Gender is a set of characteristics, behaviors, and social norms used to group people into social categories. Gender has historically been defined along binary lines (called the gender binary), wherein a person’s gender performance and/or identity is categorized as either man/masculine or woman/feminine. However, gender (or gender identity) is now understood by many to exist along a spectrum and to be fluid, rather than being a fixed binary characteristic, and to not be inherently attached to “biological sex.” Gender identity is a person’s deeply felt understanding of their gender.
As with any such identifier, if necessary and relevant to include, taking into account how someone self-identifies ensures coverage accurately reflects their identity and lived experience. For public figures, research may help determine how they’ve self-identified before; rather than assume, ask individuals how they refer to themselves (e.g., “What are your pronouns?”). Pronouns indicate how to refer to someone but do not necessarily indicate someone’s gender identity (see the pronouns entry).
Using the terms “male-/female-identifying” or “man/woman-identifying” can be invalidating to someone’s gender. For instance, if someone identifies as a man, they are a man, regardless of whether they are a trans or cis man.
Stereotyping based on gender can reinforce the gender binary, gender roles, and hierarchy. Examples of gendered stereotypes include that men pay for meals, enjoy sports, have short hair, don’t wear makeup, or aren’t emotional. Or that women wear dresses, are inherently nurturing or want children, have long hair, wear makeup, or should lack body hair.
This refers to how someone presents and performs their gender identity externally, through, for instance, behavior and aesthetic choices. A person’s gender expression does not necessarily match their gender identity and/or their sex assigned at birth. For instance, someone’s gender expression could be perceived as feminine, but they are nonbinary. Or someone’s gender expression could be perceived as masculine but they are a woman. We all perform our gender, meaning we all have our preferred forms of gender expression.
Transgender is an adjective that refers to individuals whose gender identity or expression is different from the gender or sex labels they were assigned at birth. Terms such as “transgendered” and “transgenderism” suggest being transgender is something that “happened” to someone rather than being their deeply held identity. Similarly, using the term transgender as a noun is dehumanizing. Using the terms “biologically male” or “biologically female” can be both inaccurate and invalidating to trans people.
Cisgender refers to individuals whose gender identity is the same as the gender or sex they were assigned at birth. Though cisgender identities are widely considered the “norm,” that assumption is an example of cisnormativity. Cisnormativity is the assumption that everyone is cisgender, which leads to the erasure of transgender and nonbinary individuals. Applying identifiers equally throughout a story is one way to help combat this; for example, if identifying a trans individual as trans, a cis person should be identified as cis. Like the term “transgendered,” the term “cisgendered” is considered dehumanizinig.
Two-spirit is a term that refers to various sexual and gender identities and is unique to Indigenous communities. While the term encompasses a range of identities that blend masculine and feminine spirits, it is particular to Indigenous and Native people who use it to self-identify. Someone is “two-spirit,” not “two-spirited.” Not all Indigenous or Native people who identify as something outside of cisgender and heterosexual identify as two-spirit. Some tribes or groups also have their own specific terms for the concept.
gender nonbinary, genderfluid, genderqueer
Gender nonbinary (or just nonbinary) refers to a spectrum of gender identities that are not confined to man or woman. Genderfluid or gender-fluid refers to an individual who doesn’t identify with one gender or whose gender is dynamic and can change over time. Genderqueer refers to individuals who reject the notion of static gender categories. Genderqueer people may identify as both a man and a woman, neither a man nor a woman, or as someone existing entirely outside these categories. While many of these identities share similarities, using them interchangeably without consent can invalidate individual identities.
gender-nonconforming, gender-variant, gender-expansive
These terms refer to gender expressions that fall outside conventional expectations of gender roles (masculinity and femininity). Gender-variant is another word that gender-nonconforming people may use to describe themselves, and is often used in academia. Importantly, being trans does not correlate to a specific gender identity; though a trans person’s gender identity is different from the one they were assigned at birth, trans people are not necessarily gender nonconforming, and gender-nonconforming people are not necessarily trans. For instance, many trans people express their gender in ways consistent with traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, and many cisgender people are gender-nonconforming. Genderqueer and nonbinary/gender nonbinary may be preferable terms depending on how the individual identifies. It is appropriate to ask someone how they identify and their pronouns.
People whose gender identity is different from the gender or sex they were assigned at birth can experience significant psychological and emotional distress around their gender identity. This distress/discomfort is called gender dysphoria (updated from gender identity disorder in the American Psychological Association’s DSM-V) and can lead to trauma, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and/or actions.
Gender euphoria, the opposite of gender dysphoria, refers to a feeling of elation, joy, or peace that comes with expressing and/or presenting as one’s gender. The term is often used by trans and nonbinary people to express the positive feeling associated with gender affirmation. For instance, “When X saw their name on their new driver’s license, they experienced gender euphoria.” Gender euphoria is used colloquially and is not a clinical term.
These phrases describe when one’s gender expression exhibits normative traits of femininity. Though expressed through characteristics like clothing, makeup, accessories, and behaviors associated with femininity, “femme-presenting” is not a gender identity. Instead, it describes the perception of one’s gender expression. For instance, “X is a femme-presenting nonbinary person.” Or, “X felt, as a femme-presenting lesbian, that people assumed she was straight.” The term is used by people to self-identify their gender expression. Transfemme generally refers to a trans person who is femme-presenting. Pronouns or gender identity can’t be assumed based on one’s gender presentation; for accuracy, refer to how the individual self-identifies.
These phrases describe when one’s gender expression exhibits normative traits of masculinity. Though expressed through characteristics like clothing, hair styles, and behaviors associated with femininity, “masc-presenting” is not a gender identity. Instead, it describes the perception of one’s gender expression. For instance, “X is a masc-presenting nonbinary artist.” The term is used by people to self-identify their gender expression. Transmasc generally refers to a trans person who is masc-presenting. One’s gender presentation or expression does not necessarily indicate their pronouns or gender identity.
- What Is Gender Dysphoria? (American Psychiatric Association)
- Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive (National Center for Transgender Equality)
- Gender Identity (Teen Talk)
- Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia (Scientific American)
- Gender fluidity: What it means and why support matters (Harvard Health Publishing)
- Instagram profile pronouns: Here’s how to display your gender identity (Fast Company)
- Sex and Gender Identity (Planned Parenthood)
- Gender Expression: Meaning, Health Care, Discrimination (Verywell Health)
- Gender identity & expression (SmartSexResource)
- Gender Identities (University of Wisconsin Oshkosh)
Gender is a set of characteristics, behaviors, and social norms used to group people into social categories. Gender has historically been defined along binary lines (called the gender binary) but is now understood by many to exist along a spectrum and to be fluid, rather than being a fixed binary characteristic, and to not be inherently attached to “biological sex.” As with any such identifier, if necessary and relevant to include, taking into account how someone self-identifies ensures coverage accurately reflects their identity and lived experience.