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What is gender identity?

Gender identity refers to how a person sees or feels about themselves. It describes the personal sense of feeling or knowing that you are a man or woman or non-binary person. This can be the same or different to the gender they were assigned at birth.

Gender identity is the set of feelings and beliefs a person has about their gender. It is about feeling or knowing that you are a certain gender, regardless of your body or the sex assigned to you at birth.

What is sex?

The word ‘sex’ refers to our biological sexual characteristics, which are the external genitals, internal reproductive organs, chromosomes and hormones.

Although all these things contribute to someone’s sex, people are defined as male or female as soon as they are born, based on observation of their external genitals. 

Here are some useful terms that people use to talk about gender identity. While some people find labels very helpful in understanding their own and others’ experiences of gender, others prefer not to use labels at all.

These are not the only ways in which people define their gender identity. 


For most people, the sex they were assigned at birth is the same as their gender identity. This is called being ‘cisgender’, or ‘cis’. Cis (pronounced ‘siss’) is a Latin word that means ‘on this side of’.


Sometimes, people’s sex assigned to them at birth doesn’t match or sit easily with their gender identity, they may use the term ‘trans’ to describe themselves.

Trans is an umbrella term that describes all the different ways of not belonging to the gender that aligns with the sex you were assigned at birth, so it can mean different things to different people.

For example, people may describe themselves as trans if:

  • they were assigned female at birth but recognise themselves to be men – they may refer to themselves as trans men
  • they were assigned male at birth but recognise themselves to be women – they may refer to themselves as trans women
  • they recognise their gender as being beyond or between man or woman – they may refer to themselves as non-binary
  • they experience different genders at different times – they may describe themselves as gender fluid
  • they don’t experience a sense of gender at all – they may describe themselves as agender


Some people have a gender identity that isn’t simply ‘man’ or ‘woman’: the word for this is non-binary. This is another umbrella term, meaning there are lots of different ways of being non-binary. Non-binary people can feel that their gender identity involves being both a man and a woman, or that it is neither, it is in between, or is something else entirely.

Gender binary: The conventional idea that everyone identifies as one of two genders (i.e. is either a boy or a girl) is what is known as the gender binary. The word ‘binary’ comes from Latin, and means ‘duality’ or ‘a pair’. 

What is gender expression?

Gender expression is the outward behaviours and choices a person makes that are associated with ideas about gender. This can include choices about their appearance, for example clothing and hairstyles, and their behaviour and mannerisms. Our society associates certain appearances with certain genders. However, your gender expression doesn’t have to be a reflection of your gender identity.

Gender expression describes the outward ways that people may choose to express aspects of their gender. This may include things like clothing and hairstyles, and behaviour and mannerisms. While many of these things are associated with gender stereotypes, people can choose to express themselves however they wish, and gender expression doesn’t have to ‘match’ gender identity. People can choose forms of gender expression that are ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’, both or neither. 

Being respectful

What is misgendering?

Misgendering is the act of referring to someone as the wrong gender or using the wrong pronouns. This usually refers to intentionally referring to a trans person incorrectly, but can also be done by accident.

A person’s individual identity may be very important to them, so it can feel uncomfortable to be misgendered.

Sometimes it can seem difficult or complicated to understand gender, and you might worry about getting it ‘wrong’. Some of the concepts and language may be very new to you and you may be reading or hearing lots of different ideas. Websites like Gendered Intelligence and Stonewall have lots of information about trans and non-binary identities. A good starting place is to avoid making assumptions based on what people look like and try to be sensitive and inclusive. Being kind is always the best approach: whether you are trying to learn about the issues or trying to teach someone about them.

Any harassment or bullying of people because of how they identify or present is wrong whether it is because they don’t conform to a gender stereotype, or because of their gender identity.   

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