LGBTQ: Transgender Terminology

Key Facts
  • Gender identity is a person’s internal feelings of being a woman, man, both, neither, or someone else. Only you can identify your gender.
  • Everyone identifies differently. It’s okay if you identify differently from the words listed here.
  • Gender identity, sex assigned at birth, gender expression, and pronouns can be different. It’s okay to identify as a woman, be assigned male at birth, dress masculine, and use they/them pronouns.
  • Young men's version of this guide

We used to think that the gender people were given at birth was the one they would have their whole life. But many people grow up and identify as a different gender than what their doctors or parents guessed when they were young. That’s okay!

What is gender identity?

Gender identity is a person’s internal feelings of being a woman, man, both, neither, or someone else. Many people have a gender identity and/or gender expression (how a person shows their gender through their appearance or behavior) that matches their sex assigned at birth. However, many people have a gender identity or gender expression that is different from their sex assigned at birth; these people might use the term “transgender” or “nonbinary” to describe their gender identity.

Some people might think that gender identity is similar to sexual orientation, but these are two different parts of a person. Gender identity is how a person identifies their gender, and sexual orientation is who a person is attracted to, the terms they use to identify their attractions (for example: lesbian, gay, bisexual), and with whom they have sex.

For some people, their gender identity might change over time. They might identify with one gender when they are younger and with another gender when they are older.

What does transgender mean? 

Transgender (or trans) is a term used by people who identify with a gender that is different than their sex assigned at birth. They may identify as a transgender woman or man. Or they may identify with any of the other terms below that is not cisgender. For example, Uri identifies as a woman, and was assigned male at birth. Uri chooses to identify as a transgender woman. Other people like Uri might just identify as a woman without identifying as transgender.

Transgender can also be an umbrella term used to describe the community of people who don’t identify as cisgender.

What does cisgender mean? 

Cisgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. For example, Alex’s sex assigned at birth was female and she identifies as a woman, so she is cisgender.

What does nonbinary mean?

Nonbinary is a term used to describe either gender identity OR gender expression that is not fully woman or man, or masculine or feminine.

Some people who use this term may feel like both a boy and a girl, neither gender nor another gender. For example, Eli was designated male at birth, but doesn’t identify as a girl or boy and prefers the term nonbinary. Some people like Eli might identify with a term other than nonbinary, such as one of the terms below.

Some people may also attach this term to other gender identities such as a nonbinary transgender man, to express that they identify as a man and their gender expression is not fully masculine.

Additional terms which a person may use when describing their sex or gender identity:

Gender is cultural. That means people from different cultures may use different terms to describe gender. People may use a term to describe their gender that is not listed here. That’s okay! It’s always important, regardless of the term to respect a person’s gender identity.

  • Agender: Someone who does not identify with gender.
  • Bigender: Someone who identifies as two genders, usually as both a man and a woman.
  • Gender fluid: A person whose gender identity isn’t permanent. They may sometimes identify or express themselves as one gender and at other times identify or express themselves as another gender, or they may feel a mix of genders at one time.
  • Gender nonconforming: People who identify with this term may express their gender (how they show their gender through appearance and behavior) in a way that doesn’t match typical male and female cultural norms. Some people may identify their gender as simply gender nonconforming, other people may use this term with another gender identity, such as “gender nonconforming man” because they identify as a man but do not express their gender in typical male ways.
  • Genderqueer: Genderqueer is a term used by people who identify with a gender that is not fully woman or man. They may feel like both a boy and a girl, neither gender, or another gender.
  • Intersex: Intersex is an umbrella term for all the unique variations that can happen in reproductive or genital parts of the body. Variation can occur in several different areas such as a person’s DNA, genitals or internal organs (testes or ovaries), or the hormones they produce. Intersex people sometimes face discrimination because of their variations, but intersex people have always existed. There are over thirty different kinds of medical terms for different intersex variations. Sometimes intersex is called disorders of sex development (DSD).
  • Nonbinary: Someone who does not identify as a woman or man. Some nonbinary people identify as transgender and others do not.
  • Two-spirit: This term is used by some native and first nation communities to encompass a number of gender identities and sexual orientations amongst native communities.

What is transitioning?

Transitioning is the way in which a person might choose to express their gender identity when it is different from their designated sex at birth. This can include changing the way they dress, their name, pronouns that they use (see below for more on what pronouns are), using medical (such as using hormones to change their body to align with their sense of gender), or surgical (such as changing their chest or breast tissue) therapies.

Not everyone transitions in the same way. Everyone is different. Just as you and your friends might all express and identify with your gender in different ways (some of you might wear dresses or baseball caps, others might have long hair or not wear makeup), not all transgender people may feel the need to transition in the same way. Some people might want to use hormones, others might not. Some people might want to have surgery, others might not. Some may have surgery and later start hormones. Some may use hormones first. Regardless of what a person does in their transition, they should still be treated with respect, as only they can know what they need to affirm their gender. Some people may not know what they want when they’re younger, and that’s okay. There’s no one right way to transition. Because most medical therapies and surgeries require a parent to agree if the person is still a child or teenager, some people may want certain therapies and surgeries but not be able to get them. We know this can be hard if this is your experience, or the experience of a friend of yours. Having a safe and trusted health care provider with whom you can talk to about these things is important.

