Or, a primer in gender vocabulary for the curious-minded

Martie Sirois
Jul 30, 2018 · 16 min read

If you’re here, I first want to humbly say thank you. Maybe you’re here because you keep seeing this word ‘cisgender’ and thinking, “what is that?” Maybe you’ve wondered what’s up with this seemingly overnight onslaught of trans people coming out of the woodwork. Or maybe there’s a TGNC (trans and/or gender nonconforming) person in your life who has socially transitioned and changed pronouns, and you try, but you just cannot understand how this came to be or why it’s even a thing.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

You’re not alone. There are plenty of people who feel the exact same way — like all this gender variant stuff is just a passing fad or trend. Maybe your feeling is “you can’t argue with science; there are only two genders: male or female. Penis or vagina. Everyone has one or the other.”

Look, I get it. I get the whole “there are only two genders” argument. That’s the way I was taught, too. Honestly, I never even gave this whole concept of gender a second thought — not mine, not anyone else’s. That is, until I had to. Not by choice, but by a combination of divine intervention and necessity.

You may not understand; you may even think this whole beyond the binary concept of gender is ridiculous, but you’re here. If you’ve made it this far, you are indeed a good person because, unlike many others, you are willing. You have a natural curiosity, which indicates high intelligence. In a world of relentless, misleading clickbait, and hyperpartisan politics where civil discourse has all but disappeared, you’re here. So thank you.

When I finally realized what my child had been trying to communicate— that they were most definitely not aligned with their sex assigned at birth — I had a true lightbulb moment. Yes, I did say what my “child” was communicating. But no, I did not say that my child was able to verbalize that with large words and concepts. Aside from saying, “Mommy you know I’m only a boy because of my parts, right?” at the tender age of two and a half, for the most part, my child’s attempts at communicating this thing was through behaviors. My “a-ha!” lightbulb moment was one where all of those behaviors, in hindsight suddenly made perfect sense.

Before delving into a crash course on basic gender vocabulary, I think it’s important to answer one of the really big questions first. It’s one I hear a lot, so I know there’s confusion. But the answer to it is a basic principle of gender that needs to be fundamentally understood before moving on. It’s not usually something people tend to think about, either, unless it gets on their radar from brief exposures to stories, pictures, or shows about trans kids. The question is usually some variation of this:

“So, I get there are transgender people, like Caitlyn Jenner, Chaz Bono, or whoever. But transgender kids? How in the world is that possible? There’s no way kids can know or even understand something that complex at such a young age. They should at least wait to any make life-altering decisions until they’re adults.”

Before I address any of that, I want to ask you, dear reader, to do me a favor. I’m going to ask you a question, and when I ask it, I’d like you to close your eyes, or look away from the screen for a minute, and really think about this question:

How old were you when you first knew your gender? And by “when you first knew,” I don’t mean when you fully comprehended all the implications, expectations, and possible variations of that gender. Just “when did you know? When did you first know that you were male or female?” (I’m serious, really think about it. Think waaaay back.) Look away or close your eyes for a minute. Or look at this lovely human:

Photo by Florian Pérennès on Unsplash

What was your answer?

Whenever I’ve asked people that question face-to-face, the answer is, without fail, one of the following:

(Laughter) “I can’t remember that far back.”

(Genuine wonder) “Hmm…I don’t know; I guess I just always knew somehow. I guess it was more of an innate feeling.”

(Confusion) “I can’t really answer that. I’m not sure? I mean, it’s not like anyone had to sit me down and tell me that I was a girl... I certainly never questioned my gender. I may’ve been a bit of a tomboy, but when my mom said things like ‘don’t sit like that, it isn’t lady-like,’ it just sort of clicked. Even if I didn’t like it.”

And several variations on those themes.

What I’ve never heard anyone answer is any variation of this:

“When did I first know my gender? I didn’t. I never knew who I was. Thank God my mother finally sat me down and said, ‘Johnny, the time has come to tell you. You’re an adult now; you deserve to know. You’re a boy.’ Because, man. If she hadn’t have told me, I would’ve never known.”

The same is true for TGNC people. They just know. They’ve always known, even if they lacked the verbal skills or correct terminology to communicate what that was. They always felt a sense, just like you did, of being male or female. Or some combination of both, neither, or something else altogether, perhaps similar to Native American two spirit people, or Hijras (third gender) in India.

So the question isn’t “aren’t they too young to know?” but rather, “at what age do children instinctively feel (or know) their gender?” Prominent psychologists tell us that children form their innate sense of gender identity between the ages of 3–5 years old. There are statements from expert pediatricians, sociologists, and psychologists all over America (and beyond) who all affirm supporting trans and gender nonconforming children. Further, they are united in their agreement that the best approach parents can take with children who might be transgender or gender nonconforming is to simply support them, allow them to explore, and allow them to express (rather than teach them to suppress.)

