Most of us were brought up hearing two stories of gender: boy/girl, male/female, man/woman. This was certainly the case for me. I was “assigned female at birth”—it was assumed I was a girl because of my genitalia, and that’s how I was raised. It was only in my early 20s that I started to discover the diverse gender stories out there—a learning journey that helped me find my own story as a nonbinary transgender person.
Not sure what that means? That’s OK. Gender can be a confusing topic with lots of unfamiliar terms, so let’s start with the basics.
What is gender, anyway?
Gender is not the same as sex
Sex describes our biology, such as reproductive organs and genetics (e.g., male, female, or intersex). Gender, on the other hand, describes the social and cultural roles assigned to different sexes. For example, females are given the role of “women” and are generally expected to be “feminine” through the way they look, behave, and play particular roles in relationships and families. Males are expected to be men and “masculine.” We’re taught these gender roles very early on (I’m pretty sure I didn’t tell anyone I loved pink, dolls, and dresses at birth, but my baby pictures are full of them). Likewise, a person assigned “male” at birth would likely find themselves surrounded by blue, trucks, and little bowties. This is starting to change, little by little, as parents become more aware of how these types of gender expectations can affect their children, but if you go to the baby section of any store, you’ll still see a whole lot of pink for girls and blue for boys.
Gender is influenced by culture
Gender roles vary across cultures and they’re always changing. If I’d been born in the early 1900s, my parents would have dressed me in blue because it was considered soft and feminine, while pink was considered a strong color meant for boys. This simple example shows how gender is socially and culturally created rather than an innate characteristic based on biology (sex). This is why we say someone is assigned a sex at birth; when we say “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” we’re setting expectations about that baby’s gender and expression of masculinity/femininity based on their perceived sex (female/male).
Gender identity is distinct from gender expression
Gender identity is how someone feels and thinks about their gender. For example, people who feel comfortable with the gender they’ve been assigned at birth (based on their sex organs) are cisgender. Those whose gender differs from the one they were assigned at birth are transgender. I’m transgender because I was assigned female at birth, but I do not identify as a woman.
Gender expression describes how we outwardly express our gender through our name, pronouns, clothing, behavior, or anything else that would be read as masculine or feminine. Gender identity does not necessarily determine gender expression. Sometimes people express themselves in a gender nonconforming way that defies gender stereotypes, such as a woman expressing masculinity (e.g., growing out body hair, displaying strength and confidence in traditionally male spaces), a man expressing femininity (e.g., wearing nail polish, displaying sensitivity or nurturing behaviors), or anyone expressing a mixture of feminine and masculine traits that defy gender stereotypes. What is considered gender nonconforming varies by context and will mean different things to different people. Many of us display at least some level of gender nonconformity (who actually perfectly fits these gender stereotypes, anyway?), but someone identifying as gender nonconforming may do so more often and in a way that is socially transgressive (i.e., clearly against expectations for their gender).
There are many gender identities
In North America right now, we have a “binary” model of gender that recognizes two categories: men and women. However, it’s well documented that many cultures around the world and throughout history—including indigenous cultures in North America—recognize more than two genders and/or see gender as a spectrum. In other words, a two-category system is just one way of perceiving gender.
Some trans and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) people identify as men or women. However, some TGNC folks identify as a mixture of the two, a third gender, or neither. These folks often broadly describe themselves as nonbinary. There are other more specific identity terms describing the diverse ways someone can be nonbinary or gender nonconforming.
Gender identity terms only tell you so much about a person, so it’s important not to make assumptions. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Gender is complicated and it can be hard to find one label that feels right. That’s why some of us use many labels, different ones in different situations, or none at all.
- Some of us use gender-neutral pronouns instead of the typical “he” or “she.” These include they/them/their, ze/zir/zirs, ey/em/eir, and many others.
- Just like other aspects of identity and self-expression can change (e.g., personality, interests, roles, style), so can gender. Shifting how we identify or express our genders over time is a natural part of growth and exploration.
- TGNC people can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, or any other sexuality. You can’t assume someone’s sexuality based on how they identify or express their gender.
- Some TGNC people seek physical transitions through hormones and/or surgeries, but not everyone. Some of us just have a social transition where we adjust how we identify or express our gender to better match with how we feel and want to be seen (e.g., change names, pronouns, appearance).
- It’s important to support people’s transition choices while respecting their privacy—it’s never appropriate to ask about someone’s body or gender history (e.g., former name, surgeries) if they haven’t offered to discuss this. We don’t need to know any of that anyway—we just need to know how to respectfully refer to people. What is OK—and even helpful—is to ask people what pronouns they use.
- You can never tell by looking at someone what their identity or pronouns might be. Remember, gender identity and expression can be different. For example, someone who appears masculine to you (e.g., maybe they’re wearing a suit and have a beard) may identify as a woman and use she/her pronouns, and someone who appears feminine to you (e.g., maybe they’re wearing a dress and have long hair) may identify as nonbinary and use he/him pronouns. There’s no “correct” pronoun or aesthetic when it comes to someone’s gender—just a lot of great options!
