Gender Definitions

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Given the complexity of gender, it is not surprising that an increasing number of terms and phrases are developing to describe it. Below are some of the key terms you might encounter:

Sex. The physical structure of one’s reproductive organs that is used to assign sex at birth. Biological sex is determined by chromosomes (XX for females; XY for males); hormones (estrogen/progesterone for females, testosterone for males); and internal and external genitalia (vulva, clitoris, vagina for assigned females, penis and testicles for assigned males). Given the potential variation in all of these, biological sex must be seen as a spectrum or range of possibilities rather than a binary set of two options.

Gender Identity. One’s innermost concept of self as male or female or both or neither (see also non-binary and genderqueer) — how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different than the sex assigned at birth. Individuals are conscious of this between the ages 18 months and 3 years. Most people develop a gender identity that matches their biological sex. For some, however, their gender identity is different from their biological or assigned sex. Some of these individuals choose to socially, hormonally and/or surgically change their sex to more fully match their gender identity.

Gender Expression. Refers to the ways in which people externally communicate their gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, haircut, voice, and other forms of presentation. Gender expression also works the other way as people assign gender to others based on their appearance, mannerisms, and other gendered characteristics. Sometimes, transgender people seek to match their physical expression with their gender identity, rather than their birth-assigned sex. Gender expression should not be viewed as an indication of sexual orientation.

Gender Role. This is the set of roles, activities, expectations and behaviors assigned to females and males by society. Our culture recognizes two basic gender roles: Masculine (having the qualities attributed to males) and feminine (having the qualities attributed to females). People who step out of their socially assigned gender roles are sometimes referred to as transgender. Other cultures have three or more gender roles.

Gender Binary. Refers to the (much criticized) idea of there being only two possible gender states — that of ‘Male’ and ‘Female’. The new field of ‘Queer Theory’ has a lot to say about the gender-binary.

Gender Normative/Cisgender. Refers to people whose sex assignment at birth corresponds to their gender identity and expression. “Cis-” is a Latin prefix meaning “on the same side as,” and is simply an antonym of “trans-.” Another way to describe people who are not transgender is simply to say non-transgender people.

Gender Non-Conforming. A term used to describe some people whose interests or gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity. Not all gender non-conforming people identify as transgender and not all transgender people are gender non-conforming. Many people have gender expressions that are not entirely conventional – that fact alone does not make them transgender. Gender non-conforming children cannot and should not be lumped into the same category as children who express that they ARE a different gender from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Transgender. Sometimes used as an umbrella to describe anyone whose identity or behavior falls outside of stereotypical gender norms. More narrowly defined, it refers to an individual whose gender identity does not match their assigned birth gender. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation (attraction to people of a specific gender.) Therefore, transgender people may additionally identify as straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Non-binary and/or Genderqueer. Terms used by some people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the categories of male and female. They may define their gender as falling somewhere in between or as wholly different from these terms. 

Gender Fluidity. Gender fluidity conveys a wider, more flexible range of gender expression, with interests and behaviors that may even change from day to day. Gender fluid children do not feel confined by restrictive boundaries of stereotypical expectations of girls or boys. In other words, a child may feel they are a girl some days and a boy on others, or possibly feel that neither term describes them accurately.

Gender Dysphoria. The American Psychiatric Association released the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) in 2013 which replaced the outdated entry Gender Identity Disorder with Gender Dysphoria, and changed the criteria for diagnosis. Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s sex assigned at birth and the gender with which they identity. It can entail experiencing physical discomfort and/or distress in how others expect them to fulfill the role of their assigned gender.

LGBT. Refers to Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender. Sometimes ‘Q’ or ‘QQ’ is added for Queer and Questioning. Also ‘I’ and ‘A’ are added for Intersex and Asexual or Agender. It is generally used to refer to the group of people who define themselves and gender or sexual non-conforming, non-normative or other than the ‘hetero-normative’.

Transition. Refers to the process of changing over to the other gender. There can be a ‘Medical Transition’ which may involve hormones and surgeries, and a ‘Social Transition’ which involves one’s presentation in the world – meaning looking like a boy or girl and having a male or female name, etc.

Tanner Scale. Refers to a five stage scale that measures the physical development for males and females. It measures the secondary sex characteristics such as size of genitals and breasts. It is typically used with transgender children to determine the timing of starting puberty blockers. This is often done about one year into ‘Tanner stage II’.


SRS. Refers to Sexual Reassignment Surgery. This is also referred to as ‘GRS’ for ‘Gender Reassignment surgery’ or as ‘GCS’ for ‘Gender Confirmation Surgery’. Children DO NOT receive any kind of surgical intervention before the age of 16 or 18, depending on the laws where they live. Transgender children only go through social transitions until puberty, at which time medical transition may begin with the use of puberty-blocking hormones and later cross-sex hormones.

Sexual Orientation. Term that refers to being romantically or sexually attracted to people of a specific gender. Our sexual orientation and our gender identity are separate, distinct parts of our overall identity. Although a child may not yet be aware of their sexual orientation, they usually have a strong sense of their gender identity.



Language in and about the transgender community is constantly evolving. There are some terms that have been used in the past, but are no longer preferred by most trans advocates. Some of the most commonly heard but outdated terms are listed here:

Natal Gender/Felt Gender. These terms used to describe the gender (and sex) one was born into the ‘Natal Gender’ – verses the gender a Trans person feels themselves to be – the opposite gender or the ‘Felt Gender’. ‘Authentic Gender’ can also be used for this.

MTF/FTM. MTF stands for Male to Female. FTM stands for Female to Male. These are older terms often used in medical circles. For many transgender people, these acronyms feel de-humanizing and place too much emphasis on their sex assigned at birth rather than the gender they know themselves to be.

Passing/Stealth. Some transgender people will use these terms, but they are often used by others to imply trans people are deceptive. To some “passing” or “being stealth” simply means they are able to experience daily life without being recognized as transgender, but they can also be used negatively to imply a person is pretending to be someone they are not or are purposely hide one’s trans status as a form of deceit. These terms also imply that the only acceptable way to be transgender is to meet cis-normative standards of appearance and expression. Many transgender people cannot or do not want to blend in with cis people.