GENDER: The basics

As a sexual health team, we are passionate about promoting LGBT+ awareness, and supporting the LGBT+ community. Here a few of the “basics” that we discuss, when working in the community, or in our RSE workshops.

This is by no means an extensive list…just a few of the “basics”, in a really simple way, for everyone 😊

What is a gender identity?

Our gender identity is unique to us - it is our own sense of who we are, and how we describe and express ourselves. It can include how we want to be referred to, and addressed, by other people (e.g our name and pronouns). It may also be made up of things like our gender role, gender expression and our pronouns.

Gender identity can have a big impact on our life, and influence the way people see us, or what they expect from us. For example, think of all the stereotypes, expectations society may have about someone who is a “boy”; even down to how they should dress and what jobs they should do!

Remember: everyone is an individual, and has their own gender identity. Everyone has the right to identify how they choose.

What is a gender role and gender expression?

A gender role is the role in society/family/relationships that is usually associated with that gender. Gender roles have changed throughout history (usually for the better!), and keep on changing. Just think how the gender role of a “woman” has changed throughout history – they can now vote, join the army and go to work. Previously, this was not thought to be part of their role.

Gender expression is the way somebody presents themselves, and most commonly falls into “masculine” and “feminine” (but people can be neither, or go between both). This can be through appearance, clothes, make up, voice, behaviour and mannerisms. It doesn’t have to match our gender identity or sex assigned at birth. For example, someone might identify as male, but have a feminine gender expression.

These things can form part of someone’s gender identity, or have an influence on the way they feel about their gender.

How is our gender decided?

A healthcare professional gives us a gender identity when we are born. Historically in the UK, gender and sex have been considered the same thing, which is why it’s assumed that someone will be a “boy” or “girl”, depending on their biological sex. However, sex and gender identity are increasingly understood to be different things; sex being someone’s genitals and other physical/genetic traits, and gender identity being how someone feels about themselves.

A small number of babies, develop differently before they are born; this can mean that what their genitals look like on the outside doesn’t fit exactly in to male/boy or female/girl. This is often referred to as a baby having been born intersex; and healthcare professionals will carry out tests and speak with the baby’s parent/s to decide the sex which will be assigned.

What does Transgender mean?

Someone is described as Transgender (or Trans) when their gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans means “to the other side of : across : beyond”, and, in this case, it can mean to go “across” or “beyond” the sex a person is given at birth. For example, someone who was born with a penis, and assigned male at birth, may feel that their true gender identity is female. Thinking about being trans as a person moving from the sex assigned at birth to their true gender identity, is a great way to understand that transition is a journey. Some people might feel their journey is complete or find happiness at different points to others, and some will want their journey to be faster or slower paced.

What is Cisgender?

A cisgender person has a gender identity matching the sex they were assigned at birth (e.g somebody born with a vagina, and assigned female at birth, who continues to identify themselves as female.) Although cisgender people have a gender identity that matches their assigned sex, they may still dress or act in a way that doesn’t match their gender identity. This could be a cisgender man wearing nail polish (traditionally thought to be feminine gender expression) or a cisgender woman wearing a suit (traditionally thought to be masculine gender expression).

What is gender binary?

When something has a “binary”, it means it has two possible outcomes, at opposite ends of a scale. So, for gender binary, this is the idea that there is a scale with 2 opposite genders – male and female, and people fall into one of those two genders.

So, we have to fit into “boy” or “girl”?

No! Gender identity is unique to everyone, and it is understood now that we don’t all fit neatly into just 2 gender identities (“boy” or “girl”). Our gender identity doesn’t have to match the 2 sexes we can be assigned at birth.

Some people don’t identify with any gender identity at all; this can be called Agender, genderless, non-gendered or ungendered. Other people can be Non-binary (or genderqueer), a range of gender identities that are not exclusively male or female; it can be a mixture of both, neither, or go between the two.

You can find some of these terms, plus lots of other LGBT+ terms, in our glossary.