There are a lot of different ways someone can express their gender or sex.
Gender identity isn’t an easy topic to understand, and sometimes we need to unlearn some old ideas so we can really get what gender is all about. Most of us were taught that there are only two genders (man/masculine & woman/feminine) and two sexes (male & female). However, there is a lot more to it than that.
Gender is a social construct, an idea created by people to help categorize and explain the world around them. You may not notice it all the time, but each gender comes with a set of expectations, like how to act, talk, dress, feel emotion, and interact with other people. For example, when you think of a teenage boy living in the United States, what comes to mind? Do you imagine him playing football, or do you picture him dancing in a ballet recital? It’s likely that you imagined him playing football first — but why?
In the United States, we have very defined gender roles that describe what it means to be a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, and we learn what’s expected of us at a very early age. Even though these expectations are made up — there’s no reason why boys shouldn’t be encouraged to practice ballet, for example — gendered characteristics, activities, expressions, and stereotypes are really ingrained in our society, and shape most of our lives.
Here are some other gender-specific constructed differences that you may recognize: young girls often get pink clothes, and boys get blue clothes; women are deemed overemotional and men are discouraged from crying; a deep voice is considered masculine while a high voice is feminine; boys should play with building blocks and girls should play with dolls; men are athletic and aggressive, women are nurturing and gentle… the list of expectations based on gender can go on and on, and changes from culture to culture.
In reality, gender roles aren’t set in stone. Even though our society expects certain things from certain people, we don’t have to conform. Rather than on a binary (only two ways of being), gender and sex exist on a spectrum, meaning that there are a lot of different ways that people can express their gender identity or sex.
Gender and More
When we are born, a doctor assigns us a sex. This has to do with our biology, chromosomes, and physical body. Male babies are generally labeled as boys and female babies are generally labeled as girls. But even sex is more complex than that — and it really exists on a spectrum. Intersex individuals have physical sex traits or reproductive anatomy that are present at birth or emerge spontaneously later in life, and differ from normative expectations of “male” and “female.”
Some people never question their assigned gender or sex, and choose to identify with what they were assigned at birth — that’s called being “cisgender.” But there are others who do question their gender or sex, and that’s completely normal and ok.
If you don’t feel that your gender identity — meaning, your own personal sense of what your gender is — matches the gender you were assigned at birth, you might identify as transgender (or trans). And like sex is an expansive and complex spectrum, so is gender.
Nonbinary genders, like genderfluid, genderqueer, polygender, bigender, and many others, are genders that exist outside of the male/female/man/woman binary. It’s important to note that not all nonbinary folks identify as trans, but may share many of the same experiences as trans folks.
Are you questioning your gender and aren’t sure what feels right to you? It’s okay. You are not alone! Consider a few of these questions:
- How do you feel about your birth gender?
- What gender do you wish people saw you as?
- How would you like to express your gender?
- What pronouns (like he/him or she/hers, or ze/zir or they/them) do you feel most comfortable using?
- When you imagine your future, what gender are you?
There are many aspects of someone’s gender:
Gender Expression: The way in which people present or express their gender, including physical appearance, clothing, hairstyles, and behavior. People can exert a certain degree of control over their gender expression depending on their resources and environment.
Gender Identity: Our personal sense of what our own gender is.
Perceived Gender: How the world sees and understands your gender.
If you decide that your current gender or sex just isn’t right for you, you may want to make your gender identity fit with your ideal gender expression and presentation. This is called transitioning, and can include social (like telling other people about which pronouns you like), legal (like changing your name), or medical (like taking hormones or having surgery).
Some folks might choose to transition in only some aspects of their life. Some folks may receive gendering affirming care while others may not. None of these steps are necessary, and people should be allowed to figure out what works best for themselves in their exploration of gender. You don’t have to go through all of these things to be “officially” trans, or to have your gender identity be valid. It’s all up to you, and what feels safe and comfortable.
Terms and labels are important when talking about the trans community. While there are some general guidelines to follow, terms and labels are often unique to individuals and it is always best to check with someone about how they identify and which terms they prefer to use to describe themselves.
Below are some general guidelines and common terms:
- You may see the term trans shortened with an asterisk (*) to include the many identities that fall under the trans umbrella.
- The term “transgender” should only be used as an adjective and never as a noun (i.e. “My friend is transgender” vs. “My friend is a transgender.”)
- A more often-used term is simply “trans.”
- The term “transgendered” is grammatically incorrect and should never be used.
- Some trans people identify as transsexual, although others consider it to be outdated. Always ask for, and use, the term that a person prefers.
Trans people often face hatred or fear just because of who they are. Even some cisgender LGBQ people may have transphobic feelings that can make it harder for them to support trans people as they also fight for equality and acceptance.
If you ever feel that you are a victim of a transphobic hate crime, please consult the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund.
Sex is entirely distinct from gender, something that is determined by our biology and physical characteristics. As mentioned before, sex is typically thought of in the binary of male and female. In actuality, people’s genetics and bodies are much more complex than that. Still, many intersex people are assigned a sex of male or female at birth, even if they are more somewhere in the middle.
If you think you might be intersex, please know you are not alone. Visit the Intersex Society of North America’s website for resources and information that may help you.
Talking About Intersex Folks
Intersex is an adjective that describes a person. It is never a noun or a verb, because no one can be “intersexing” or “intersexed.”
You may have heard the word “hermaphrodite” from Greek mythology. Like certain words used to refer to the trans community, this term is considered archaic and offensive to intersex people. Still, always ask for, and use, the term that a person prefers.
Frequently Asked Questions
I am not completely comfortable with the body I was born with. In particular, my feminine figure is really getting to me, and I really wish that I had the ability to grow facial hair. I’ve begun to consider HRT (hormone replacement therapy) to help me feel comfortable with my body, after I check with my therapist. But how will taking hormones affect other things, like taking birth control, or getting my period? Will I need to get a hysterectomy because of taking hormones?
First, please know that you don’t have to figure all of this out all at once. It can take time to figure out what is right for you and your body. You are not alone in this.
It’s great that you’re considering your options, and want to work out a plan that will help you get to the place where you want to be. It sounds like you have a very good idea of what you’re looking for, and what you hope to get out of hormone replacement therapy. That’s a great first step, because it’s really important to understand what could make you feel more like you.
Have you talked to your therapist about any of your questions, including any specific anxieties you’re having about some of these unknowns? A lot of the questions and issues you bring up can be really complicated, especially in terms of the deep and complex ways in which the physical and emotional aspects of all of this are tied together.
Have you found and/or talked to a trusted health provider yet? It sounds like you have a lot of very specific questions about how hormones might affect you physically, and about any unintended side effects HRT might cause. Everybody is different, so a medical professional would be the best person to tell you about what you could expect from HRT, depending on what your dose is and what your personal needs are.
Your therapist might also be able to recommend a trans-friendly physician in your area who can better answer your questions. If you have been considering getting hormones from a non-professional source, or if consulting with a doctor is not an option for you, we would encourage you research trusted sources before putting anything into your body.
Most medical professionals strongly advise against taking any kind of medication that isn’t prescribed because it can be very dangerous, especially since the source and quality of the drugs cannot be verified or regulated.
We hope that you can talk to a doctor face-to-face and get your questions answered. In the meantime, you are always welcome to contact us at The Trevor Project.
We are always available to talk through how you’re feeling about transitioning, taking care of yourself, and more. If you aren’t already on TrevorSpace, we encourage you to check it out; LGBTQ young people from all over the world use it to make friends and get advice. Chances are, someone on TrevorSpace will have gone through something very similar.
I told my mom that I think I’m trans, but she thinks that it’s just a phase. What if she’s right? I really don’t want to come out and ask people to use my new name and pronouns, and then have it mean nothing. What if I decide that I’m not really a man?
First of all, it was a big step for you to tell your mom that you think you’re trans. Sometimes our parents and friends need some time to really absorb and understand what we’ve shared. Just like you had your own process for discovering your identity, they need to figure out how they feel, too. It sounds like some of the doubts your mom is expressing have started to creep into your own thinking around who you are, which can be difficult, especially if you value her opinion. For now, let’s focus on your feelings and thoughts. It sounds like you’re worried you might not really be trans, or
that one day you’ll change your mind about your gender identity.
It can be scary when you’re unsure of who you are, but don’t worry, you aren’t alone. The truth is that you’re never stuck with anything. As we go through life, we can grow, change, and even change course. If you’re feeling very strongly about being a man, go with your instincts. You know yourself better than anyone else.
Coming out is a very personal decision and you don’t have to tell other people about being trans if you don’t want to. However, it also sounds like you’re worried about other people’s reactions and wonder if it’s worth it to ask them to use your name and pronouns. We recommend checking out our Coming Out Handbook1, which can help you weigh the pros and cons of coming out. There are sections that talk about finding support, preparing for how other people might react, and staying safe during your process.
If or when you do decide to come out as trans, you don’t have to do it all at once. It is totally up to you who, when, and how to come out, and it can even be a slow, step-by-step process. Regardless of what you decide to do, please know that you are never alone — we are always here for you.
Lately I’ve had this desire to be a girl. I know I’m not ready to come out, but I’m planning to grow out my hair and wear more girly-types of clothes. I’m not sure what my parents would make of it, but I can’t get this off of my mind. Should I go ahead with it?
If you feel safe and comfortable starting to express your gender in a new way, then that’s your decision — after all, you know yourself best! Taking small steps, like letting your hair grow longer and wearing more feminine clothes can help you learn more about your own gender identity.
If you love it, great! If you decide you don’t love it, that’s also ok! It’s not hard to cut your hair again, or go back to wearing the clothes you wore before. No decision you make needs to be permanent. There are no rules about how girly or boyish anyone needs to be, regardless of what their body looks like, or what others might think they are supposed to do or look like.
Are there potential safety considerations that come with expressing your gender differently in public places, like school? Are there LGBTQ- affirming student groups who can offer you support? These are just two questions you might want to consider before coming out.
As for your parents, have you mentioned these ideas to them before? Are you worried at all that changing your hair or clothes might create an unsafe situation with them? Or, do you think that they might find the change surprising? If you want a resource that will help you weigh the pros and cons of coming out to your parents, or at school, we have a guide for coming out. Above all, it’s up to you and your comfort level — no one can make you come out if you are not ready.If you want some help, you can always talk to us at The Trevor Project.
- Genderqueer Identities
- Gender Spectrum
- The Gender Book
- Students and Gender Identity Guide for Schools (USC Rossier’s, online MSC program)
- Inter/Act: A youth group for young people with intersex conditions or DSD
- OII Intersex Network
- American Psychological Association: What does intersex mean?
- Trans Student Educational Resources
- Advocates for Youth: I Think I Might Be Transgender
- Trans Youth Family Allies
- WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health)
- TransWhat? A Guide Towards Allyship
- Resources for Transgender College Students
The Trevor Project is the leading suicide prevention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people.
We provide 24/7 crisis services for LGBTQ young people via a phone lifeline, text, and chat. We also operate innovative research, advocacy, public training, and peer support programs.