The Nature of Sex, Sexuality, Attraction, and Gender Identity
Many people assume that sex and gender are the same things because, for the most part, these labels match. However, gender identity and sex are not the same thing.
Sex refers to the label that is most closely related to our biological makeup- the combination of chromosomes, hormones, and genitalia that make up our physical form. These labels are typically male or female (though people outside these labels exist, like intersex people) and become our assumed gender at birth (AGAB).
Gender Identity, on the other hand, is all about how one internally senses their gender.
Those whose internal sense matches their sex are Cis (cisgender). Those whose internal sense does not match are Trans (transgender).
Truthfully, it can be difficult to separate gender and sex from one another. We as a society tend to view gender identity through the lens of our sex and the roles associated with it. Many will say, oh you’re a ‘insert gender’ because you have ‘insert sex characteristic’, or all ‘insert gender’ do this ‘insert gendered hobby’. But what if that was all taken away? What if one day you suddenly woke up in the opposite sex’s body or you just became a brain in a jar, would you still say you’re the gender you are if that were the case? Whatever answer you give, the feeling behind that answer is what constitutes your gender identity, not your sex or the roles associated with it.
Gender Identity is also often confused with Sexuality. Both are included under the Queer and/or LGBT+ umbrella and are used to describe the variations in self-expression and love that lay outside of the allocishet majority’s experience, but they aren’t the same thing. Though they’re related they can exist outside of one another. Someone can be just gay. Someone can be just trans. Someone can be gay and trans. They’re just different aspects of a person that have been given language through queer labels.
Sexuality (Sexual Orientation) refers to what gender(s) and/or whom one is attracted to
Sexual Orientation can be split into Allo-Spec (those who regularly experience romantic and/or sexual attraction) and Ace-Spec (those who experience a lack, or absence, of romantic and/or sexual attraction). Both spectrums can then be divided into the labels we are more familiar with (lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc). Ace-Spec people can also have additional labels relating to their attraction experiences (grey, demi, litho, etc) Most people use only one label, but Aces will sometimes use a combination of labels to denote their levels of attraction (ex Greyromantic Lesbian, Gay Demisexual, Biromantic Asexual, etc)
Attraction refers to the form (and, in different usage, the intensity) in which one experiences affection for a person.
Many people assume that when one feels attraction toward someone that it must be sexual, and because of this attraction is often conflated with Libido. However, these two things are not the same. Libido refers to a physical sensation felt in the body that has no direction. Attraction, regardless of whether it is sexual or not, is a thought process that is directed toward other individuals. This distinction is why you’ll sometimes hear the terms sex-favorable, sex-indifferent, and sex-repulsed be used (it’s to distinguish one’s libido in relation to their sexuality).
Attraction does not have to be sexual, nor does it have to be romantic. Most only recognize or validate these two types but there are many other types out there. These unrecognized attractions all fall under the label of Tertiary Attraction. Some types included in this are Aesthetic, Sensual, Emotional, Intellectual, Familial, Platonic, and Queerplatonic Attractions.
Viewing The Gender Spectrum
Current Society tends to view gender in one of two ways.
The first is as two boxes. One labeled Male. The other labeled Female. And you either fit into one or the other.
The second is as a scale ranging between Male and Female, with Nonbinary being centered in the middle.
Both of these interpretations are inaccurate. You aren’t one or the other, nor are you fixed between two points. Gender is so much more.
Imagine a color wheel. It has so many colors, so many shades. Some shades clearly contradict (like yellow and purple), but some are so similar you can’t tell the difference (like ivory and eggshell). And gender is the same way. There are so many different ways to be a man or a woman, just like there are so many shades that fall into the blue and red families, and there are so many identities and colors that exist outside of them.
The label Nonbinary isn’t just the colors betwixt blue and red, but all of the colors that fall outside the two families. It’s the purples and the yellows, the grayscales and multicolor patterns not pictured, and the colors that have yet to be discovered. It’s an umbrella term for all the identities that exist outside the binary of female and male.
Some people may choose to use this label, others may choose to use their gender micro-labels, and some may just ditch the labels altogether. Whatever labels one uses or does not use is their choice. Every person’s gender identity is unique to them, and while some labels may seem like the label of a person’s shade, that label could mean a completely different shade to that person. No one is allowed to dictate what labels belong to whom*, only what their label means to them.
*The exception to this rule is with identities that belong to specific cultures. Identities such as Two-Spirit or Hijra, which belong to Indigenous Americans and Southeast Asians respectively, have specific connotations and play significant roles within these cultures. These identities deserve to be respected and should never be co-opted or claimed by anyone outside of these cultures.
