Understanding gender

Posted on Apr 24, 2017

By Maria Glowacka

A few years ago I went to a workshop entitled, Towards a Collaborative Approach to Trans Health Care. I thought that I knew all of the appropriate terms and how to respect everyone’s gender identities, but realized during this workshop that there was still more for me to learn. I recently came across my notes and thought that others may also want this information. Please note that I am a cisgender female sharing what I learned at a workshop and I welcome other interpretations and explanations. I am always open to learning about people’s experiences and receptive to feedback.

Everyone has the right to identify however they want to regardless of how they look. The following definitions are not meant to help you label others but, rather, to better understand when an individual identifies in a certain way.

Biological sex is measurable gonads, genes, hormones, and chromosomes. Intersex conditions involve variability in these characteristics. Biological sex is not always straightforward, even in those without intersex conditions.

Gender identity is how you think about yourself. It’s your internally felt sense of your gender – male, female, transgender, gender non-conforming, etc. Many cultures view gender identity on a continuum rather than binary.

Gender expression is how you demonstrate your felt sense of gender through your clothes, behavior, interactions, etc. This expression is largely socialized. Gender conformity refers to the societal expectation to adhere to social norms of gender expression.

Cisgender individuals are those people whose biological sex does not conflict with their gender identity. The term transgender encompasses many realities, including people who identify outside of the gender binary (male/female), those who identify on a continuum between male and female, those who identify as a 3rd or 4th gender, those who identify as encompassing both genders, and those who go beyond the boundaries of expressing gender based on social norms. The terms genderqueer, genderfluid, and non-binary encompass identities that are outside of the binary male/female system.

A transition is the process of transforming physically, psychologically, emotionally, and/or spiritually with the goal of self-actualization. Every transition is unique and this process of change can take years. It may or may not include hormones and surgeries. A social transition is expressing one’s true gender in public. A physical transition is when an individual transforms their appearance with or without medical means. Transition is often a very difficult time for individuals; it may come with grief, loss, marginalization, and an increased risk of being the target of violence. However, this process is also associated with increased authenticity, emotional availability, energy, creativity, and self-esteem.

Transphobia is fear and discrimination targetting individuals who identify as transgender, transsexual, queer, or anyone who does not fit into society’s gender categories. This can present in many ways, such as harassment, physical and sexual assault, preventing access to appropriate bathrooms, inappropriate questions, and intentional use of wrong pronouns or names. It can have a significantly negative impact on the lives of targeted individuals. For example, the rates of suicide attempts are substantially higher in transgender individuals.

The take home message is respect everyone, ask questions, and be open to being corrected.


  • Bauer, G., Nussbaum, N., Travers, R., Munro, L., Pyne, J., Redman, N. We’ve Got Work to Do: Workplace Discrimination and Employment Challenges for Trans People in Ontario. Trans PULSE e-Bulletin, 30 May, 2011. 2(1). Downloadable in English or French athttp://www.transpulseproject.ca.
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