In the past 10 years, questions about gender and gender identity have come to the forefront as more people become aware of the issues involved. In order to join in the debate about gender, it is important to be able to understand some of the most important terminology.
In this context, sex is used to refer to the biological categories which most living things can be divided into. In binary terms, humans have traditionally been categorised as “male” or “female”.
Sex has traditionally been determined at birth on the basis of sexual reproduction characteristics and sex organs. However, medical estimates suggest that around 1 in every 2000 babies that are born today have characteristics which “do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies”. Some research suggests that as many as 1.7% of all babies could be intersex.
Gender is a term which is used to express a range of characteristics pertaining to masculinity and femininity. In a heteronormative society, male and female are the traditional genders. Some other societies also have third, fourth, fifth or indeterminate genders.
Gender is often based on social and cultural norms. These social and cultural norms affect how a person of a certain gender is expected to behave. A person may not identify as the gender that wider society perceives them to be.
Gender is normally attributed at birth, based on the physical sex of a child. In the case of intersex babies, parents in the United Kingdom will frequently attribute a gender to the child and then raise the child as the chosen gender. Gender may also be attributed by others in society. This may be based on an unconscious characterisation of a person.
A person’s gender identity is the way that they experience their own gender. This may be the same as the gender that they were assigned at birth, or it could be different in some way. For example, a person who was given the assigned gender of “male” at birth may actually identify as a “female”.
Gender Dysphoria (which may also be referred to a Gender Identity Disorder) is the feeling of distress or discomfort that a person may feel due to their disassociation with their assigned gender. A person who does not associate with their assigned gender may feel anxiety, stress, depression and isolation from their peers. They may also experience sensations of fear or revulsion about their body, in particular their sex organs.
An acquired gender is a gender role that a person achieves through the gender transition process. The term Acquired Gender is one that is used on legal papers within the UK. As part of a Gender Recognition Certificate, a trans person may be required to prove that they have been living as their acquired gender for at least two years.
A cisgender person is a person who has a primary gender identity that corresponds with their birth sex and the gender that they were assigned at birth. Some academics prefer to use the term “non-trans person”, rather than cisgender, because the phrase is much clearer to those who do not have a thorough understanding of gender issues.
Cisgender may also be shortened to “cis”.
Genderqueer or Non-Binary
A person who is genderqueer or non-binary does not feel as though they identify with either of the classical “binary” genders. Alternatively, they may feel as though they identify with two or more genders. For example, a genderqueer person who is genderfluid may fluctuate between multiple gender identities, and may not feel the need to be bound by one single identity.
Transitioning is the name given to the psychological, physical and social processes involved in changing from an assigned gender to an acquired gender. Each trans individual will undergo a unique transition towards meeting their internal sense of gender identity. Some people may feel that changing their clothes is all that is required for them to transition, whereas other people may feel that they require full genital reconstruction surgery to complete the transitioning process.
A transvestite is a person who enjoys dressing in clothing which is traditionally associated with the opposite sex. The term cross-dresser is also used in more informal contexts.
Dressing up in the clothing of the opposite sex does not always imply that there is a disassociation with that person’s assigned gender, or that the person wishes to change their gender identity. There are also different types or cross-dressers, who choose to alter their dress for different reasons. A casual cross-dresser may only dress up in alternative clothing on very limited occasions. An erotic cross-dresser may choose to wear clothing associated with the opposite sex as a way of achieving sexual gratification. Underdressing is the act of only wearing the undergarments of the opposite gender. Cross-dressing may also be a performance art.
Sexual orientation is the way that people express their sexual desires or romantic interests. A trans person can fall anywhere on the sexual spectrum; heterosexual, homosexual, bi-sexual, asexual or any other sexual orientation. They can continue to be attracted to the same people even once they have completed their transition. For example, a heterosexual woman (woman attracted to men) may transition to being a homosexual trans man (man attracted to men). Likewise, a trans person may find that their sexual orientation changes whilst they are transitioning.
Detranstioning or Retransitioning
A detransition is the process which a trans person must undergo if they wish to change their gender presentation back to the gender which they were assigned at birth. The processes that are required to detransition will normally depend on how that individual chose to undergo their initial transition.
People who are considering detransitioning are recommended to speak to a gender counsellor before taking any medical steps. An unsupervised hormonal imbalance can have wider health consequences, and therefore a trans person may need to take alternative medications to support their choice to detransition. Detransitioning is not considered common amongst those who have completed their transition.