What "Makes" Someone Trans
When people think of trans* people, they often think of medical transition. Many trans* people do, in fact, choose this route. Many also experience a sensation known as Gender Incongruence.
Gender Incongruence is the disconnection one feels between their assigned gender at birth and their gender identity, and it can present in a variety of ways. The most common are: Dysphoria (an intensely unpleasant feeling when associating with one’s agab), Euphoria (a pleasant feeling when associating with one’s gender identity), and Gender Envy (when one is in admiration of and desires another’s presentation). Dysphoria in particular is really dangerous to a transgender individual’s well-being, as it can produce a lot of distress, discomfort, and dysfunction, all of which could lead to depression and, if continuously untreated, suicide. For a trans* person, one of the most effective ways to combat Dysphoria is to medically transition as it eliminates the physical reminders one has of their AGAB and introduces characteristics that could induce Euphoria.
However, that is not to say that all trans* people medically transition for this reason, or that all who experience Gender Incongruence desire to medically transition. Despite what transphobes and trans* gatekeepers would have you believe, there is no requirement that a trans* person must medically transition, or that they ever should experience Gender Incongruence for that matter. What makes one’s trans identity valid is not based on their transition journey, or even the relationship one has between their gender and their sex. What “makes” a trans* person is just this; the acknowledgment and/or belief that their gender identity does not align with what they were assigned at birth.
You may be thinking right now, well that’s vague, how does one really know if they’re actually trans* or not, and the truth is that you don’t really. At least not at first. There is a lot of complexity in the gender spectrum, and discovering where exactly one fits into it requires tons of introspection and questioning. And the answers one comes across may not be exactly right the first time around.
Some questioning/baby trans* have this fear of faking a Trans identity. First, questioning your gender in itself is a good indicator of being trans*. Most Cisgender people never even once think that their gender identity might not match their sex. Second, gender isn’t stagnant. It’s fluid. Labels can change as we continue to grow and develop as people and as our understanding of the world expands. The label we use today may not be the same as the label we use a year from now, and that’s okay. Third, even if your experimenting leads you to the conclusion that you are cisgender and not trans*, that’s great! You’ve done the work to determine for yourself what your identity is and have come out of that experience with a better understanding of gender and trans* identity, and are in a position to help educate others who haven’t done the work.
Questions to Help Facilitate Introspection:
- Do I like to be referred to, seen as, or treated as one gender over another? Does being a different gender feel better than being my assigned gender?
- How do I feel when I see myself in the clothes of a different gender? Does it look like me? Do I prefer to present more feminine, more masculine, more neutral, or a mix?
- When presenting as a gender other than what I was assigned at birth, do I hesitate to return to the presentation of my assigned gender? Do I tell myself “just five more minutes of being this trans* persona”?
- Does it feel strange to present myself as a trans* identity because it is new, or because it is uncomfortable to present as a different gender? Am I uncomfortable enough to change back to my previous presentation?
- Am I scared to go back to my assigned gender? If I am scared, why?
- What is the main reason I think I may be trans*? Is it related to gender roles, gender presentation, or something else?
- What is the main reason I think I may not be trans*? Is it related to gender roles, gender presentation, or something else?
- Do I think I want to be a particular gender because of the “aesthetic” of its presentation?
- Can I explain why I feel connected to a certain gender? Is there a logical reason?
- Would I rather get rid of the questions by having my mind change to fit my body, or having my body change to fit my mind?
- If someone magical offered to give me a new body of my choosing, what sort of body would I choose?
What it Means to Transition
Transitioning can look different depending on the individual. There are some who medically transition, some who transition both medically and socially, some who only transition socially, and some who just don’t transition at all.
For those that do transition, their transition often involves efforts of altering their Gender Presentation (also sometimes referred to as Gender Expression). Gender Presentation is how one’s appearance, interests, and behaviors are interpreted by society into gendered roles and/or stereotypes. Gender Presentation and Gender Identity are not the same, nor do they have to match. A masculine presentation does not equal man, nor does a feminine presentation equal woman. However, most people prefer that they do match.
