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Sex 101: Gender Identity



Welcome to the second post in our Sex 101 series, where we try & cover all the basics of sex & relationships! This post is going to be on the topic of gender identity, including trans* identities, intersexuality & how to be a good ally. If you’d like to see other posts in the series, including our first post on the subject of consent, you can find them here

If you’d like to suggest a topic for us to cover in Sex 101, or if you’d like to ask us a question about anything relating to sex or relationships then our ask box is always open.

This post has a trigger warning on it for discussion of issues surrounding gender identity including but not limited to transgenderism & intersexuality.

If you are questioning your gender identity & feel in need of support there are plenty of great organisations across the UK who can help, & you can find a list of them here.

Here are the questions:

What is gender identity?

Gender identity is the 100% personal & subjective experience that someone has of their own gender. 

So, it’s whether someone feels male or female?

Not really. Although some people may identify as male or female, man or woman, there are plenty of other gender identities out there, some of which are on the male-female spectrum, & some of which aren’t. All of these are 100% valid, & the gender binary is a really out-dated way of looking at gender, which can be really harmful towards people who identify as trans* as it basically erases them & their identities.

So it’s not the same as sex? Or orientation?

Again, no.

The word ‘sex’ is generally used to describe a variety of biological differences between males & females, such as genitalia, chromosomes, & hormone levels. However, just as with gender, it’s important to realise that sex is not a binary. The number of people who are intersex is very high, & intersexuality covers a wide range of conditions, for example atypical genitalia or hormone levels, or unusual chromosome combinations. Sex has nothing to do with gender. Someone can have a “vagina”, XX chromosomes, & high estrogen levels, & still be a man, & the same goes for women with “penises”, XY chromosomes, & high levels of testosterone.

Orientation refers to who someone is romantically & sexually attracted to. Again, this has nothing to do with gender, except in the sense that someone’s gender identity may influence what term they use to describe their orientation. For example, someone who identifies as female & who is attracted to other women might choose to describe their sexual orientation as homosexual, whereas if they were to identify as male, they could identify as heterosexual. Basically, people of all genders can be attracted to people of all genders.

What does cisgender mean?

Cisgender is usually used to describe someone who identifies with the sex & or gender that they were assigned at birth. So, if someone was assigned female at birth & currently identifies as female or a woman, they could be described as being cisgender.

What about transgender?

Transgender refers to someone who does not identify with the sex & or gender they were assigned at birth. However, it is generally used to describe someone who does identify with one of the two gender in the gender binary.

Is that the same as trans*?

Trans* is a more inclusive umbrella term, which can be used by people who identify as transgender, but also anyone who is gender variant or does not identify with the gender binary. This covers a wide range of gender identities, including but not limited to transsexual, genderqueer, non-binary, genderfluid, genderfuck, intersex, third gender, transvestite, cross-dressing, bi-gender, & agender. 

A lot of these gender identities may be new to people, & there are some terms which are used a lot in discussions about gender which people might not be sure about, so we’ve compiled a glossary of terms relating to gender identity which you can find here. We’ll be adding this to our glossary page, & if you have any suggestions for additions, feel free to message us. It’s important to remember that gender identity is an incredibly personal & fluid thing & while someone may identify using one or several of the terms below their experience may differ from the description given & that’s fine. These are only intended as guidelines.

What about the word tranny/she-male/hermaphrodite/he-she etc.?

All of these words have, in the past, been used in a derogatory way & have hurt many people. Because of this, you must be very careful how you use them. In some cases, these words have been reclaimed & that’s great but remember: you can only use them if you are part of the group which has been oppressed by the word, & while it’s ok to use them to describe yourself you should never apply them to anyone else, as they can still be hurtful.

How do I tell what gender someone is?

It’s not really any of your business how someone identifies - you don’t need to know & asking can be extremely insulting. If someone wants you to know what gender they identify as, they will let you know. Not prying is part of being a good ally.

A question that you may need to ask someone is about which pronouns they prefer, although remember that pronouns don’t always indicate gender. 

The best way to find out what pronouns someone prefers is simply to wait until they refer to themselves, & in the mean time just refer to them using neutral pronouns i.e. they & their.

If you are in a position where you need to know which pronouns someone prefers, first understand that it’s a very personal & sensitive issue, especially if they are attempting to present as one of the binary genders (this could suggest to them that they are not passing as the gender they wish to present as). They may also not be comfortable talking about their gender identity, either with you or in front of people, particularly if they are in a situation where doing so could put them in danger.

With that in mind, here’s a guide to opening up a dialogue with someone about their preferred pronouns:

  • Take them aside or wait until the two of you are out of ear shot of others.
  • Make it clear that they don’t have to answer if they are not comfortable doing so.
  • Politely ask “What are your preferred pronouns?”. This question has nothing to do with their sex, or even really their gender, so do not phrase the question in a way which makes it about those things.
  • Respect their answer (use their preferred pronoun at all times & if you make a mistake, apologise immediately), thank them, & move on. 

My friend or partner has just come out as trans*, what can I do to support them? How can I be a good trans* ally?

The short answer is: pretty much the same way you go about being a good friend or partner to anyone.

The longer answer is:

  • Be supportive - this means respecting them & the choices they make. Make sure they know you’re there for them & listen to what they have to say. Coming out as trans* & transitioning can be a tough time for a lot of people so they may be looking for someone they can depend on & talk through their problems with.
  • Part of being a good trans* ally is about educating yourself. There are tons of great resources online regarding trans* identities, & taking the time to educate yourself can take a lot of pressure off trans* people, especially if you’re close to them. Coming out can be tough enough without feeling like you have to explain yourself. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them but be sensitive & respect them if they don’t want to answer.
  • Take note of their preferred pronouns - for advice on how to ask, see above. You should also check when you should use these pronouns. Especially if the trans* person is your partner or close friend, it’s possible they have come out to you & not to others, so by checking when to use which pronouns you can avoid outing them. Outing someone is a terrible thing to do & can put people in danger. Never do it. Personal information given to you in confidence is not to be shared, & if you’re not sure whether someone knows or not, don’t share with them until you’ve had confirmation.
  • It’s understandable if you want to ask questions about the future, for example whether they plan on transitioning & if so how, but again, understand these are personal questions & ones they themselves may not know the answer to, so don’t pressure them.
  • More broadly, part of being a good trans* ally is challenging your own assumptions of gender, & working to break down the gender binary. You can do this by not assuming people’s gender, using gender neutral pronouns unless you know someone’s preferred ones, avoiding making links between gender & sexual orientation, & not defining things like clothing & hairstyles as masculine or feminine. 

So, remember, gender identity is 100% subjective, 100% personal & 100% none of your business. As with all things in life, be respectful, educate & challenge yourself & others, & be supportive.

If you have anything to add or any changes to suggest we’d love to hear them & you can send them here. Our glossary of gender terms is here & we’ll be adding them to our main glossary as soon as possible.