There's a lot of information out there about sex and gender. And by sex, we don't mean the various activities that could make up the act of sex. We mean the biological differences between males and females and the fact that gender is not the same thing. As a result, sex and gender are often confusing subjects for many. New pronouns? Nonbinary? Don't worry. We're here to help you begin to understand what is often a complex and personal part of life. Here is a basic guide for the perplexed.
Sex and Gender 101
Sex refers to a person's biological characteristics. While most people determine sex based on external genitalia, it also involves hormone ratios, chromosomal makeup and more. In other words, sex may not be as simple as we once assumed.
But all of these factors certainly constitute someone's biological sex or how their sex is perceived at birth. Since medical professionals often rely on external observations instead of internalized medicine or tests to assign sex categories, this leads to abbreviations like DFAB or AFAB (Designated Female at Birth, Assigned Female at Birth), AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth), or the use of "intersex" to designate individuals who, at birth, may not physically match the expected norms of male and female.
Gender, in contrast, is often used in reference to at least three factors: presentation, social roles and identity.
Gender presentation and social roles all can be external because they are influenced by the culture and the communities of the individual. If someone assigned as female at birth likes pink, for example, we associate pink as a "feminine" color and thus socially appropriate. If someone assigned as male likes pink, that individual may be derided or bullied for liking a color associated with what the culture deems feminine. Social associations of things deemed "masculine" and "feminine" can change over time. In this way, a person can use norms to present their gender to world.
Likewise, certain jobs or social roles are often associated with genders. People interested in cars are often assumed to be masculine, which can lead to a girl acting more feminine to counterbalance her interest in cars to avoid or minimize bullying or threats as people around her assume she is a lesbian.
Gender identity, however, is individual and invisible. It is the person's idea of themselves. While it may be influenced by the society around them, it is often tested by questions like, "If you were on an island and there was no one around, what would you want to look like?" Gender identity does not have to fit the presentation, social norms, or even the expectations of the person's body. Someone can identify as a mix of genders, such as bigender, or feel they move between genders, such as gender fluid. They could even identify as having no gender at all, such as agender.
The term transgender, which is an adjective, is often used as an umbrella term to refer to people whose sex does not line up with their presentation and identity (among other characteristics, but naming just the two to help you get a basic understanding).
For people whose sex, presentation and identity line up, the term is cisgender. So, if you were born with a vulva and vagina, have always felt you were a girl or woman, and present yourself as such to society, you are considered a cis woman.
Demonstrate Basic Respect to People Regardless of Identifiers
Just because "transgender" can be used as an umbrella term, does not necessarily mean people want or can afford medical or surgical interventions. It also does not mean that the person uses the term to define how they feel about themselves. They may not want to be identified as transgender by other people. In many cases, this is a safety issue.
So, although it may be human nature to be curious, being respectful means respecting people's privacy. Do not ask people about their status (although asking about preferred pronouns is typically OK) or whether they plan to have surgery. Give basic dignity and respect. Also remember that surgery (or the lack thereof) is not a qualifying factor for how someone chooses to define themselves.
Exploring things like presentation or roles that have a huge social gender component, such as taking care of the home, is difficult and can have very real consequences even when someone identifies as cis male or cis female. Exploring gender identity at all can have immediate as well as far-reaching consequences, from threats to physical and emotional abuse, withholding of medical treatment (whether related to gender or related to anything else such as the flu or a broken leg), isolation from friends and other support networks, loss of employment, and more.
If someone introduces themselves to you and says their name is Kyle, but you had heard their name was Kelly, this person is telling you their name is Kyle. Just go with it.
The terminology around gender is always shifting and it's something worth keeping an eye on. For certain terms, such as gender queer and gender fluid, the differences can be up to that individual. Regardless, it is not your place to try to "correct" someone on where you think they fit.
Also, just because someone you read as masculine is wearing nail polish or certain items of jewelry or wearing bright colors does not necessarily mean they are avoiding prescribed gender norms or that they are transgender. Different communities have different norms. In some communities (especially communities of color) people who identify as men wear brightly colored clothing that may not be seen as appropriately masculine in other communities.
Trevor Project also has a resource center aimed at youth and allies. While Trevor Project is known for being a help line and website for LGBTQ+ youth in crisis, their additional resources may be helpful for understanding the concerns of the LGBTQ+ community and how children and youth may get bullied at school, threatened, kicked out by their parents, sent to conversion therapy camps ( which are illegal in some states), and more.
The National Center for Transgender Equality also has resources ranging from state reports on discrimination to information regarding how health policies and laws may affect transgender or gender non-conforming people, from ID regulations to passports to workplace discrimination and potential resources.
If you have an LGBT community center near you, talk with them about resources. Not just in terms of health resources, but also what your neighbors are concerned about: whether it's safety walking down the street, interpersonal/relationship violence, refusal of medical care, discrimination in the workplace or in finding apartments/housing, the complications of name changes, or more.