To this end a trans person may:
- “Come Out” to the People Around Them
- Choose a New Name
- Use Different Pronouns
- Grow, Cut, or Restyle Their Hair
- Acquire a New Wardrobe (Including the Addition of Gender Affirming Garments/Prosthetics)
- Change Their Body Language
- Pursue Vocal Training and/or Change Speech Patterns
- Practice Different Hygiene Habits
- Indulge in New Hobbies (Ones That Were Likely Denied to Them Because of Gender Stereotypes)
- Take Puberty Blockers
- Participate in Hormone Replacement Therapy
- Receive Gender Affirming Surgery
- And Whatever Else Makes Them Most Comfortable In Themselves
Coming out is a rather intense decision for a trans* person. On one hand, you’ll finally be able to live authentically as the person you are. On the other, you may face ostracization from people who are important to you and experience a lot of heartbreak.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really any one way to come out. Different relationships benefit from different interactions and you can’t really control how people will react. Sometimes a simple “I’m trans” is all that’s needed. Other times, you may need to prepare yourself for intensive questioning. And as painful as it is, sometimes no matter how we give the news the person on the other end will be completely unreceptive.
Whatever the situation may be, coming out is hard and requires a lot of thought.
Consider The Following Things:
- Do you have a safety net?
- If you’re living with someone who may react negatively to your coming out, do you have another place to stay? If not, do you know what local shelters are nearby and if they can provide assistance to you? Do you have a vehicle you could sleep in otherwise?
- Can you take care of yourself financially? Have enough money for your necessities? If not, do you know any programs that can assist you? Are you familiar with your local food and/or clothing banks?
- How strong is your support system? Are you connected with a community that consistently encourages you? Do you have a therapist or have access to enough mental health resources to substitute?
- What is your relationship to the party you are coming out to?
- Try to start with people who you feel might celebrate and encourage your coming out. This person can hype you up, and give you the confidence you need to face the next party. They can also help advocate when you deal with people who aren’t as receptive.
- If you have a friend that is prone to gossip, are you comfortable with them possibly spilling your coming out? If not, probably save coming out to them for later.
- What tone do you feel this person will best respond to? If it’s a closer relationship you might want a more serious and in-depth conversation, but if it’s with a fellow trans* person you may find it best to just casually drop your coming out into conversation.
- Unsure how a person may react? You can put some feelers out by mentioning something featuring a trans character, or by discussing a trans rights issue, or even by sharing your own feelings in the context of “a friend” (“I have a friend who is thinking about coming out as trans to their loved one”).
- Is there anything going on in this person’s life that may impede their ability to listen to your coming out?
- Your coming out is important and it requires full attention. If there are things going on, like a death in the person’s family or a bad breakup, etc, etc, then they aren’t going to be able to properly process the news that you are giving them. In these cases, it is best to wait on coming out (to them at least, other people unaffected by the situation are free game) until they can give you the attention you deserve.
- What setting do you feel is best for the coming out?
- Private settings offer more privacy and less chance of interruptions. They also show a lot of trust in the participants of the conversation.
- With Public settings you risk the conversation being overheard by others, but it can offer safety in numbers if you feel the situation might become dangerous.
- Online and text are quick to execute, but you aren’t guaranteed an immediate response. And the response you do get can be underwhelming, as you can’t properly read the person’s reaction without their body language and facial expressions to guide you. If you’re desiring a positive response from a particular person, this method can cause more anxiety than if you had the conversation in-person.
- What information are you comfortable with sharing?
- It can be helpful to make a script about what you’re going to say beforehand.
- It can also be useful to prepare a resource inventory beforehand so you have some things to direct your loved ones to if you find yourself having trouble explaining things. This resource inventory should be made up of materials that helped you in your gender discovery, as well as any community supports your loved ones could interact with.
Remember that coming out is a process. You don’t have to come out all at once. You don’t have to have all the answers. You can be patient with yourself. As for the people around you, don’t be discouraged by a negative reaction. Sometimes people just need time to adjust. If they can’t adjust, just know it’s on them and not on you. You are being true to yourself, and that’s amazing!
Choosing A New Name
Many trans* people find that the name they were given at birth causes discomfort. For most, it is rather difficult to associate their birth name with their gender identity and not the dysphoria that comes with their AGAB. Not all trans* people choose to change their name: some love their birth name, others can alleviate their dysphoria by using a nickname, and some go by different names depending on who they’re with. It’s all about what name feels most comfortable to you. If you feel that a name no longer fits, regardless of whether it’s your birth name, a nickname, or something previously chosen, you are allowed to change it, however often you feel like. You are always free to test out and explore what name(s) feel most comfortable and affirming to you.
For those interested in choosing a new name, here are some things you may consider:
- Does the name feel good on your tongue?