The take-home message? There are many ways to be transgender, and all of them are valid.
- Learning someone’s pronouns is like learning their name—you have to ask and respect what they tell you (e.g., “Hey, my name is Franklynn and my pronouns are they, them, and their. What are yours?”).
- If someone uses gender-neutral pronouns, you should also use gender-neutral language to refer to them, such as “person” instead of “man/woman” and “Mx.”—pronounced miks—instead of “Mr./Ms.” (e.g., “Mx. Smith? Yeah, they’re a great person!”).
- Try your best to correct others when someone is misgendered. I appreciate it a lot when people do this for me—it takes some pressure off me to do the educating, and it shows me I have allies and support.
- Introduce your own pronouns and include them in written correspondence, like email signatures. As someone who uses they/them pronouns, I often feel nervous introducing my pronouns and sometimes choose to endure being misgendered instead. But if someone else has introduced theirs first, I know they’ll respect my pronouns and then I feel safer sharing mine. Leading by example is a great way to be an ally.
- Practice new pronouns on your own by reading a novel or article out loud—something with a lot of pronouns—and every time you see “he” or “she,” change it to the new pronoun you’re practicing (e.g., they, ze, hir, xe). You’ll find it’s all a matter of habit.
- Mistakes happen! Try your best. If you mess up, apologize, correct yourself, and move on. I always appreciate that someone is trying their best to respect my pronouns, even if they make mistakes.
What students say about gender pronouns
“Always ask! In my experience, people never get offended if you ask what pronouns they use. I’ve always gotten positive responses; it is seen as a sign of respect, not a presumption that someone identifies a certain way. Don’t worry about people being offended if you ask; more often than not, they’ll be flattered that you care, and if they express hostility or anger, then that is their problem, not yours.”
—Katie T., fifth-year undergraduate, Stanford University
“Generally, it is fine to ask people what pronouns they prefer or to use “they” or the person’s name instead of pronouns until someone tells you that they prefer otherwise.”
—Suzanne Y., fifth-year undergraduate, Missouri University of Science and Technology
- Treating someone’s pronouns as a suggestion. The term “preferred pronoun” is disliked by some TGNC folks because it’s no more a “preference” than someone’s name would be—always use the pronouns requested.
- Asking TGNC people to educate you about pronouns or gender identity. If you want to learn more, that’s great—just ask Google instead. Look for info written by LGBTQ organizations such as GLAAD.
- “Outing” someone as TGNC to others. Some TGNC people don’t want everyone knowing their gender history, and discrimination could even make this a risky situation. It’s important to let the person decide for themselves if and when to share that information.
- Getting defensive if you misgender someone. People will appreciate it more if you apologize quickly, correct yourself, and continue with the conversation.
Transphobia and its effects
Because our current binary system only recognizes cisgender men and women, there’s a lot of stigma about being TGNC. Many people don’t recognize the validity of our genders.
“Schools are populated by teachers, staff, and students, all of whom have their own attitudes and beliefs about gender, which may be at odds with even the most progressive of policies. Bullying and shaming are rampant. Even one person who is intentionally mean, or many who are unintentionally hurtful due to ignorance, can traumatize gender-diverse students and cause them to drop out of school.”
—Dr. Aaron Devor, chair in transgender studies and professor of sociology at University of Victoria, British Columbia
This discrimination and exclusion (called transphobia) has serious consequences for the health, safety, and well-being of TGNC people.
“Research has shown that trans and gender-diverse students are at greater risk of a variety of health-jeopardizing behaviors and outcomes, such as substance use, high-risk sexual behaviors, and emotional distress (including suicide), compared to cisgender students. These disparities stem in large part from bullying and other stigmatizing experiences, which are very common for these young people.”
—Dr. Marla Eisenberg, a pediatric researcher from University of Minnesota Medical School, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Diversify your learning to ensure your allyship is inclusive of TGNC people with intersecting identities of race, class, religion, disability, etc.
Support advocacy efforts. For example, check out your campus’s LGBTQ center and ask how you can help.
“Ask about the names and pronouns people use, and then use them! This seemingly small gesture can go a long way in creating a welcoming environment in school and beyond.”
Talk to us! Over 50 percent of CampusWell survey respondents said they know someone who is transgender or gender nonconforming. As you spend time with gender-diverse friends, classmates, and family, you’ll unlearn stigmas and understand how to be a better ally.
“Cisgender people are more likely to let go of their fears and prejudices when they know gender-diverse people directly. As schools become safer for gender-diverse students, and as more parents support their gender-diverse children, more gender-diverse students will feel able to be open about who they are. As cisgender people become more familiar with gender-diverse people, good communication will increase, stigma will decline, and mutual respect will increase.”
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Are you gender diverse or questioning and need to talk? You’re not alone.
Aaron Devor, PhD, research chair in transgender studies, professor of sociology, and founder and academic director of the transgender archives, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Marla Eisenberg, ScD, associate professor in pediatrics, University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Minneapolis, Minnesota.