Overview of Gender Identities

From the beginning of our lives, we are identified by gender and sex. When we are born, we are given a sex on our birth certificate, generally male or female. The terms “gender” and “sex” are often (and incorrectly) used interchangeably. When discussing sexuality, it is important to distinguish between sex, gender identity, and gender expression. Although these terms may seem very similar, they actually describe three very different things.

 

A person’s biological and physical attributes comprise their sex. Generally, we are one of three sexes: male, female, or intersex. Some characteristics of sex include external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, sex chromosomes, sex hormones, and gonads.6Gender identity, sometimes referred to simply as gender, is a person’s perception of who they are as male, female, neither, or both.6 Gender expression is an extension of gender identity. It is how a person behaves and presents themselves to the world—including how they dress, speak, act, and even move.5

Many of the concepts of gender are socially constructed, and these concepts are often imposed onto us starting in early childhood. For example, some colors are connected to certain genders, blue often representing masculinity while pink represents femininity. These colors are not inherently masculine or feminine, but they have been assigned these meanings in many societies. Many children and even adults do not know why they feel they must act a certain way (such as girls feeling pressured to avoid athletic participation or boys feeling pressured to mask their emotions), they just assume that it is what they are “supposed to do.”1 Gender roles are the set of ideas of what constitutes masculinity and femininity, and with these roles come certain expectations. The pressure to fit into these molds can have devastating consequences, such as anxiety, stress, insecurity, and low self-esteem, any of which may follow a person for their entire life.1

These socially constructed aspects of gender are ingrained in many cultures, and people who fit these roles often never question them simply because they do not themselves find the categories to be distressing. For people who do not identify with the culturally prescribed categories, however, the pressure to be something that they are not can cause significant distress and mental health issues.1 Today, more and more people are challenging culturally prescribed gender norms. It is becoming clearer that gender is based on more than just a person’s genitalia, and is a continuum rather than just a clear binary.6

 
 

Pronouns

Pronouns are words used in the place of an actual name to refer to a person, place, or thing. In the English language, these pronouns include she, him, it, or them. Traditionally, people have been referred to solely as he/him/his or she/her/hers, with ‘he/him/his’ used to refer to a male and ‘she/her/hers’ for a female. The pronouns ‘they/them/theirs’ have generally been reserved for talking about multiple people, and “it” refers to nonliving things.

As people have become more receptive to alternative gender identities, pronouns in turn have been altered and invented. She/her/hers and he/him/his are no longer the only singular pronouns. A person’s personal gender pronoun, or PGP, is the pronoun a person prefers to use for themselves.2 Many people who do not identify with a certain gender or who consider themselves to be of multiple genders prefer the pronouns “they/them/theirs,” even though using such words for a single person has traditionally been viewed as grammatically incorrect, due to the plurality.

In recent years, new gender-neutral pronouns are increasing in popularity, such as “ze” and “hir.” Ze, pronounced “zee,” and alternatively spelled zie or xe, is used in place of the pronouns he, she, and they.2 Hir, pronounced like the word “here,” replaces her/hers, him/his, and they/theirs.2

 

It is very important to use a person’s preferred PGP, even if it is not congruent with their biological sex or their outside appearance. Ignoring this wish can be very hurtful to a person and make them feel invalidated. When in doubt, feel free to ask someone what they would like to be referred to as! They will likely be appreciative of your efforts. If you accidentally misgender someone (by using the wrong pronoun), apologize as soon as you realize the error and quickly move on (dwelling on your mistake can make the person feel embarrassed or uncomfortable).2 If you notice other people repeatedly using the wrong pronouns, you can be an ally and gently correct them (again, without dwelling on it or making a scene). Some people will still refuse to use the correct pronouns, and it is our job as allies to help our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) friends and acquaintances feel safe and accepted. Even though you cannot change someone else’s behavior, you can assure the person being misgendered that you respect and support them.

The following list of genders is not an exhaustive list, but it covers some of the most widespread gender identities.

 

Cisgender

Cisgender, also sometimes referred to as gender normative and very often shortened to “cis,” is used to describe people whose gender identity is congruent with the biological sex they were assigned at birth.4 The term was created to allow us to differentiate between cisgender and transgender people without normalizing one over the other. It originates from the Latin prefix “cis” meaning “on the same side of.” It is estimated that 99% of people identify as cisgender.4

 

Transgender

Transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Traditionally, the term transgender has referred to someone who identifies as female but was assigned male at birth, or vice versa. Today, the term is used to encompass all people who do not identify with their assigned sex, regardless of whether or not they identify within the gender binary (male and female).6 When used in this manner, it is often shortened to just “trans.”7

It is very important to note that a person’s gender identity is completely separate from their sexual orientation, which indicates the gender(s) of individuals that an individual reports feeling attraction towards. Gender identity, however, is personal and reflects how an individual views themselves, and how they identify (or do not identify) with the gender expectations their culture has assigned them.6 Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation, nor does it imply that a person desires hormonal treatment or sex-reassignment surgery. While some transgender individuals do undergo treatment to make their biological sex match with their identity, not all trans people do. It is possible to identify as transgender without wanting to change one’s body.

 

Genderqueer/Genderfluid

Genderqueer, also referred to as genderfluid, falls under the “trans” category. It describes people who do not feel restricted by the gender binary or typical gender roles or stereotypes.6 Genderqueer people often present a wide range of gender expression, and some of their mannerisms and preferences may vary from day-to-day.6 Although some choose to identify simply as genderqueer, others who consider themselves to be genderqueer may identify as male, female, somewhere in the middle, or may not identify with a gender at all.6

 

Agender

A person who is agender feels that they are neither male nor female. Some people identify as agender as a way to reject the gender binary.3 To express in a different way, the agender identity is essentially one that describes an individual who does not ascribe to any gender, or an individual who completely rejects the concept of gender as it is known.11 For individuals who are agender, they identify with the experience of there being an absence of gender for themselves.