- How does the new name sound in relationship with any middle and/or last name(s) you may be keeping?
- How would you deal with possible mispronunciations?
- What of any potential shortenings of the name? How would you feel hearing nicknames based on this name?
- How complex is it to write the name? Does it feel good to write?
- How would you deal with potential misspellings of this name?
- What are your feelings toward the name when initialed?
- Would you prefer a name that is common? Or would you prefer a name that no one shares?
- What names were popular around the time that you were born?
- Gender Association
- How do you feel towards traditionally feminine and/or masculine names?
- How would you potentially deal with people’s incorrect assumptions on your gender based off this name?
- Significance to You
- Are there any themes or motifs for names that call out to you?
- What other names were your parents considering naming you? Are there any names and/or name motifs that run in the family?
- What possible historical/cultural connotations are attached to this name?
- Are there any characters or celebrities who you relate to, whose name(s) you might want to use?
- Are there any nicknames/aliases your friends and/or family have given or suggested to you that you like?
Searching for a Name? Try These
What Were You Born as? / What's in Your Pants?
This question is one of the most disrespectful questions cisgender people ask. Asking this question immediately invalidates someone’s gender by suggesting that biological sex is more important than gender identity. The insinuation behind this oftentimes is that we are somehow faking or pretending to be the gender that we are. We are who we say we are, and insinuating otherwise is insulting.
If you ask this question with neutral or good intentions, you may actually be wondering about a person’s gender identity, the gender someone was assigned at birth, or their transition/surgery status. But, quite frankly, in most cases, it’s none of your business. If you want to know if someone is trans or not, wait for them to tell you on their own. Demanding to know such personal information as soon as you meet someone is invasive and inappropriate. You wouldn’t be asking a cisgender person these questions upon meeting, so you shouldn’t be asking a trans* person either.
- If you want to know the gender someone was assigned at birth, ask yourself why you feel like you need this information. Will it affect how you treat them? Will it change the way you see them regarding their gender presentation? If you are not their doctor or someone else who actually needs this information to do your job properly, you likely don’t need the answer. Being curious about trans* people is natural, but avoid questions that you would not ask a cisgender person.
- If you want to know someone’s transition status, especially whether they have had “the surgery” yet, ask yourself why you care what their genitals look like. Do you care what a cis person’s genitals look like? Probably not. Again, if you are not their doctor, you probably don’t need to be asking this question. You don’t want a stranger to ask about your sex characteristics, don’t ask others about theirs.
- If you are curious about how trans* people deal with the incongruence between their bodies and their gender, do research! There are so many resources, on this FAQ page and elsewhere around the internet, that can help answer a lot of these personal questions, and save your local trans* person a lot of grief.
Instead of asking about someone’s genitals, ask about their pronouns; this is non-invasive and lets people know that you are accepting of trans* identities.
Why Did You Decide to be Trans?
The phrasing of these questions is incredibly disrespectful to trans* people. You may just be curious about how trans* identities work, but saying that someone “wants” or “chooses” to be trans* is offensive. People do not choose to be trans*. They do, however, choose to tell people about our identity and pronouns, and hearing these questions often encourages trans* people to stay in the closet.
Asking these questions is asking a person to justify or explain an identity that is very personal and often more complicated than cisgender people realize. Trans* people often take long periods of time to explore their gender and what labels, pronouns, and language makes them feel most comfortable. To be asked questions like “Why do you want to be trans?” or “Why did you choose to be trans?” suggests that being trans* is a phase, trend, or quick decision when it’s not.
- If you want to know the language someone prefers (e.g. pronouns, labels, descriptors), ask directly (e.g. “What pronouns do you use?).
- If you want to know more about how trans* identities work in general, research on your own! Explaining how trans-ness works to everyone around us can get exhausting, especially when it is phrased in a disrespectful way.
If you still feel you are justified in asking this question, try turning it around on yourself. Ask yourself, “Why did I choose to be cisgender? When did I decide that I am the gender I identify with?”
When Did You Become Trans?
Similar to asking why someone may “choose” to be trans*, it is incredibly disrespectful to use this phrasing. Saying someone “became” or “decided” to be trans* suggests that being trans* is a choice, which it is not. If you are wondering when someone “decided” to be trans*, you probably want to know either when they started to question their gender, when they realized they were trans*, or when they came out as trans*. All of these questions are valid and okay to ask as long as you have established that this person’s identity is an okay topic!
