By Joe Borders, MFT
September 8, 2018
There are so many things to know about gender identity and gender terminology. Many people commonly mix up gender, sex, and sexuality/ sexual orientation. As a gender therapist I often run into confused parents/family members of clients who don’t understand what their loved one is talking about. In the past I wrote a relatively short blog post about trans/non-binary related terminology. This one is going to be more expansive and I may update it and keep expanding on it as time goes on. Keep in mind, this post is about gender, not sexuality/sexual orientation. I plan on doing an ABC’s of sexuality/sexual orientation in the future. If you don’t know the difference between gender, sex, and sexuality/sexual orientation, then you’re in the right place!
If you or someone you love is trans or gender non conforming you could really benefit from knowing some common concepts and terminology. Really everyone should become familiar with this stuff, because gender is not black and white and there are a lot of people in the world who are gender queer or struggling with their gender identity. So without further ado:
The ABC’s of Gender
Androgyny: When someone has characteristics of multiple genders. Usually used to describe people who exhibit a combination of masculine and feminine traits or who are ambiguous, neutral, or somewhere in between masculine and feminine.
Androgyne: A person who is androgynous.
Agender: A person who identifies as genderless or gender neutral. This often communicates a message of “I am an individual and I cannot be defined by preconceived gender norms, so I will not buy into the gender game.”
Bi-gender: A person who identifies with two genders (often varying degrees of masculine and feminine). This word is often used interchangeably with the term “gender fluid”, but some people draw a distinction by saying that bi-gender people identify with two genders at the same time, while gender fluid people fluctuate in their identity, which can include characteristics of multiple genders.
Cisgender (Cis): When a person’s gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth.
Cishet (sis het): This word is used to describe a person who is cisgender and heterosexual. Sometimes used in a slightly derogative way, ie: “crazy cishet people are always freaking out about what color their babies wear, like somehow putting a girl in blue will make her magically grow a beard and a penis”.
Demigender: an umbrella term describing several gender identities that are non-binary but fall somewhere in between masculine and feminine. The most common demigenders are demiboys (or demiguys) and demigirls (or demiwomen). Demiboys and demigirls only partly identify as being masculine or feminine respectively. Typically I hear the word demiboy and demigirl used in a way that signifies a person identifies with a gender, but not completely. Most people I work with have agreed to the idea of it meaning that a person is something like 60% boy if they’re a demiboy and something like 60% girl if they’re a demigirl.
Deadname: The term used to describe a trans person’s birth name. It is called this because for many people their deadname represents a past full of difficulty, being closeted, and not getting to be themselves. The use of the word deadname signifies that a person has gone through a transition from what they used to be to what they are now, which is becoming more fully themselves.
Dysphoria: Gender dysphoria is the actual clinical diagnosis that many trans people receive. The American Psychological Association describes gender dysphoria as “In adolescents and adults gender dysphoria diagnosis involves a difference between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, and significant distress or problems functioning” –DSM-V. The important distinction here is the “significant distress or problems functioning”. In regular, everyday conversations, people use the word dysphoria to describe a collection of negative emotions resulting from ingongruence between a person’s gender identity and their gender assigned at birth, their appearance, their genitals, and/or other physical features.
Estrogen: Estrogens are hormones that promote growth and maintenance of feminine physical characteristics. In addition to medications like spiro that inhibit the effects of testosterone, trans women take estrogen to help them take on more feminine physical characteristics.
Fluid: Gender-fluid is a term used to describe people who’s gender identity fluctuates, often between what would be considered masculine and feminine. The term gender-fluid is often used interchangeably with “non-binary” because they both denote a person who does not neatly fit into a “boy” or “girl” box. However, being gender-fluid is technically different because it doesn’t necessarily reject the idea of gender as a binary and because gender-fluid people fluctuate in their identity.
FtM or F2M: Female to male. Usually seen on paper, this term is used to denote a person who was assigned female at birth and transitioned or is transitioning to male. Like MtF, this is not something people commonly use to directly describe or identify people. In my experience, MtF and FtM are most commonly used when people are trying to clarify things with cis people. You would much more commonly hear someone say something like “trans man” or “trans woman”.
Folx: A gender neutral word used in writing to denote people regardless of gender. This is typically used to signify a group of people who are trans, genderqueer, or gender non-conforming.
