Below are some of the terms most widely used to describe gender identities. Many originated in medical, academic or activist settings, which might not encompass all perspectives. The terms are fluid, changing meanings over time, and used differently by different communities. A term that pleases one person may offend another. When in doubt, it’s best to ask what term(s) a person prefers.
How one identifies; a person’s innate, deeply felt psychological identification as a woman, man, both, neither, or somewhere in between. Your gender identity may or may not correspond to your external body or sex assigned at birth (the sex listed on your birth certificate).
How one looks; the physical manifestation of a person’s gender identity, usually expressed through clothing, mannerisms, and chosen names. Your gender expression may or may not conform to masculine or feminine socially defined behaviors and characteristics.
A person whose gender expression is neither clearly feminine nor clearly masculine, or does not conform to mainstream society’s expectations of gender roles.
A person who blurs, rejects or otherwise transgresses gender norms; also used as a term for someone who rejects the two-gender system. Terms used similarly include gender bender, bi‑gender, beyond binary, third gender, gender fluid (moving freely between genders), gender outlaw, pan gender.
A 22-year-old woman says:
I identify as genderqueer and very recently have been moving away from also identifying as a woman. I am somewhat androgynous/masculine and I like to mix it up and play around with femininity, to intentionally push myself out of my comfort zone in regards to gender presentation and also to have fun confusing other people. I am very rooted in feminism and come from a long line of feminist ancestors; so while I lately find myself shying away from words like woman and girl and have started using the pronouns they/them/theirs, I also feel very solidly invested in pushing myself and others to expand the definition of the word “woman” to include people like me.
Some genderqueer people don’t identify as male or female, and don’t consider themselves trans, either, because they’re not crossing from one to another but are existing in a third place altogether.
An umbrella term referring to people whose gender identity and/or gender expression does not fit their sex assigned at birth. Groups often included under the transgender umbrella are transsexuals, genderqueers, people who are androgynous, and people who identify as more than one gender.
Drag kings (women who perform as men) and drag queens (men who perform as women) often do so to entertain and may or may not identify as transgender. Similarly, cross-dressers (men who dress as women or women who dress as men) do not usually identify as transgender.
Transgender does not imply a sexual orientation; transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, or asexual — or consider labels irrelevant or inapplicable. Transgender is sometimes abbreviated as trans or used interchangeably with gender variant.
A person who lives and/or identifies as a different sex from the one assigned at birth. In “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity,” the biologist Julia Serano writes that she uses the term to “refer to people who (to varying degrees) struggle with a subconscious understanding or intuition that there is something ‘wrong’ with the sex they were assigned at birth and/or who feel that they should have been born as or wish they could be the other sex.”
This shortened form could mean transgender or transsexual, and many people use it to mean both.
A person who was born biologically female and identifies and portrays his gender as male. Sometimes called affirmed male or, simply, male. Also known, especially in medical literature, as female-to-male (FTM) transsexual.
A person who was born biologically male and identifies and portrays her gender as female. Sometimes called affirmed female or, simply, female. Also known, especially in medical literature, as male-to-female (MTF) transsexual.
Some people question the use of MTF and FTM:
A lot of trans people have moved away from MTF and FTM, feeling that the terms tend to involve too much emphasis on the “change” part of our identity formation and too little on the “existence” part. That is, once one is defined as MTF or FTM one is left feeling that the transition is what defines our identity, rather than the existence of characteristics or traits of the internal gender, the trans person’s so‑called true identity.
In other words, how can one be “in transition” from the gender one has always been?
A person whose gender identity and presentation fit traditional norms for the sex that person was assigned at birth.
A person who lives and identifies with the sex assigned at birth. Those who are cisgender/cissexual tend to experience an inner harmony between who they feel they are and how the world sees them. They also enjoy the privilege of having their legal sex and gender identities taken for granted and considered valid in a way that those who are transsexual do not.
“Whipping Girl” author Julia Serano explains the history and use of cisgender and cissexual — terms that are fairly new and have not been embraced by all gender activists*:
As a scientist (where the prefixes “trans” and “cis” are routinely used), this terminology seems fairly obvious in retrospect. “Trans” means “across” or “on the opposite side of,” whereas “cis” means “on the same side of.” So if someone who was assigned one sex at birth, but comes to identify and live as a member of the other sex, is called a “transsexual” (because they have crossed from one sex to the other), then the someone who lives and identifies as the sex they were assigned at birth is called a “cissexual.”
Cisgender and cissexual are neutral terms. Using them avoids singling out those who are transgender as being different or abnormal, and affirms that the spectrum from cis to trans expression is all part of natural variation.
Other Gender Identity Labels
Within queer communities, terms such as butch, femme and androgynous are used to describe points on a spectrum of masculinity and femininity. Other terms include tranny boys, femme queen and more. Within straight communities, terms such as girly-girl and tomboy are used to label gender characteristics or expressions. While some people who fit the criteria of these definitions use these terms, others do not.
Regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, all people have the right to use the term with which they feel most comfortable and to ask others to respect that choice. It can be painful and awkward when assumptions are made about gender identity based on appearances alone. If you’re not sure how a person identifies or what pronoun to use, ask politely.
Joanne Herman, author of “Transgender Explained for Those Who Are Not,” explains, “We like your asking much better than if you guess and get it wrong, and we get especially unhappy if you use the pronoun ‘it.’”
The ABCs of Community
As queer communities have become more inclusive, the language of the early gay liberation movement has expanded. The acronym LGBTQ, preferred by many, incorporates those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, questioning and queer. The inclusions are more than semantic; they are political. They acknowledge the variety of identities and experiences within queer and trans communities.