If you are wondering about how long they have known they were trans*, you can totally ask that. It is different for everyone! Some people have known pretty much their whole lives. Some started questioning their gender as a teenager. Some realized in early, mid, or late adulthood. It doesn’t really matter when or at what age, all of these paths are valid.
If you are wondering about how long they have been out of the closet, you can ask this too! Some people have big announcements where they tell everyone they know all at once, and some people come out one person at a time. It really is unique to everyone. As long as you ensure that they are okay talking about it with you and ask in a respectful way at a good time, it is acceptable to ask these questions.
You Sure You're Not a Masc Lesbian (for AFAB Trans) / Fem Gay (for AMAB Trans)?
Asking this question invalidates a person’s sexuality and gender identity. You may think it is “easier” or “harder” to be straight but trans* instead of cis but gay, but this is inappropriate. People do not choose to have stigmatized identities, they choose to reveal them. Asking this question dismisses all of their self-reflection and assumes they are transitioning to avoid anti-gay stigma.
What's Your Real Name?
This question is harmful to trans* people in multiple ways.
First, if you meet a trans* person who has changed their name, you should never ask for their given name (unless you need it for medical or legal reasons). It is irrelevant to how you refer to them in the present. Ask yourself why you feel the need to know what they were called before they came out.
Second, by using the word “real” instead of “given,” you are arguing that the name a trans* person chooses to represent themself is fake or invalid. Their chosen name is their real name.
Third, many cisgender people change their names unquestioned. Spouses will take the last name of their partner. Children will ask teachers and friends to use a nickname. Some adults will completely change their name just because they thought the new name was nice, or that it was funny. All of these name changes are respected without question, so why is it different for trans* folks?
Bottom line: don’t ask this question. Respect their chosen name, and don’t try to figure out what their birth name was.
You'll Always be (Deadname) to Me / Can't I Just Use (Deadname)?
Using someone’s given name after they change it (deadnaming) or using the wrong pronouns (misgendering) is incredibly disrespectful and dysphoria-inducing in almost every context. Unless the trans* person has explicitly told you not to use their name and pronouns (whether for safety or privacy), you should use their chosen name and pronouns. Yes, even if you’re friends who have known each other forever and you grew up calling them something different. Yes, even if you’re parents who gave them their birth name. Yes, even if you’re extended family, old friends, new friends, teachers, employers, or whoever. No matter your relation, if someone has come out to you with a new name and/or different pronouns, it is your responsibility to use them. Willingly choosing to use their deadname and misgender them shows incredible ignorance and tells your trans* loved one that they will not be listened to nor will they be safe around you.
You may have some difficulty updating the language you use for them, but the work is worth it. Before you tell them that “switching to your new name/pronouns is hard for me,” consider how hard it is to tell your loved ones about a personal part of your identity and have it not always be respected. Practice their new name and pronouns, whether it’s by yourself, with another friend or family member, or with a therapist (especially for parents dealing with the “loss” of who they thought their child was). A trans* person with support is healthier and happier than one without.
You Can Tell Someone is Trans Based on How They Look/Act
You may think that all trans* people have a certain “look,” making it possible to identify who is trans* simply by looking, but this is not the case. There are plenty of men who don’t ever reach 5 ft in height, women with strong adam apples, men who don’t grow much body hair, woman who gain a lot of muscle mass, etc. Similarly, plenty of men enjoy “feminine” hobbies like make-up or sewing, and plenty of women enjoy “masculine” hobbies like fishing and video games. These “tells” are entirely based on sexist ideas of what a woman or man should look and/or act like, and do not encompass the variety of shapes, sizes, and characteristics we see in both sexes. In this same regard, to tell a trans* person that they “don’t look trans” as a compliment is offensive.
The only way to determine if someone is trans* or not is to ask them directly (though it’s often innappropriate, especially in cases where you don’t know each other personally) or wait until they are comfortable enough to tell you.
Trans is a Trend
Trans* identities have existed as long as humans have. They have existed in every culture, era, and region of the world, albeit in different forms and with different labels. They’ve just gone unrecognized due to the constant erasure of their people, their narratives, and their cultures’ customs.
The reality is, despite Western society’s insistence on the gender binary, trans* people have always existed and will continue to exist until the world’s end. The reason some argue that trans* is a trend is that before the internet our voices mainly went unheard. With technology making more information and knowledge available to society, it has become easier for trans* people to see themselves reflected in the world and to find community with each other. This access to our culture and community has encouraged many closeted trans* people to be open and come out.
It isn’t that more trans* people suddenly exist, it’s that now closeted trans* have access to their language and can give voice to who they are.