Exploring Gender Identity: What Is Gender, Anyway?

illustration of multiple gender identities

What is gender, anyway?

To give a very complicated question a simple answer, gender is both (1) how you express masculinity, femininity, or for most people, some mix of the two and (2) how your identity, or sense of self, relates to masculinity and femininity. Gender can be expressed in how you style your hair, what clothes you wear, how your voice sounds, or even through what hobbies you choose. In our view, there are about as many different gender identities as there are people. The options are infinite. It seems that even the people who appear most comfortable in their gender still have their own nuanced feeling for what it means to be them. And figuring that out, well, that’s a Gender Quest.

Gender is a confusing topic for most of us. Here are just a few of the questions the authors have answered over the years:

How is gender different from sex?

Has gender always been around? Will it always be around?

If I move to Jupiter, will gender exist there?

Do all animals have genders?

How many genders are there?

Can a person’s gender change over time?

Does your gender come from how you’re raised? Or is it from your genes or brain?


Gender is a very different thing from sex. Gender isn’t “what’s between your legs,” it’s “what’s between your ears.” In other words, gender is how you think and feel about yourself, and how you behave or express yourself in the world. You cannot tell a person’s gender from their biology. Instead of talking about whether someone is “male” or “female,” we most often use the words “man/boy” or “woman/girl” when referring to someone’s gender. Many people think if someone has a penis that means they must be a man or boy. This is not true. When a person is born with a penis the doctors may shout, “It’s a boy!” but what they actually mean is that this person’s sex is male.

Gender Identity

Because people have all sorts of thoughts and feelings about their genders, people have all sorts of gender identities. For example, a person may identify as a man, woman, transgender man, transgender woman, genderqueer, bigender, Two-Spirit, or something very unique and creative, like a “gender Prius,” “gender Oreo,” or “gender swirl.”

Here are how some of the more common gender identities are usually defined:

Agender: Someone who identities as having no gender.

Androgynous: A person who has both masculine and feminine traits. This may also be used to refer to a person whose gender is hard to determine visually.

Bigender: Some people use this word to describe themselves as switching gender in different contexts. One example is someone who is very masculine at their welding class, but loves to dress in heels and a skirt to go out to a club.

Cisgender: This refers to someone whose gender identity and expression is a good match for their natal sex. They appear to t cultural expectations of what a “man” or “woman” should look and act like. Some also say “gender normative.”

Cross-Dresser: This refers to someone who, in speci c situations, wears clothes, makeup, hairstyle, and so on that are usually reserved for another gender. While this identity is sometimes put under the “transgender” umbrella, often cross-dressers do not identify as transgender. Some people cross-dress as part of performance (“drag queens” and “drag kings”). The word “transvestite,” often used to describe a person who cross-dresses, is considered offensive.

Female to Male / FTM / F2M / Trans Man: This is a person who was assigned the sex “female” at birth and has transitioned socially, physically, or both to live as a man. Some refer to themselves as “trans men,” as it can sound a little less “clinical.”

Gender Diverse / Gender Expansive: Those who don’t conform to the expectations that society has for their gender. Many prefer this over “gender variant,” which implies that those who don’t identify with society’s expectations are “abnormal.”

Gender Fluid: Some people identify as gender uid to describe a sense that they are comfortable with a shifting and changing notion of their own gender. They do not feel that their gender identity is “ xed.”

Gender Nonconforming: This describes a person whose gender doesn’t conform to societal expectations based on their natal sex. Similar to “gender diverse” or “gender expansive.”

Genderqueer: Those who identify as genderqueer feel that their primary sense of felt gender is neither “male” nor “female” but somewhere in between.

Male to Female / MTF / M2F / Trans Woman: This is a person who was assigned the sex “male” at birth and has transitioned socially, physically, or both to live as a woman. Some refer to themselves as “trans women,” as it can sound a little less “clinical.”

Natal Sex / Natal Gender: The sex or gender that was assigned to you at your birth. Some say “birth sex” or “birth gender.” This is preferable to “biological” sex because for many transgender people, quite a bit about their “biology” has changed over time through use of hormones, surgeries, and other aspects of transition. We also don’t say “genetic sex” because very few of us have had our genetics tested to con rm our assumptions that we don’t have a genetic variation.

Pangender: Those who identify as pangender embrace all genders in their identity. They reject the notion that there are only two genders.

Transfeminine: Those who were assigned male at birth, but now identify as transgender and more strongly with the “feminine” end of the gender spectrum.

Transgender: This is a term that can apply to all people for whom their current gender identity is different from what would be expected from them by society. This can include those who have chosen to physically or socially transition and those who have not. Remember, even though the term “transgender” is often used alongside the terms “lesbian,” “gay,” and “bisexual” (as in LGBT), transgender is a gender identity, not a sexual orientation!

Transmasculine: Those who were assigned female at birth, but now identify as transgender and more strongly with the “masculine” end of the gender spectrum.

Two-Spirit: This is an identity that is speci c to those in indigenous North American cultures. Indigenous Americans belong to a diverse number of cultures, each of which has a different understanding of gender. However, this is a general term used by some Native Americans to describe those who have gendered appearances or identities other than “male” or “female.”

Gender Expression

Gender expression also can’t be divided into two simple categories. Gender expression is how we present ourselves in the world, including how we carry ourselves, dress, and talk. In mainstream American culture, we tend to recognize certain behaviors and traits, such as wrestling and assertiveness, as “masculine,” and other behaviors and traits, such as wearing makeup and being caring, as “feminine.” Of course, people of all gender identities have behaviors and traits that are considered masculine and considered feminine. Thank goodness, since ideally all people could be both assertive and caring! But when we sum together a person’s behaviors, we may think they end up high or low on either scale.

This passage was excerpted from the book The Gender Quest Workbook by Rylan Jay Testa, PhD, Deborah Coolhart, PhD, LMFT, and Jayme Peta, MS, MA.