Those statements of support can be found here, from the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics), here, from the American Academy of Nursing, here, from the AMA (American Medical Association), here, from the American Psychiatric Association, here, from the APA (American Psychological Association), here, from the APHA (American Public Health Association), here, from the Endocrine Society, here, from the AACAP (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry), and here, from the WMA (World Medical Association).

Note: these are only a few of the many position statements from large professional organizations who each support affirmative environments for TGNC youth.

Converesly, you may have heard that another organization released a statement that read: promoting gender dysphoria ideology is ‘child abuse.’ The ACPeds (American College of Pediatricians) issued this position statement, and it was tweeted out in May, 2016 by conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck. Numerous articles spawned from this tweet and circulated widely on social media that year (and still to this day).

But you deserve to know the facts. The American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds) is a small and politically-motivated group. They did issue that statement regarding their beliefs on children and gender identity. However, the ACPeds are, again, a politically-motivated group (which cannot be stated enough). This differentiates them from the much larger, actual research-based, credible organizations like the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics).

The politically-motivated group ACPeds is composed of roughly 500 members, not all of whom are necessarily pediatricians or doctors. The ACPeds have been identified by the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) as an anti-LGBT hate group that uses debunked pseudo-science to back anti-LGBT agendas. Conversely, the AAP is an organization of 67,000 pediatricians committed to the optimal physical, mental, and social health and well-being for all infants, children, adolescents, and young adults.​

The ACPeds banks on the fact that folks will confuse them with the accredited AAP.

So, yes, children as young as 3–5 absolutely know their gender, even if they lack the terminology to describe it. The most probable reason why so many adults think this can’t be true is because they’re likely conflating gender identity with sexual orientation. Despite being lumped together in the same LGBT acronym, being trans does not indicate any specific sexual orientation. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same thing, and in fact, have nothing to do with one another.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I also feel responsible for addressing the second part of that “big” question, the part that says “(kids)should at least wait to any make life-altering decisions until they’re adults.” It’s a common misconception that children are making life-altering decisions. When a transgender child transitions, they only do what’s called a “social transition.” This means that they do one or more of the following: change pronouns, change the way they dress and cut their hair short (or grow it long) to look more aligned with their gender identity, and sometimes, change their name.

There are some medical interventions for treating gender dysphoria that older youth may elect to have, but not before Tanner Stage II of puberty, and only after they’ve established a clear pattern of gender dysphoria. Often, this means a child has undergone years worth of psychological evaluation and care, numerous bloodworks, full workups from an endocrinologist, and letters of recommendation from therapists who specialize in evaluating and treating gender dysphoria. Treatments (like puberty blockers) are not something any parent can just walk into a doctor’s office and request.


The language of gender seems really complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple. Here are the key components:

Biological sex:

Biological sex is about physical anatomy and chromosomal makeup. It’s assigned at birth by a doctor who takes a quick glance between the legs for a penis or vagina. And it’s from that moment where we begin to shape the entire world for this tiny human — from the clothes we dress them in, to the toys we give them, to how we speak to them, to how we instruct them to behave and socially engage with others, and so on.

But…

there’s so much more to biological sex than what we thought we knew, beyond the binary of male and female. Biological sex accounts for a wide range of possible variations in anatomy and chromosomal makeup. We can be born intersex, for example. Our society has historically used other words for intersex which are now considered outdated and extremely inconsiderate, such as the term “hermaphrodite.” Intersex is just a general category — like an umbrella term — used to describe a variety of conditions in which a person is born with internal and/or external anatomy that doesn’t quite fit the ‘typical’ definitions of male or female.

Some examples of intersex subcategories include: hypospadias, ovo-testes, and X and Y variations, such as Klinefelter syndrome, to name just a few. Intersexuality may or may not be evident at birth. Some people find out during puberty. Some may find out if they’ve been struggling with infertility for a while. Others live their whole lives and no one knows until autopsy is conducted.

Gender:

Regardless of what we were taught, gender and biological sex (a.k.a. “sex assigned at birth) are not interchangeable terms. In other words, gender is not inherently connected to our physical anatomy. Rather, gender is a societal construct that varies both across cultures and over time.

Many different religions and hundreds of distinct societies around the globe have their own long-established traditions for third, fourth, fifth, or more genders. It wasn’t so long ago that pink was the assigned color for boys, and blue for girls. High heel shoes were originally designed for men, but women began wearing them as a way to masculinize their outfits, before those “rules” got reversed to where they are now.

Gender is about a social identity, and therefore, a social construct. It’s about both our perception of others, and our perception of ourselves, and how those fit into the world around us. Gender is not fixed, although our culture dictates the acceptable ways of being “masculine” or “feminine.” The way in which we understand gender here and now in America looks very different from the way gender is understood among various Indigenous cultures, or in Mumbai, India, for example.

