Gender identity can be a confusing concept to navigate at first. Most of us grew up with the understanding of only the male and female genders, and many of us likely thought that the term “gender” was interchangeable with “sex.”
However, this is far from a complete picture. As we expand our definition of gender, we give others (and ourselves) the opportunity to express the most authentic version of themselves.
What is Gender Identity?
Gender identity is how you describe your gender. It includes how you perceive your gender, how you express it to others, and how you want others to treat you. Some examples of gender identity include male, female, transgender, non-binary, and more.
Gender is not the same as sex. Our assigned sex is a label applied to us at birth, based on our physical body parts. As you start to explore your gender identity, you may find that you do not identify with the sex you were assigned.
Some terms that are helpful to understand when talking about gender identity include:
- Cisgender: Describes someone whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth
- Transgender: Describes someone whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth
- Non-binary/genderfluid/genderqueer: Describes someone who does not identify as male or female, whose gender identity sits in between or outside of this binary
- Intersex: Describes someone who has anatomy that is not solely male or solely female, such as chromosomes, hormone levels, or reproductive organs that have both male and female characteristics
- Gender diverse: An umbrella term to describe anyone whose gender identity does not conform to expected norms
- Pronouns: The terms we use to refer to someone that are dictated by their gender identity (ex. she/her, he/him, they/them)
Gender Identity and Mental Health
Being gender diverse is not a mental illness, nor does it cause mental illness. Having a gender identity outside what is considered the norm, however, can lead to an array of stressful experiences that put people at greater risk for mental health issues.
Some of these experiences might include:
- Feeling isolated and different from those around you
- Being verbally or physically bullied due to your gender identity
- Feeling scared about sharing your gender identity with others and worried about their reaction
- Feeling pressured to deny your true gender and conform to stereotypical expectations
- Feeling unsupported or misunderstood by loved ones
- Feeling self-conscious about how you walk, talk, dress, or other ways you express gender
- Being addressed by your old name (“deadnaming”) when you have a new name
- Being addressed with incorrect pronouns
Additionally, people whose gender identity is different than the sex they were assigned at birth may experience gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria refers to psychological distress resulting from this misalignment between gender identity and assigned sex.
Someone experiencing gender dysphoria may feel uncomfortable in their body as they start to understand their gender identity more. They may feel a desire for different body parts than the ones they were born with. Due to the psychological distress they experience, those diagnosed with gender dysphoria also experience significant impairment in their social and occupational functioning.
These experiences can lead to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation. One study of undergraduate and graduate students found that gender diverse students were more than 4 times as likely to have at least one mental health problem, compared to cisgender students.
If you are in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek help right away. The Trevor Project provides 24/7 support to LGBTQ+ individuals through their chat feature, or you can call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678-678.
Talking to Others About Gender Identity
Sharing your gender identity is a personal experience. Some people like to use the term “coming out” to describe the process of telling people in their life about their gender. Others feel pressure attached to this term, and have no desire to “come out” in a formal way. Both viewpoints are valid, and there is no one right way to navigate sharing your gender with others.
It’s also important to remember you don’t have to talk about your gender with others if you don’t want to or don’t feel ready. This doesn’t make your identity any less real, and it’s up to you who you talk to about it and when.
One way to share your gender identity with others, if it feels safe to do so, is to include your pronouns when introducing yourself (i.e. “My name is Hannah and my pronouns are she/her”). This quickly and directly lets people know how you would like to be addressed. Do your research to help support the gender identity of everyone around you.
If people use incorrect pronouns when addressing you, you can correct them (again, if it feels safe to do so and you have the energy). Remember, your gender is not a burden, and wanting people to use your correct pronouns is a completely reasonable request.
Sometimes you might be the one to accidentally use someone’s incorrect pronouns. If you catch yourself or they correct you, acknowledge your mistake without making a big deal about it, and then move on using the correct pronouns. It’s important to use someone’s proper pronouns, and it also is not helpful to make a show of how bad you feel and place a burden on the other person to make you feel better.
Looking After Your Mental Health
While navigating your gender identity can feel like an exhausting and isolating process, there are some things you can do to take care of yourself and improve your mood. Here are some tips:
Look to Role Models
Most of us didn’t grow up seeing much gender diverse representation, but that’s starting to change now especially with social media. It’s easier than ever before to find role models with journeys similar to your own. But aside from social media, you may also know someone in your community who could serve as a mentor to you.
Find a Community
Whether in person or online, finding a supportive community of people with shared experiences can have a huge impact on your mental health. It can help you feel less alone, increase your self-esteem, and give you an outlet to share what you’re going through. You can look into support groups in your area, or join an online community like the Gender Spectrum Lounge.
Working with an in-person or online therapist can provide a safe space for you to explore your gender and the way it’s impacting your life. It might feel easier to talk to a professional about your identity before sharing it with your family and friends. You can also find an LGBTQ+ therapist, so you know your therapist understands some of where you’re coming from on a personal level.
Find a Gender Affirming Therapist
Whether your therapist is gender diverse themselves or not, it’s important that they are gender affirming, meaning they are educated on and sensitive to the needs of the gender diverse community. You can find a gender affirming therapist through referrals from your physician, friends, or by using a directory (such as one from the World Professional Association of Transgender Health).
- Information on gender hormone therapy (masculinizing or feminizing)
- Learn more about intersex individuals
- Gender Spectrum: Resources for young people, parents, and teachers
- Trans Lifeline: (877) 565-8860
- The Trevor Project Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386 (or text START to 678-678, or use their chat)
If you are questioning or feeling limited by your current gender identity, you are not alone. Support is out there and it is possible to live as your healthiest, most authentic self.