Gender: Social norms, roles, and expectations that are often made based on sex. Gender has to do with names, clothes, how a person acts, etc. Stereotypically girls are supposed to like pink, be passive, and have names like Veronica, while boys are supposed to like blue, be assertive, and have names like James. None of these things are biological mandates. We have historically constructed social expectations for people based on their sex at birth. Gender is different from sex. Your sex is defined by your reproductive organs and has little to do with your gender. Gender is largely a social construct and when people are freed to define their own gender, they often find that it is an extension of/part of their personality.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT): When a person takes hormones to change their appearance to be more feminine, masculine, or androgynous.
Intersex: Anyone who is born with sexual anatomy that does not clearly fall into what would be considered male or female. Intersexed people often struggle with gender identity issues because they don’t neatly fit into a box of “boy” or “girl” based on their anatomy. Often times parents of intersexed children decide on a gender for their child and assert that while raising them. Although it’s becoming less common, many parents also choose a sex for their child and have surgery performed on them in an attempt to more closely approximate male or female genitalia. California just recently became the first state to condemn intersex surgeries in children.
Justification: Trans and GNC folx are often made to feel like they need to justify themselves and/or their gender. Nobody should have to justify their gender identity to another person. Gender identity is a reflection of how a person feels inside. Their very definition of self. By asking someone to justify that you’re asking them to explain the very core of themselves and possibly implying that their identity is invalid.
Kindness: please be kind to people regardless of their gender identity.
LGBTQIA+: The abbreviation used when talking about pretty much anyone who is not cisgender or heterosexual; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, + (others under the queer umbrella)
MtF or M2F: An abbreviated form of “male to female”. This term is used to describe a person who was born male and transitioned to female. You will typically only ever see this in writing and most trans people prefer to be identified simply as the gender they identify with rather than something along the lines of “you used to be that, but now you’re this”.
Non-binary: When a person’s gender identity doesn’t fit into a traditional binary system of gender. Generally those who identify as non-binary take on the term to basically say to the world that they are what they are, and that can’t be defined by either “male” or “female”. Some non-binary people entirely shun the idea of gender existing on a spectrum between masculine and feminine, instead thinking that we shouldn’t hold preconceptions and expectations about people based on their genitals.
Non-conforming: Specifically gender non-conforming (GNC) is a term used to describe a person who does not ascribe to the gender norms that are socially expected of the gender they were assigned at birth. Pretty much anyone who is trans and/or doesn’t buy into the idea of gender as a binary or something that should be defined by anyone other than the individual.
Neutrois: Similar to “agender”, this word is used to describe a person who identifies as having a “neutral” gender, neither male or female. This is a complicated one and its definition can differ slightly between individuals.
Normativity: Heteronormativity and cisnormativity are big issues faced by those who are trans or gender queer. Heteronormativity is when people assume that all, or just about everyone is straight. Cisnormativity is when people assume that all, or just about everybody is cisgender. Do your best not to assume that someone is straight and/or boy/girl. It makes people feel judged/less than and rejected/unwanted by society.
Outing: When someone publicly discloses that a person is trans and/or anything but the gender they present as. Most of the trans people I have known don’t care to be known as trans. They just want to be seen as the gender they identify with. As such, revealing to others that a person is trans can be embarrassing, awkward, and generally upsetting.
Pronouns: Pronouns are that part of speech you learned in elementary school that are used to refer to people without using their names. On the subject of pronouns, people tend to think of he/him/his/, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs. Many who identify as non-binary, GNC, bi-gender, and/or gender fluid identify with the pronouns they/them/theirs. Pronouns are important to those in the trans/GNC community and should be respected. If you are new to all of this you are likely to mess up someone’s pronouns occasionally. Acknowledge mistakes when you make them. Most people won’t hate you for it if they know you aren’t intentionally trying to be a jerk.
Pangender: A relatively new gender identity whereby a person identifies with multiple genders. This is similar to being gender fluid, but is specifically intended to communicate that the person identifies with all (or many) genders.
Passing: This is a word people use to describe a person who is able to be perceived by others as the gender they identify with. A trans male for example would be said to be “passing” if he is generally seen as a man in public.
Queer: Specifically, when talking about gender, the word “genderqueer” is an umbrella term that can be used to describe anyone who’s gender identity does not fit into the traditional binary. The word “queer” has some historically negative connotations, so you will meet some people who prefer not to use it and opt to identify themselves as something similar like non-binary or gender non-conforming.
Respect: It’s important to respect the trans/GNC people in your life. Use their pronouns, avoid deadnaming them, and don’t tease them. Most trans/GNC people I’ve met aren’t looking for attention, they just want respect and to be recognized as the gender they know themselves to be.