Gender identity:

Gender identity may be harder for some to understand because it refers to something we can’t see from the outside. Gender identity, simply put, is a person’s internalized, deeply felt sense of being male, female, both, or neither. Others cannot determine our gender identity, only we can determine it for ourselves.

Gender expression:

Since gender identity is internal and perhaps invisible, gender expression refers to what we can see: the external way that a person presents their gender to the world. Most frequently, this is expressed through clothing, hairstyles, behaviors, play, verbal exchanges, vocal mannerisms, body language, and so on.

Cisgender:

(Pronounced SIS-gender). The word ‘cisgender’ comes from the Latin-derived prefix ‘cis,’ meaning “on this side of.” Someone who is cisgender (or “cis,” for short) has the stars aligned, so to speak. Not that being cis is better, just that it tends to be society’s default. It describes someone whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth, and often, aligns with their gender expression as well. Basically speaking, cis people perform a gender role that society considers appropriate for their biological sex, or sex assigned at birth.

Transgender:

Conversely, someone who is transgender (from the Latin-derived prefix ‘trans,’ meaning “across from,” or “on the opposite side of”) does not feel in alignment with the sex they were assigned at birth. When we think of trans people, we often have images of people like Caitlyn Jenner, who was assigned male at birth, lived a large part of her life male, but transitioned later in life to be the female she always knew internally that she was. But trans is more than just male-to-female, or female-to-male. There’s also non-binary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and others.

The word transgender is more of an umbrella term that encompasses all people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans people typically feel this disconnect from very early ages, even though they may lack the verbal skills or vocabulary necessary to explain this.

When referring to transgender people, the correct way to say this is either “transgender people,” or “trans people” (or “community,” etc.) Transgender is an adjective; it is not a verb that can be put into past-tense. “Transgendered” with an ‘-ed’ on the end is not a word any more than “femaled,” or “maled,” “straighted” or “gayed” are words.

Furthermore, it’s problematic when people use “transgendered.” There are several reasons why, but for one, the unnecessary “-ed” at the end indicates a process that has definitely ended, or come to a finite stopping point. For many trans people, the process of transitioning is life long. It is not something that happens overnight, nor is it something that’s related to having (or not having) any type of surgery or medical procedure done. There are many transgender people who have no medical intervention at all, for a variety of reasons. This does not make them any less transgender.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Sexual Orientation

As I mentioned before, sexual orientation has nothing to do with gender identity. They are two totally separate parts of a person. However, because sexual orientation is part of the LGBTQ acronym, I’m including it here, namely, to make distinctions between it and gender identity.

HRC offers an excellent definition that I think perfectly explains sexual orientation:

“An inherent or immutable enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people.”

Commonly, we tend to understand sexual orientation as a reference to the sex of the people we are attracted to romantically, sexually, and/or spiritually. This is separate from gender identity and biological sex (or sex assigned at birth). Society tends to erroneously assume that sexual orienation is defined by anatomy, which in turn determines sexual identity and desire.

Also as I mentioned earlier, because the ‘T’ is part of the LGBTQ acronym, it’s easy to understand how transgender gets conflated with sexual orientation. But they are unrelated. Biological sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation are totally separate, distinct parts of a person’s whole identity. Further, being transgender does not signify any one definitive sexual orientation. Therefore, transgender people may be straight, gay, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, etc.

In a nutshell, biological sex is about how we’re built, gender is about who we are, and sexual orientation is about who we love. Or, as a friend recently put it: “biological sex is what you’re born as, gender identity is who you go to bed as, and sexual orientation is who you go to bed with.”


This is just a small sampling of gender vocabulary 101. There are many more nuanced meanings and implications of each umbrella term, and each category. Ultimately, navigating what often seems like a confusing minefield of pronouns is really just about respect for your fellow human beings. The two most important lessons I’ve learned in that regard are actually pretty simple:

1. Never assume someone’s gender. It’s always better to ask, *“What are your pronouns?” than to assume and get it wrong. (*Say this, rather than “what are your preferred pronouns?” For trans people, it’s not a “preference,” it’s who they are.)

Ask for pronouns. Lots of companies, organizations, colleges, and universities are all adopting this practice. You can even find nametags now that have a space for pronouns. Most college professors are now indicating their own pronouns beside their names on office doors, which also signals a safe, affirming environment. I get that it feels awkward at first. Just think of it like a nickname. If your name is Jeffrey, but you go by “Jeff,” you tell people; you don’t expect them to assume or to just know.

With a younger generation who are going to look progressively more and more gender nonconforming as folks like me get older and older, it will be not only mainstream, but necessary to ask for pronouns. Bottom line: don’t assume someone’s gender any more than you’d assume a woman is pregnant, (unless you see the baby emerging from her body, and even then, it’s questionable — isn’t that how the saying goes?)

