Gender Identity Terminology

Sex vs. Gender

Sex refers to attributes that characterize biological maleness and femaleness. In humans, the best known attributes that constitute biological sex include the sex-determining genes, the sex chromosomes, internal reproductive structures, the external genitalia, and secondary sexual characteristics—features that tend to appear during puberty, especially those that distinguish the sexes. Gender refers to the psychological, behavioral, or cultural characteristics associated with maleness and femaleness.

Gender Binary

This is a term referring to how society puts people into an either/or category of boy/girl. The term is considered narrow minded by some because gender itself is experienced on a spectrum and is not experienced as being 100% female or 100% male.

Gender Role

Gender role refers to behaviors, attitudes, and personality traits that a society, in a given socio-cultural context or historical period, designates as masculine or feminine, or that is more typical of a male or female social role.

Sex Role

A sex role is distinct from a gender role in that it identifies a function or role that is unique and exclusive to a particular biological sex, as opposed to a social role generally assigned to or expected of one sex or another. An example of a sex role would be gestating, giving birth to, or breast-feeding a child. As much as a biological male may wish to give birth to a child, it’s not physically possible. An example of a gender role may be financial provider or cook; while it may be more common or expected in a given culture for a male to be a financial provider, a woman can be just as able.


Gender Identity

Gender identity refers to a person’s self-experienced or self-perceived basic sense of relative maleness (masculinity) or femaleness (femininity).

Gender expression

Gender expression refers to the way in which a person acts to communicate gender within a given culture; for example, through masculine or feminine behaviors, clothing, hair, communication patterns, and interests. A person’s gender expression may or may not be consistent with socially prescribed gender roles, and may or may not reflect his or her gender identity.

Gender variance

Gender variance refers to the behavior, appearance, or identity of persons who cross, transcend, or do not conform to culturally defined norms for persons of their biological sex.

Gender Non-Conforming

This refers to a person who does not conform to society’s expected ways of ‘being’ a man or woman. An example could include a woman who chooses to become a truck driver but does not see herself as a man, and this could also include a young boy who wants to play dolls with the girls and experiences himself as more female than male. A gender nonconforming person may or may not feel distressed over his or her birth sex.

Gender dysphoria

Gender dysphoria is a discomfort characterized by a feeling of incongruence between one’s chromosomal or natal sex and one’s internal sense of gender. It is also the new official diagnostic category in the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) and does not inherently denote a disorder as the DSM-IV-TR did with its diagnostic category of Gender Identity Disorder (GID). The experience of gender incongruence and resulting gender dysphoria may take many forms and, thus, is considered to be a multicategory concept, and the DSM-5 acknowledges the wide variation of gender-variant conditions.

Gender Identity Disorder

Gender Identity Disorder (GID) was a psychiatric diagnosis of gender incongruence first defined in the DSM-III. Its principal diagnostic criteria were gender dysphoria and strong and persistent cross-gender identification, resulting in clinically significant distress or impairment in social or occupational functioning. While it is no longer an official diagnostic category, because it was the diagnostic category that framed the research questions for over 30 years, it is still occasionally heard or seen in literature on this topic.


Transgender is a popular cultural term typically used as an umbrella term for many different identities. People who identify transgender have a gender identity and/or gender expression that does not line up with their biological sex. It’s also important to understand, however, that “transgender” is a cultural identity construct and not all people who are gender variant or who experience gender dysphoria identify as transgender, so its employment as an umbrella term, as oppose to an identity construct within the larger umbrella of gender variance, is somewhat problematic.


A transvestite wears the clothes of another sex, but this does not necessarily mean they are gender dysphoric. A transvestite might cross-dress to perform on stage, and this does not imply internal distress regarding gender. On the other hand, a transvestite might be cross-dressing out of the desire to experience what it might be like to live as another gender, just out of curiosity.


Dressing up as another gender, usually the opposite gender. A man might wear a dress, wig, and makeup, or he might just wear female undergarments that only he knows about. A woman might attempt to look completely masculine in hair cut, clothing, and demeanor, or she might just prefer some masculine clothing items.

Transvestic Fetishism

Also known as “Transvestic Disorder” in the DSM-5, is a sexual fetish in which a person cross-dresses for sexual release. The person is aroused sexually by imagining themselves as the opposite sex, or they are aroused sexually by wearing clothes of the opposite sex, or both. This may be combined with gender dysphoria, but it is a separate issue. It can appear in adulthood or teenagehood, and can vary widely in whether the person actually has transgender feelings or not.


The term transsexual has traditionally been used to refer to a person who identifies as the opposite sex of that which he or she was assigned at birth and who feel an overwhelming desire to permanently live as members of the opposite sex. For such persons, an interest in cross-living, cross-sex hormones, and/or Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS) is more likely to occur. While not used as often in contemporary culture as the term transgender, some use transsexual more broadly to refer to anyone who lives socially as a member of the opposite sex, regardless of which, if any, medical interventions they have undergone or may desire in the future.


Being neither distinctly male or female in the way one dresses and acts. This may or may not refer to a third gender. A person can appear androgynous and be neither gender dysphoric or experience same-sex attraction, or they may appear androgynous and experience one or both.

Gender Queer

An informal, colloquial term referring to the experience of not neatly fitting into the package of male, female, or transgender. Sometimes this term has a political undertone inferring that the person is deliberately and openly disavowing themselves from society’s ideas of the gender binary which they find to be restrictive or prejudiced. This person probably would describe themselves as the “third gender” or as “gender fluid.”

Gender Fluid

This term refers to the experience that some describe as floating between the genders, and can change from day to day or year to year. A person might experience feeling very feminine and in sync with females, and then through life experiences might align more with a feeling of being more male. This person would not self-describe as “transgender” because sometimes he or she does not experience being transgender at all.

Intersex Conditions or Disorders/Differences of Sex Development (DSDs)

An intersex condition—now usually referred to as disorders (or differences) of sexual development or DSDs—is when a person is born with some atypical biological characteristics that are both male and female. This can manifest itself in ambiguous genitalia, development of secondary sex characteristics that are inconsistent with genitalia, atypical chromosomes (i.e., XXY or XYY), or in other ways are different from the typical development of male or female. Gender dysphoria may occur in individuals with a DSD, and some Intersex individuals may identify as transgender, but transgendered and intersex individuals are typically seen as being in separate categories.