apologize immediately and move on. There’s no need to linger on mistakes because it just increases the awkwardness for both parties.

For more information, visit: Pronoun Resources.

Avoid Deadnaming

Deadnaming is the concept of calling a transgender or gender expansive person by their ‘birth or legal name’ instead of the name they call themselves. For example, a child who was assigned female at birth and given the name Amy, and then gets older and realizes that he is really a boy or maybe even in between, and would like to go by the name Max, then anyone who calls him “Amy” would be deadnaming him.

Often times, when children have gone through a long, emotional journey of realizing their gender identity is not what was assigned at birth, then part of that process of becoming who that person really is, does so by choosing a name that reflects who that person is, just like clothing, hair styles do. When a legal name change hasn’t happened and then students see their deadnames come up on a computer while taking a state test, or in the yearbook, or on a graduation certificate, it can be extremely traumatic.

For more detailed information, visit: Gender Spectrum.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin