Gender identity is often misunderstood. It’s not the same thing as sexual identity. The simplest way to think about it is that it’s the gender you identify as — on the inside — whether you’re male, female, neither or even both. Gender identification exists on a wide spectrum, and you may change how you identify over time.
Learn more about what gender identity is, the different gender identities there are, and how identity differs from gender expression. You’ll also find out how you can get support from an LGBTQ therapist if you need it.
What is Gender Identity?
Gender identity is your own personal sense of your gender. Other people cannot determine your gender identification — and it may differ from the sex characteristics you were born with. For example, just because you were born with female sex parts doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll identify with your assigned sex of female.
While at first it can seem confusing if you don’t understand the differences between sex, gender, and gender identity, once you learn the basics of each concept it quickly becomes much clearer.
With LGBTQIA+ identification on the rise — 3.5% of the U.S. adult population identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual and 0.3% of adults are transgender, according to research by the The Williams Institute — education is more important than ever. It allows us to promote inclusivity, tolerance, and awareness around topics that are so often misunderstood. Gender identity is something that can be constantly evolving. None of the following terms are all-inclusive or finite.
“Gender identity is flexible. How you view yourself can evolve over time, and that is completely normal! Taking the time to learn the differences between sex and gender is critical to both understanding yourself and also understanding others.”
Your sexual identity is determined by main biological factors like genes, reproductive organs, and hormones. Often, specific terms like female, male, and intersex are used in reference to someone’s sex.
Biological sex isn’t binary. So while you may have genes that are associated with being female for example, you might have genitals, organs, or even both, that differ from your genes. When this occurs, it’s known as intersex — a difference in sex development.
Gender is separate from your sex. Your gender is how you internally identify. You may have female biological factors but identify with the male gender and vice versa. Gender also relates to how you express yourself on the outside. A person’s behaviors, clothing, and appearances can all be used to express your gender identity.
Like sex, gender also is not binary. It’s not just man or woman — there are many types of gender identities. However, the social construction known as gender, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is often described solely in terms of either masculine or feminine. In Western society and culture, femininity is typically associated with females or women, and masculinity is associated with males or men.
Understanding different gender identities can be helpful for everyone, whether it’s you who’s trying to figure out your own gender, or if you’re trying to be supportive and understanding of someone you care about.
Gender identity is the term used to express how you identify — this can be male, female, both, neither, somewhere in between, and more. We’ll cover some of the different gender identities that are commonly expressed next.
What Are the Different Types of Gender Identity?
Education about the many different types of gender identity is important. It’s only by teaching others that we can promote acceptance, understanding, and tolerance.
If you identify as agender, you might not identify as either female or male. In fact, you might not identify with any gender at all.
Androgyne signifies you identify as both female and male.
When you identify as bigender, you identify with two genders.
Butch is a term you might use if you’re a lesbian woman looking to describe what society deems as your “masculinity.”
Cisgender is identifying with the sex you’re born with. For example, you are cisgender if you were born with male sex parts and identify as a male.
Gender expansive can be used if you’ve gone beyond your individual culture’s standardized definitions of gender. You may want to broaden the cultural expectations that have been placed on your gender.
Gender fluid can express if you move either outside of, or between, the gender expectations that are based on societal standards.
If you identify as gender outlaw, you refuse to let society define your gender.
When your identity isn’t aligned with the societal expectations (or “norms”) that are placed on your assigned sex, you might identify as genderqueer. You can also use this term if you identify with a combination of genders.
Non-binary refers to identifying with a gender other than male or female. It’s common (but not always true) for those who identify or come out as transgender to also identify as non-binary.
Omnigender means you have and experience all genders.
Those who identify as polygender or pangender have parts of or experience more than one gender.
When you identify as transgender, you were born with different sex parts than what you identify with. The shortened term, “trans,” serves as a more inclusive term that’s commonly used if you are non-binary or gender nonconforming.
How Does Gender Identity Differ from Gender Expression?
Knowing the difference between gender identity vs. gender expression is important. Gender identity differs from gender expression. While gender identity is how you personally identify, gender expression is how you show the way you identify. All gender identities can be expressed in multiple ways, and other people can perceive your gender through these outward attributes.
Clothing has a societal expectation that’s based on gender. You can choose to wear more masculine clothing if you identify as a male. The same is true if you identify as female, dressing in a more feminine (according to society) fashion. However, your clothing style and how you choose to dress can change over time or day to day.
Behavior and mannerisms
Again, behavior and mannerisms are largely based on what society deems is more feminine or masculine. You can express your gender in both your actions and your mannerisms.
Pronouns are used in reference to how you identify. Using the correct pronoun is a very easy way for someone to affirm your identity. It’s an effective way to show acceptance. You can always let people know what your pronoun preferences are
For example, some pronoun might include (but aren’t limited to):
Changing your name is yet another way you can express your gender identity.
Hair and makeup
Choosing either to, or not to, wear hair and makeup a certain way that society expects is a personal decision that you can make at any time.
Finding Support in Your Gender Identity
If you or someone you care about is looking for support — either in figuring out how to identify, or in learning how to express gender — there are a number of organizations, communities, and groups that can help.
“If you are struggling with your own gender identity, you are not alone and support is available to you! If you are looking for ways to foster a more gender-inclusive, welcoming environment you can start by including your pronouns when introducing yourself or signing professional communications.”
Support is crucial if you’re feeling like you’re not being accepted. Gender identity diversity is something we all need to continue working towards. Not feeling accepted can have a substantially negative impact on LGBTQ mental health. If you need help or support, you can look for a role model who identifies the same way you do. You also might want to find a community to bond with. Of course, you can always consider reaching out to any of the following for help, too.
- Therapy: In-person or online counseling with an LGBTQIA+ therapist can be a great resource if you need help. Not sure where to look? Learn how to find an LGBTQ friendly therapist.
- Trusted friends and family: If you have someone in your life you trust, consider reaching out to them if you’re looking for support.
- Support groups: Local or online support groups can offer you advice, support, and community with those who understand what you’re going through.
- The Trevor Project: The Trevor Project is an organization that offers both education and support to the LGBT community. This is an especially helpful resource for teens experiencing LGBTQ bullying.
- Trans Youth Family Allies: An online education and resources site that aims to help friends, family members, and others who love and want to support someone who identifies as transgender.
- Gender Spectrum: An education and resource website.
- PFLAG: Providing education, support, and advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community across the United States and in Puerto Rico.
- National Center for Transgender Equality: Offers transgender people support and education.
Learning about all gender identities is important and something we need to discuss and educate others about. Identity isn’t always the same as your assigned or biological sex. How you identify is an important part of your self-discovery, and it’s essential to understand that gender can change over time.
The ways that you express your gender is something that’s very personal to you. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and becoming comfortable with this can be a pivotal part of your life.
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3. THE SPECTRUM. The Trevor Project; 2021:1. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Spectrum-B.pdf.Accessed October 8, 2021.
4. LGBTQIA Resource Center Glossary. LGBTQIA Resource Center. https://lgbtqia.ucdavis.edu/educated/glossary.Published 2020. Accessed October 8, 2021.
5. The Trevor Project | For Young LGBTQ Lives. The Trevor Project. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/. Published 2021. Accessed October 8, 2021.
6. TransYouth Family Allies. Imatyfa.org. http://www.imatyfa.org/. Accessed October 8, 2021.
7. Gender Spectrum | Gender Spectrum HomepageGender Spectrum. Gender Spectrum. https://www.genderspectrum.org/. Accessed October 8, 2021.
8. PFLAG. https://pflag.org/. Accessed October 8, 2021.
9. 5. National Center for Transgender Equality. National Center for Transgender Equality. https://transequality.org/. Accessed October 8, 2021.