Terminology Surrounding Gender Identity and Expression
Everyone has a gender identity. For some people, their gender identity corresponds with the gender assigned at birth, for others it does not. Gender identities that differ from the sex assigned at birth, including ones beyond the binary, as well as the ways in which we express them, have existed across the world, for as long as life has existed.
However, only recently are we beginning to see a collective understanding of various terms associated with the topic.
This article aims to provide a non-exhaustive list of concepts and terminology associated with gender identity and expression.
Gender identity refers to a person’s understanding and experience of their own gender. Everyone has a gender identity; for some people, it corresponds with the gender assigned at birth, and for some others, it does not. Gender identities are expansive and do not need to be confined within one collectively agreed-upon term. There is no one authority that dictates the boundaries of gender, except the individual concerned.
Gender expression refers to the ways in which a person chooses to present their gender to the world around them. This can include clothing, mannerisms, pronouns, names, etc. However, it is important to note that while things like names, clothing, and others can be an intentional part of a person’s gender expression, these things also do not necessarily need to have a gender attached to them. This is to say that a person’s gender identity can sometimes inform a person’s gender expression, but a person’s perceived gender expression does not dictate their gender identity.
These basic definitions of the two foundational terms behind modern understandings of gender should provide a baseline understanding of the complexity that comes with gender. As such, definitions for different gender identities and expressions are constantly evolving, and there does not need to be an established definition of a particular gender identity for someone to identify as such.
That being said, definitions can be useful! People can benefit from the sense of belonging that comes with identifying with a collectively used term, and they can help guide people through their gender journey. Additionally, collectively used terminologies can be helpful for societal understanding and acceptance, as well as for advocacy work.
The following is a list of non-exhaustive gender identities, intended to provide a basic introduction to some collectively used terms. Many of these terms have different names, or people who identify within them also identify as other common identities. However, for the sake of brevity, I will only provide basic definitions for each term.
Agender means that a person identifies as not having a gender. A person who identifies within this term often will consider themselves as either having a type of non-binary gender identity or as not subscribing to any gender identity at all.
Cisgender is commonly used to refer to people who identify exclusively with the gender that they were assigned at birth.
Demigender is a term used to partially identify, or feel a connection, to a particular gender. For example, demigirl or demiboy. These identities vary by person but hold in common the fact that there is not a full identification with one gender, only an internal leaning towards it.
Gender questioning describes someone who is questioning all or parts of their gender (identity or expression) and does not wish to identify themselves to a specific gender identity.
Gender fluid, like gender questioning, is a term that can be used to describe a person’s gender identity, expression, or both. Gender fluid describes a person who moves fluidly between genders, or whose gender shifts over time.
Genderqueer describes a gender identity that can not be defined as exclusively masculine or feminine. Genderqueer people experience their gender in all unique ways (hence the name). The impossibility of defining the term is part of its appeal for people who identify as genderqueer. The identity can include elements of feminine, masculine, or non-binary identities, or none of these. In part, it can be seen as a rejection of association with a label.
Intergender describes a gender identity that is a mix of both masculine and feminine identities. Intergender is not the same as Intersex. Intersex people can identify within any gender identity or expression.
Multi-gender describes people who hold more than one gender identity. This can be further specified by bigender, trigender, etc.
Non-Binary is widely used to describe a gender identity that can not be categorized as masculine or feminine. Non-Binary people experience their gender in all different ways. It could be experienced as a combination of male and female, neither male nor female, nor something completely independent of notions of conventional gender identities. Non-Binary is an expansive umbrella term, and many gender identities discussed in this article fall under it.
Pangender is a gender identity where a person identifies as all, or many, gender identities. This is similar to Polygender, although Polygender is more limited.
Transgender is used to describe any person who has a gender identity that is different from the gender that they were assigned at birth.
The following describes a number of widely used gender expressions. It is important to repeat that holding a particular gender expression does not dictate a person’s gender identity.
Someone who expresses themselves in such a way that they do not wish to be perceived as any one gender.
These terms describe someone who expresses themself in a way that is traditionally described as “boyish.”
Butch, or masc, describes someone who expresses themselves in a way that is traditionally considered “masculine.” While commonly used by female members of the LGBTIQ community, the term can be, and is, used by everyone.
Femme is used by people who express themselves in a way that is traditionally perceived as “feminine.” Femme can also be used as a gender identity, but it is most commonly used as a term to describe an expression.