What are pronouns?

On most days, you probably don’t notice that when you’re talking about your friend or a family member, instead of using their name you might say “he”, “she”, or “they”, which are what the English language calls pronouns. English language pronouns are she/her/hers, he/him/his, or they/them/theirs. The pronouns ze/hir are popular gender neutral pronouns used in different languages around the world. If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, just ask!  If you don’t feel comfortable asking, you can use gender neutral pronouns such as “they/them” to start. Not everyone with the same gender identity uses the same pronouns, and you can’t tell what pronouns someone uses by the way they look. The only way to know someone’s pronouns is to ask them.

Why are pronouns important?

Growing up, you probably used pronouns based on a person’s gender expression. Most of the time you probably got it right, but sometimes you might be corrected and told “no, she’s actually a girl” when you used “he” to describe her. While it’s okay for this to happen every once in a while, it can be hard for the person who doesn’t associate with the pronouns typically associated with their gender expression. Sometimes, people express transphobia by choosing to use the wrong pronouns to refer to a person to make them feel uncomfortable or hurt. For example, imagine your name is Jennifer, but every time you see your cousin, they call you Sarah. Even when you correct them, they keep calling you Sarah every time. This would likely feel annoying, but more importantly, you might also feel like your cousin isn’t really seeing you for you who are.  This is why it’s important to ask people their pronouns and use the correct ones when referring to them. Just remember, not only transgender people have pronouns, we all have them!

A great way to show off your pronouns is by adding them to your email signature or putting them on your social media profile! You may also notice some people wear a button with their pronouns on it to make others aware when they are in public.

People who are transgender may have two different names. A legal name is a name that a person has on legal documentation, such as their driver’s license, school transcript, or medical record. It’s important to remember that a person’s legal name might not match the name they use. A great way to ask might be to say, “Is this the name you go by?” or “Is this the name you use?” The other name that someone might have is a chosen name, which is a name that a person uses in their day to day life. Transgender people are not the only people with chosen names. Some people might not like their given name and decide to use another name (for example, people who go by their middle name instead of their first name). When referring (to anyone) you should always use their chosen name.

What is a dead name?

A transgender person might use a chosen name that’s different from their legal name. Some transgender people refer to their legal name as a “dead” name. Their dead name no longer represents who they are, and they don’t want to be called by that name. If your dead name is still on official documentation, please let your doctors or your teachers know the name you want to be called. This should discourage them from calling you by your dead name. If someone else has told you they use a different name than what you see on their ID or other documentation, it’s important to always use their chosen name.

What is transphobia?

Transphobia is a term used to describe negative feelings and attitudes toward people who identify with any terms other than cisgender, including people who are transgender and/or non-binary. Negative feelings and attitudes about transgender people can be shown in different ways.

Examples of obvious and intentional transphobic behaviors: 

  • Direct insults
  • Threats
  • Bullying
  • Physical harm or violence
  • Discrimination

Examples of non-obvious forms of transphobic behaviors:

  • Using slurs or words in an unintentional way
  • Excluding transgender people from group activities or events
  • Avoid discussions regarding transgender issues

It’s important to remember all types of transphobic attitudes and behaviors can be hurtful and sometimes dangerous to transgender people.

Why does transphobia exist?

There is no easy answer to this question. The best way to understand transphobia it is to realize that people often feel uncomfortable with differences, such as differences between people in the most common group (the dominant group: cisgender people) and people in other groups (minority groups: transgender and/or nonbinary people) who experience disadvantages in life more than the dominant group. Other minorities, such as racial/ethnic groups, are also discriminated against. Some transgender people may be discriminated against because they are transgender and because they are another type of minority; for example, someone who is transgender and Black or someone who is nonbinary, Asian, and gay. The good news is that through advocacy and social change, people are becoming more welcoming and inclusive of diverse people. Hopefully, transphobic behaviors will become less common in the future. Even if you do not identify as transgender, you can help support your friends who are by ensuring they feel welcome.

How can I be supportive of someone’s gender?

There are many ways you can be supportive of someone’s gender!

  • Always use their chosen name and pronouns. If you use the wrong name or pronouns, apologize. If you hear others using the wrong name or pronouns, correct them.
  • If you hear or see someone being transphobic, offer support to the person being bullied and tell a trusted adult who can help you.
  • Talk to your friends, classmates, and family about gender diversity. Helping others to learn about the transgender community will help create a warm and welcoming environment for everyone. Sometimes this means finding a trusted adult who can help you have these conversations, including holding workshops or lectures about gender diversity and the transgender community.
  • Talk to your school, place of work, or places where you volunteer or hang out about making the spaces welcoming, safe and inclusive for people who don’t identify as cisgender. This can include:
    • making sure there are bathrooms and locker rooms available for people who don’t identify as boys or girls (such as gender neutral bathrooms),
    • making sure that name tags allow people to write in their chosen name and pronouns (or letting people wear pronoun buttons)
    • making sure dress codes are not linked to a person’s sex assigned at birth (such as only girls being able to wear makeup or skirts)