Sexual orientation: Describes the type of people a person is capable of being sexually or romantically attracted to. Although, not entirely related to gender, I am including this because people often get this confused with gender or have trouble separating it from gender. A person’s gender has little to do with their sexual orientation. If a trans man is attracted to men he will likely identify as being gay, not straight. A lot of cis people make the mistake of labeling peoples’ sexual orientation based on their birth sex.
Sex reassignment surgery (SRS), AKA gender confirmation surgery: Any surgery performed to help a person take on physical characteristics that are congruent with the sex and/or gender they identify with. SRS usually refers to any surgery performed on sexual organs, but other surgeries can be included under this umbrella term. Such surgeries include adam’s apple removal, vocal chord surgery, hip, jaw, and cheek bone surgery.
Stealth: When a trans person completely assumes the gender they identify with and is not publicly open about being trans. When a person “passes” and doesn’t tell people they’re trans. Many people who are stealth, in “stealth mode”, or “stealth trans” are open with some people they are close to, but generally don’t tell anyone else that they’re trans. Depending on who you talk to, this can be a loaded term. For some it implies that a person is being disingenuous and supports a narrative often held by cishet people; that trans folx are out to get, trick, or decieve cishet people.
Testosterone (often referred to as “T”): the primary androgen (male hormone) responsible for physically masculine traits. Trans men whose transitioning includes hormone therapy take testosterone to take on more masculine traits, while trans women often take spironolactone (spiro) to reduce the effects of T in the body.
Top surgery: Breast augmentation or double mastectomy. Surgery performed on the chest to help reduce gender dysphoria by helping people to look less like their sex at birth and more like the sex and/or gender they identify with.
Transitioning: The word used to describe the process of a person becoming more openly congruent with the gender they identify with as opposed to that which they were assigned at birth. Transitioning is deeply personal and can mean different things for different people. transitioning is generally broken down into social transitioning (what you wear, your name, pronouns, etc.) and physical transitioning (medical stuff).
Uncertainty: A lot of trans and gender non-conforming people struggle at times with uncertainty. Most people I see in therapy talk about intellectually “knowing” that their family and friends are supportive, but not feeling entirely sure. This is especially true for young folx and those who have not yet come out or transitioned.
Vaginoplasty: Bottom surgery for MtF people where a vagina is surgically constructed.
Visible: The opposite of stealth. When a trans person is open about their being trans.
WPATH: The World Professional Association for Transgender Health is a professional organization dedicated to researching, protecting, and establishing standards for transgender health. They publish a standards of care that outline specific guidelines for health professionals working with trans people. You can get the WPATH standards of care for free on their website.
X-gender: Primarily used in Japan, the word “x-gender” is used to describe any gender that does not fit into a traditional binary system. This is pretty much synonymous with non-binary and genderqueer. In the US, many cities and states are considering adding x gender as an option on birth certificates and drivers licenses.
You: Think about your gender identity. What roles, characteristics, and stereotypes have you taken on because you’re a “boy” or a “girl”. When they stop and think about it, many people find that they don’t fit neatly into a box of either “boy” or “girl”. It’s important to recognize that gender is largely a social construct based on stereotypes and expectations that people hold for others based on their genitals. You be you, not what people say you should be because you’re a “boy” or “girl.
Zhe: A gender neutral pronoun that was used a lot in the early 2000’s. Zhe, zher and zhers were used in place of gendered pronouns like he,him,his and she, her, hers. It’s been pretty much replaced by they/them and you’re unlikely to see this one outside of academic settings.
I hope you learned some things in reading through this. If you found this post helpful please share it with your friends and family ^_^. If you have any concerns, comments, or you think I got something wrong or should add something, shoot me an email. If you liked this post you might also be interested in my post about trans/GNC resources in the greater Sacramento area and my post about how to be supportive when someone you love is trans or non-binary
If you or someone you love is struggling with gender issues, a gender therapist may be able to help you. Check out SacWellness. There are lots of therapists on there who specialize in working with gender identity and the LGBTQIA+ community.
About the Author
Joe Borders is a marriage and family therapist located in Roseville and Sacramento. He is primarily a sex positive gender therapist, but also specializes in working with couples, teens, addiction, and the LGBTQ community. Joe is also the owner and founder of SacWellness. You can find out more about him by visiting his sacwellness listing or by visiting his website: therapy and counseling in Roseville and Sacramento