While occasionally used as a gender identity, gender nonconforming is most commonly used to describe a gender expression that is different from cultural stereotypes associated with that person’s perceived gender or their gender assigned at birth.
These are the most basic gender identities and expressions that you would often see spoken about in the media, but it can not be reiterated enough that this list is non-exhaustive. At the end of the day, gender identities and expressions are whatever the people who hold them make of them. Listen to those around you and be attentive to the needs of those around you.
There are a few basic ways in which you can be a more gender-inclusive person.
Pronouns are easily becoming one of the most recognized ways in which people identify their gender and how they want to be referred to, as well as signaling support for a gender-diverse and inclusive world. If it is safe for you to do so, present your pronouns in a public space, such as your office or your email signature, and describe your pronouns when you meet new people.
Just because you are presenting your pronouns, does not mean that others should be expected to do the same. Some people may still be questioning their pronouns or may feel uncomfortable, or unsafe, sharing them in some spaces.
Pronouns are important to respect, but they do not necessarily tell you what a person’s gender identity is. A person who uses she/her pronouns can still be Non-Binary, a person who uses he/they pronouns could identify in a number of different ways. The important thing to remember is that using someone’s preferred pronouns is a show of respect, you don’t need to know everything about the person to use them.
Using gender-neutral language where possible (and in some languages, this is not possible at all) is a useful practice for a number of reasons. Not only does it provide a more inclusive space for all gender identities, but it also helps to dismantle millennia-old patterns of patriarchal attitudes. Most language is gendered and has typically elevated male voices, and male positions, upholding patriarchal and misogynistic societal structures. Using gender-neutral language in the workplace, using terms such as chairperson, selectperson, and others helps to send the signal that positions of leadership are for everyone.
In everyday life, getting in the habit of using the word “they,” when you are unsure of a person’s gender, is a good practice. This sends the message that you are an inclusive person, and will help to unlearn some internal biases you may have about our gendered world.
It is important to consider gender identities and expressions in a way that matches your own cultural understanding of gender, but it is equally as important to keep in mind the differences in gender across borders. Masculinity and femininity have different presentations, assumptions, and associated words across the world. While gender varies person by person, it also varies on another level culture by culture.
The language described in this article is used in English, as well as in international spaces. While it can be, and is, used frequently in other circles, it is important to remember that our conception of what gender identities and expressions there are, and what they are referred to, vary greatly across the world.
Cultural Third Gender can be found in cultures around the world. They may or may not be seen as a form of gender identity and/or expression. Often, these third genders serve an important role in their respective culture. These people may have significant cultural positions in society, and as such, these genders are seen more as collective cultural genders, rather than individual gender identities or expressions, like the ones discussed previously.
Some examples of cultural third genders are:
Māhūs, of indigenous Hawaiian and Tahitian culture, are people who embodied both male and female spirits. These people were often given honorific roles, as their fluidity was seen as a form of spiritual liberation.
In Indonesia, the Bissu are priests who either present as male with a female spirit, or vice versa. Their duality of gender allows them to serve as a conductor of spirits, hence their role as priests.
Specific to Pakistan, although close in relation to other cultural third genders in the region, the Khawaja Sira are people who do not identify as male or female and have been seen as “chosen people,” with the ability to give curses or blessings. They commonly serve as gurus.
Two-Spirit is a cultural third gender used amongst over 150 indigenous tribes across North America. While the word varied prior to colonization, the meaning remained the same. Two-Spirit individuals refer to people assigned male at birth who go through special rituals to determine if they also hold a female spirit. Similar to other indigenous cultural third genders, Two-Spirit people held an honored role in their societies.
This is certainly not a complete list, and sadly, many cultural third genders were erased after colonization spread a strictly binary view of gender.
This article aimed to give you a brief overview of the terms and complexities that exist within discussions of gender identity and expression. Even though there is no definitive list of these concepts, you can find more information on gender identities or expressions not referenced in this article in these resources from Medical News Today, Verywell Mind, and Healthline. Additional insights on gender can be found in Kate Bornstein’s seminal book, “Gender Outlaw.”
One element that makes gender so beautiful is that it is in the eye of the beholder. In a way, gender is just another word for spirit, which may explain the connection between gender and spirit across a variety of spiritualities. No one can know a person’s true spirit, except for that person themselves.
Published on August 25, 2021 | OutRight Action International an LGBT human rights organization