 

Bigender

The term bigender can be used to describe a variety of identities involving two genders, which could include male, female, or nonbinary genders.5 Some people who consider themselves bigender may identify with both the male and female genders, while others will move between masculine and feminine expression. Still others will feel like they have distinct male and female personas, or that they are two separate genders in one person.

 

Intergender

Intergender is another nonbinary and trans identity. Someone who is intergender identifies as in between two genders, and may be a combination of both.4 These two genders could be male, female, or another nonbinary gender identity.

 

Pangender

Pangender is an identity comprised of many gender identities and expressions.5 A pangender person’s identity could be fixed, so that they feel that they are multiple genders at once. It could also be fluid, meaning that they move between genders. Pangender very often includes nonbinary genders. People who identify with only two genders, most commonly male and female, are generally considered to be bigender or genderqueer rather than pangender.

 
 

 

Gender Identities and Culture

Not all cultures have always constructed gender into a binary. Some cultures recognize more than two genders and this occurrence has been well documented in historical literature. The following list is just three of the hundreds of examples of different genders that occur in other cultures.

 

Two-Spirit

The term two-spirit is used to describe a third or fourth-gender person in the culture of the Indigenous people of what is now North America.8 Historically, people who are two-spirit take on different leadership roles, “such as bestowing sacred names, or serving as leaders, intermediaries, or medicine people” within their respective tribe.8 In indigenous languages there are other ways to identify gender variant people besides using “two-spirit,” which may help define if they are a “man who is also a woman [...] or woman who is also a man.”8

 

Hijra

The Hijra identity originates in Indian culture and is designated as a unique group that lives outside of the gender binary.9 Hijras are often described as people who were assigned male at birth, but take on traditionally feminine roles and identify as a female. The concept of the Hijra identity has deep ties within social and religious scripts and historically Hijras have been aids to royalty and protectors of authority figures.9 Over time the Hijra community became villainized and marginalized and even though they are recognized by the government, they are often subject to poverty and discrimination. There are large communities of Hijra people throughout India and within these groups they find solidarity, safety, and bonds.

 

 

Muxe

The Muxe (pronounced moo-sheh) identity is a gender identity that is expressed in indigenous groups of Oaxaca, Mexico. This group is often people who were assigned male at birth but take on predominantly female roles and present indigenous feminine attributes.10 Muxes however do not identify as female, or male, but rather as a third gender entirely and still take on both masculine and feminine characteristics. This identity does not have the same religious connections as do the Hijra and Two-Spirit, but they do challenge the gender binary and represent those who don’t fall within it.10 Muxe people of Oaxaca, Mexico are often accepted into their Zapotec communities but often experience discrimination and misunderstanding in other parts of Mexico.

 

It is important to note that Two-Spirit, Hijra, and Muxe are all identities that are unique to their cultures and that these identities aren’t necessarily free to be adopted by anyone. The point of exploring the three identities is to grasp how gender has not always been on a fixed binary and that different cultures around the world have acknowledged and accepted gender variance throughout history.

 

Concluding Remarks

Gender and sex are different concepts that can be closely related to one another. These terms have been socially constructed over time and are associated with different roles, scripts, and expectations that have been taught to us through socialization since we were children. Gender identity is the way in which someone internally conceptualizes their own gender, while gender expression is the way in which someone externally expresses gender. Sex is a concept that describes the biology of someone by looking at their external genitalia, internal reproductive systems, gonads, sex hormones, and sex chromosomes. The meanings of these labels and identities change over time and new identities are always arising. There are hundreds of more gender identities that people can identify as, but the list we have gathered here touches on the most common identities expressed. It is always important to remember that gender is unique to each individual and we need to respect their humanity and boundaries.

 

References

  1. Culp-Ressler, Tara. “Forcing Kids to Stick to Gender Roles Can Actually Be Harmful to Their Health.” ThinkProgress. Center for American Progress Action Fund, 7 August 2014. Web.
  2. “Gender Pronouns.” Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center. University of Wisconsin, Milwaulkee. n.d.
  3. Murphy, Tim. “A Report From the Agender, Aromantic, Asexual Front Line of the Campus Queer Movement.” The Cut. New York Magazine, 22 October 2016. Web.
  4. Steinmetz, Katy. “This is What ‘Cisgender’ Means.” Time Living. Time, inc., 23 December 2014.
  5. “Trans and Queer Terms.” Trans Wellness. JAC Stringer, 2013. Web.
  6. “Understanding Gender.” Gender Spectrum. Gender Spectrum, n.d. Web.
  7. “Why We Used Trans* and Why We Don't Anymore.” Trans Student Educational Resources, n.d. Web.
  8. Robinson, Margaret. "Two-Spirit and Bisexual People: Different Umbrella, Same Rain." Journal of Bisexuality (2017): 7-29. Web.
  9.  Goel, Ina. "Hijra Communities of Delhi." Sexualities (2016): 535-46. Web.
  10.  Mirandé, Alfredo. "Hombres Mujeres: An Indigenous Third Gender." Men and Masculinities (2016): 384-409. Web.
  11.  Mardell, Ashley. The ABC’s of LGBT+. (2016). Web.

Last Updated: 2 May 2019.