Words are powerful. But knowing which words to use can sometimes be difficult — especially when you’re learning about new or unfamiliar concepts. And for many people, discussing gender may feel unfamiliar. By learning some helpful vocabulary, you can use the power of words to create safer spaces where inclusivity thrives!
Let's start with the basics:
Gender: The behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.
But wait — then what's the difference between sex and gender?
In the past, the words “gender” and “sex” meant the same thing, and there were only two options: M and F. But as research has evolved, so has this concept.
Gender is no longer seen as only two points on a line but rather, to many, as a fluid spectrum.
Sex: The categories (male, female, intersex, and so on) into which humans are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.
These days, we (the general public) earn a classification called “Sex Assigned at Birth” (SAAB), which is essentially the result of a doctor examining anatomy (or downstairs parts) and saying someone is male, female, or intersex.
At this point in time, no medical institutions classify anyone as gender nonconforming when they are born, but who knows what the future holds? Now let's dig into some more terms!
Nonbinary means to exist outside the traditional gender binary of man and woman. Some nonbinary people think of themselves as in the middle; some, outside the spectrum altogether. Some are not even on the same page as the binary. Some are in another room altogether.
Some prefer the terms gender neutral or gender nonconforming because of the belief that using the word “binary” reinforces its existence, something we’re trying to rethink or maybe ctrl-alt-delete.
Androgynous usually means that, externally, you live in a very “Wait, is that a boy or a girl?” space and are probably very comfortable there.
There are other words for people who do not want to identify as male or female: for instance, “gender-creative,” “gender expansive,” and “gender-fabulous.” People are choosing for themselves how to identify. Gender identity is your own sense of your own gender.
Gender identity is about feeling your body, knowing what’s right, and following your own guidance. This doesn’t just apply to gender-neutral folks; this means being a woman however you want to be a woman and being a man however you want to be a man. This means not letting anyone else tell you how to do you. (You know, unless that’s your thing.)
Gender expression is what someone expresses to the world: a person’s behavior, mannerisms, interests, and appearance that are associated with gender, like femininity, masculinity, and any shade or mixture between or beyond the two. This also includes gender roles.
Transgender means that a person’s gender identity doesn’t match their SAAB. “Trans,” in Latin, means “across from” or “on the other side of ” — on the other side of the gender you want, kinda. “Transgender” is also often used as an umbrella term to encompass all forms of gender nonconformity within the queer community.
Cis, short for cisgender, means a person’s SAAB lines up with their gender identity. Or “your downstairs parts at birth match your gender identity.” Some people think “cis” is an insult or something, but really, it’s just Latin for “on this side of.” (And the opposite of “trans.”)
Notice I didn’t say “transgendered,” because that word is awful and hurts trans people when they hear it. I read somewhere, “I wouldn’t say I’m an Italian-ed American” — and “transgendered” is the same thing. Being a transgender person is not past tense; it’s not like something happened and then you became something. A trans person is whatever they say they are, in all tenses — before, after, and during transition — and even if they never technically do the things we think about when we hear the word “transition.”
That “-ed” also puts such a focus on surgery, or the big transition, and many transgender people might not ever get surgery or transition and still identify as trans. Surgery is an elitist measure of trans-ness, and that “-ed” has no place in modern queer culture.
(OK, rant over.)
Let’s Talk About They and Them
I am a they-pronoun user writing this, and I find that a lot of people want to know why this “they” phenomenon has taken such a prominent spotlight, or ... why “they” even exists?
The pronoun “they” exists because binary gender terms (that is, “man” and “woman”) are too limiting for the myriad identities people want to express. Language has evolved to meet the needs of people. “They” is how some people feel seen as beyond the gender identities of man and woman, or “he” and “she.” “They” is a gender-free pronoun.
For me, “they” exists because I needed it to. I didn’t fit otherwise. “They” existing is like this breath of fresh air every time I don’t have to hear “Sir” or “Thanks, ladies.” Like I don’t have to fit into those two boxes. Like taking off my shoes after a long day.
“They” exists because the queer collective, and humans in general, tried other words for a nonbinary gender pronoun — and they just didn’t stick. Some of those other pronouns:
Ou: Genderless pronoun from 1808. Now extinct.
Co: Coined by feminist writer Mary Orovan in 1970. Still used, especially in communities where people are co-living.
See ... “they” just stuck!
While people mostly use “they” the way we all learned to on grammar chalkboards (as a plural), we also use “they” to indicate one person when we don’t know their gender. And we do it without even realizing it.
Wow, our brains.
I bet you do it for your mail carrier: Did they bring my package yet?
See, it’s in your brain too. So when the world craved a gender-neutral pronoun, “they” just stayed.
I am betting more words will exist in the future to encompass this identity. And all the other identities we haven’t even discovered yet.
“They” is just what we’re doing right now — and by “we,” I mean Westerners, and maybe even more specifically, people living on the coasts in the United States and in more liberal pockets across the English-speaking world.
But what’s next?
Who knows? You tell me.
So this is a good start, in helping understand and support your transgender and gender nonconforming friends, by learning some vocabulary and empowering yourself with knowledge! Remember, words matter, and so does what you do with them!
Some excerpts and images used here from the book “How to They/Them: A Visual Guide to Nonbinary Pronouns and the World of Gender Fluidity,” by Stuart Getty, illustrated by Brooke Thyng, published by Sasquatch Books, 2020. You can buy the book here.