Gender Terminology

From the very first moments of our lives, ideas about gender are communicated to us: by our families, by our communities, by society in general. From the instant the nurse in the delivery room checks a baby’s genitals and declares “It’s a Girl!” or “It’s a Boy!” the child is introduced to a binary way of thinking about gender that leads us to believe that everyone fits neatly into one of two categories:  


male or female


and that whatever category they fall into determines who that person is: how they think, feel, and act, who they love, how they dress, what they do for work, what subjects they will enjoy, everything. All of us are influenced by these expectations throughout our lives, whether we conform to them or defy them. Gender expectations affect everyone.

But the reality is that gender is not binary at all, and that all those expectations that society attaches to gender only end up inhibiting our expressions of who we truly are. A healthier and more accurate way to look at the elements of sex and gender is as a spectrum. (Note: The problem with spectrums is that it still assumes a binary system, only with "middle ground" added to the picture. However, a spectrum is a better model than an "either/or," and until we come up with something better, spectrums is it!)



The word sex in this context refers to the individual’s biology and anatomy. This distinction is based on chromosomes and the presence and/or absence of sex organs. Although we often think of there being only two sexes, the reality is that there are many along a continuum. It may be helpful to envision sex like this:



Some people have male sex organs, some have female, some have neither or variations of both.  Sex, like gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression, has a variety of possible forms.


Gender Identity

When we talk about gender identity, we are talking about whether an individual identifies him- or herself as male, female, somewhere-in-between, or neither. This does not always correspond with the individual’s sex. For example, an individual may have male sex organs and identify as a woman. Her sex is male. Her gender is female.






For some people, there is no one point on this Male-Female spectrum that adequately describes their gender identity. Others see gender as a fluid part of their identity. You may hear these or other folks describe themselves as genderqueer.


Sexual Orientation

This term is used to describe whether someone is primarily attracted to someone of the “same” sex (homosexual) or “opposite” sex (heterosexual), but seeing how sex and gender are really continuums, categorizing someone as hetero- or homosexual can get pretty tricky!





There are also folks who are asexual; that is, they do not experience sexual attraction.


Gender Expression

The last element we’re going to talk about here is gender expression. Just because an individual is “male” or “female,” it does not mean than the person necessarily portrays stereotypically masculine or feminine behaviors. An individual may be female, yet have patterns of speech, posture, or dress that society considers masculine. This does not mean she wants to be a man. It does not mean that she dislikes being a woman. It is a healthy variation on “typical” gender expression.





Remember – Masculinity and Femininity are concepts designed by our culture, not inherent characteristics. Also keep in mind that few people in the world are 100% masculine or 100% feminine: most of us are a mixture of both!


More Terms

Understanding the differences between sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression makes understanding transgender a lot easier. Although the language can be confusing and not every individual uses the same words to mean the same things, some broad definitions for trans terms are:


Transgender: An umbrella term that encompasses any individual who does not conform to society’s expectations of what it means to be male or female, often an individual whose gender identity does not “match” their birth sex.

Transsexual: An individual who desire to or has already taken steps to make their body more congruent with their gender identity (through hormones, surgery, etc.).


Female-to-Male (or FtM): A person whose birth sex is female and whose gender identity is on the male side of the spectrum. Likewise…


Male-to Female (or MtF): A person whose birth sex is male and whose gender identity is on the female side of the spectrum.


We'd Like You to Meet...

Here are just a few examples of the ways sex, gender, sexual orientation, and gender expression can interact:


 Susanna (pictured top left) is female (her birth sex). She identifies as a woman (her gender identity). Susanna and her partner, Ruthie, are lesbians (sexual orientation). Susanna enjoys many activities that are typically considered feminine (gender expression).


 Felix (top right) was born female, but his gender identity has always been male. He identifies himself as heterosexual. He started seeing his girlfriend, Martha, before he transitioned. Martha considers herself to be a lesbian even though they are usually assumed to be a heterosexual couple.


Biff, a gay man, has interests and mannerisms that are typically considered both feminine and masculine. His gender identity is male. (Pictured bottom left with his partner, Anton.)


Ruby (bottom right) is biologically female and “female identified” (her gender identity is female). She is heterosexual and her gender expression is masculine.

Activity: Graph Yourself!


(c)Maine Transgender Network, Inc., 2009