2. When a person (child or adult) tells you which pronouns to use, respect that. Don’t overthink it. Use the pronouns they’ve specified. Misgendering someone is a microaggression (an unintentional form of discrimination against a marginalized group). Of course, we all mess up sometimes. Even with the best intentions, you’re going to slip up occasionally, especially if it’s someone you’ve known as “him” or “her” forever. When you slip up, briefly apologize, correct yourself, and move on. Don’t dwell on it, because it then becomes a situation where the trans person finds themself needing to give you comfort. Also, I don’t recommend giving excuses. Trans folks have heard them all, over and over again. Moving on is best for everyone.

That said, misgendering a trans person over and over again, or especially, doing so intentionally is nothing short of exhibiting transphobic behavior. This is unacceptable. Always think carefully and be intentional when speaking with someone you know is trans. If you misgender a trans person in public, not only are you ‘outing’ them, but you’re also putting them in harm’s way. You could even be inviting violence.

Human Rights Campaign tracks the murders of known trans people, and year after year, we’ve seen a clear pattern of fatal violence disproportionately affecting trans women of color, and also, that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia conspire to deprive them of employment, housing, healthcare and other necessities, all barriers that make black trans women especially vulnerable.

To maybe put this whole ‘misgendering’ thing into perspective, consider this: If you’re a cisgender male, for example, imagine how you’d feel if you walked into your local grocery store and were greeted, “Hello, m’am.” You might feel confused or displaced. You might laugh it off. Then imagine if a few moments later, the guy stocking produce said, “Howdy, m’am. How’re you today?” At this point you might be thinking, “what on earth…?”

Then over in canned goods, a young woman with a toddler passes you quickly saying, “excuse me, m’am,” and just as you get to the end of the aisle, the guy giving wine samples offers you one: “M’am, would you like to try some Chardonnay this afternoon?” (You might want it by then.) As you’re waiting in line for the butcher, they call out when it’s your turn, “what’ll it be today, m’am?” and at checkout, the bagger says, “M’am, would you like paper or plastic today?” By this point you’re feeling pissed, and wanting to know if you’re being punk’d. You assert, “I’m a sir. Please don’t call me m’am.” The bagger answers, “Oh, sorry about that. Can I help you out to your car, m’am?”

Now you’re seething angry. “What part of ‘I’m a sir’ didn’t you understand?” you want to say. Or maybe you do say that. Imagine if the bagger then responds, “Well, I think you look like a ‘m’am.’ And frankly, that’s what I feel more comfortable calling you, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

This is exactly what trans people go through every single day, sometimes, all day long. And when someone doesn’t respect their pronouns, they’re communicating, just like the bagger in my pretend example, “I’m more comfortable calling you ___ (insert dead name, i.e., ‘old name’ here). That’s how I’ve always known you, and that’s what I’ll continue calling you.”

What they’re really saying is:My comfort is more important than your personal safety.”

Yikes.

Is that really what you’d want to communicate to someone? Especially a loved one?

Finally, I’d just like to address the point of “this seemingly overnight onslaught of trans people coming out of the woodwork.” It’s not that we suddenly have more of them. They’ve always been around. It’s that we now have a generation of parents who were growing up during the 1980s AIDS scare, when myths, misinformation, and homophobia towards the gay community were running rampant.

Many of us had at least one lesbian, gay, bi, or trans friend who was kicked out of their home amid that culture of fear — fear that turned out to be totally misguided and in many cases, just flat out wrong. Some of us lost friends to suicide because coming out of the closet immediately cut them off from their families and then they felt as if they had no one. Many of us grew up watching our gay or trans friends unjustly abused, and we said, “This is wrong; this cannot happen anymore. These people are human beings and they deserve better.”

Now we’re the parents, pediatricians, and psychologists in charge, and we’re listening to our kids. Thus, they feel safer to live authentically and not forced or shamed to hide in the closet. We know what fear can do, so we’re choosing to love them, unconditionally, even when that means embracing them exactly as they are, rather than who we thought they’d be.


Call to action:

One simple, small gesture anyone can do right now — that makes a huge impact — is to put your own pronouns in your email signature. It only takes a few seconds to do, but it communicates so much. For TGNC folks, you’re showing you’re an ally. For the rest of the population, you’re setting an example. I know it might sound ridiculous; it takes some time to get used to seeing. But there’s this pretty cool transition that happens where you become so accustomed to seeing pronouns attached to names (in email, on nametags, on doorplates, etc.) that you end up expecting to see them everywhere.

Martie Sirois, she/her/hers


Connect with me here on Twitter, or here on Facebook. I’d love to hear from you.

Martie Sirois

Written by

writer of social & political commentary, interviewed on NPR; SiriusXM Insight w/John Fugelsang, ftd contributor for HuffPost & others. Mom of 3, trans advocate.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade