What is Gender Identity?

What exactly does the word gender mean? The term gender identity is often used interchangeably with the term biological sex. These two terms may be used interchangeably, but they are very different. Sex is a biological term used by doctors when a child is born. Gender is so much deeper than a person’s biological sex and means a lot to a person’s self-esteem and self-identity.

What is biological sex?

Let’s start with defining biological sex. At birth, someone (often a doctor) will use the genitals of the baby to identify if the person is biologically male or female. A person’s biological sex is often confused with their gender identity. There’s a lot of factors that come together to determine if a person is biologically male or female. Chromosomes, hormones, among other things are involved in a person’s biological sex. Much like gender identity, biological sex goes much deeper than male and female. Biology can be unpredictable, and in some cases, a person’s outward biological sex is different than their internal biology.

There are, however, many different instances where a person may be born and physically look like they are biologically male or female, but they have the internal reproductive organs of the opposite sex. The medical community calls this “intersex” and some people may choose to identify as such. Just because a person may physically look male or female, they may choose to adopt a gender identity and expression that is different from their outward physical appearance. Biologically this happens to millions of Americans and sometimes people will go their entire life without knowing that their internal biology is different than their outward physical biology.

What is Gender?

What’s the difference between gender and biological sex? The idea of gender comes from culture and society. Gender is more of an idea, or role, that people are expected to play based on the sex assigned to them at birth. Think about how you expect someone who is biologically male or female to behave. What are the roles that you define? What are your expectations for the way a person sits or speaks? Your answers most likely outline what you and/or society think a person should be based on biological sex or even the way they look or present themselves. A lot of these beliefs reflect what is known as your world view. No two world views are the same and, like many ideas and thoughts, shift based on surroundings, upbringing, and values.

What is Gender Identity?

Gender Identity is a person’s self-identity, or how they view themselves. Sometimes, a person sees themselves and feels that they identify as a different gender than their biological sex. Gender like many other things floats on a spectrum. Some people may identify as male, female, neither (non-binary), or somewhere in between (gender fluid). This is perfectly normal as people tend to develop their identity fluidly throughout their lives. In most cases, people will have a good idea of their gender identity and feeling of self early on in their childhood.

Sometimes, when someone’s biological sex does not reflect their internal gender identity, they may decide to transition to their internal gender identity. While the transition looks different for everyone, they should be addressed by the proper pronouns that reflect the proper gender identity. Many people that chose to identify and/or transition to better reflect their gender identity are often known as transgender. This is not always the case, be sure to validate someone’s identity by using the terms they give to you as not everyone refers to themselves with the same terms.

Someone’s gender identity does not reflect their sexual orientation. Sexual orientation reflects the gender (if any) someone is attracted to sexually or romantically, or if they are sexually or romantically attracted to anyone at all. It is possible for people whose gender identity is different from their biological sex to be straight.

What is Gender Expression?

While gender identity focuses on a person’s internal feeling of self, gender expression focuses on a person’s outward expression. These are things like a person’s clothing choice, hair style, tone of voice, make-up, among other things. Outward expression, however, presents itself in many forms and covers more than just clothing and hairstyles. It can be anything form a person’s “chosen name” or their preferred pronouns. Some more common pronouns a person may choose are she/her, he/him, they/them. To make a person feel respected and safe, make sure you are addressing them by the proper pronouns. You may also try introducing yourself and making your chosen pronouns known and even put them on your name tag or email signature. Having a conversation about chosen pronouns is a great way to make a person feel safe and respected. It is best to not make assumptions based off a person’s name, appearance, or tone of voice, and if you are not sure, just ask. A person’s gender expression does not always fit in a box based on cultural and biological sex expectations.

Gender identity and expression have always been a part of people’s identity. Terms like “Two Spirit” and “Third Gender” have been used as a gender identity for a good majority of human history and have been accepted in some cultures. As humans, we have always formed our own self-identity and a big part of that is our gender identity and expression. Feeling that your gender is different than your biological sex and expressing yourself differently is completely normal. Regardless of your gender, having a positive self identity is important to make sure that everyone feels seen and accepted for their identity and expression.

Further Reading: 

History Timeline of Gender

Gender Spectrum

Trans Equality

Human Rights Campaign

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