Healthy lives for young people

What is gender?

Gender is the word for the socially constructed ideas about human behaviour, actions and roles in relation to ideas of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. The way you feel about your gender is called your gender identity.

What is gender?

When we are born, the doctor or midwife who helps deliver us looks at our genitals to decide whether we are a girl or a boy. This is what is called your ‘sex assigned at birth’. 

  • If someone is ‘assigned female at birth’, which is often shortened to AFAB, this is usually because they have a vulva and vagina. Babies with a vulva are expected to grow up into girls and then into women. 
  • If someone is ‘assigned male at birth’, which is often shortened to AMAB, this is usually because they have a penis and testicles. Babies with a penis are expected to grow up into boys and then into men. 

Gender binary

The idea that everyone 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 identity?

Your gender identity is the feelings and convictions you have about your gender. 


For some people, the sex they were assigned at birth can be 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’. You’ll find people referring to themselves and others as cis men, or cis women.

Sometimes, however, people are assumed to be in a gender group that they don’t belong in. Babies who are expected to grow up to be one gender might actually have a different gender identity.


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

Trans is a latin word that means ‘across’ or ‘on the other side of’. It’s used in this context because of the word ‘transgender’ being used by people who don’t identify with the gender they’ve been given. If someone is assigned a gender at birth which they don’t identify with, they might refer to themselves as trans. For example, if someone is assigned male at birth, but they identify as a woman, they may call themself a trans woman, and if someone is assigned female at birth but identifies as a man, they might refer to themselves as a trans man.


Some people have a gender identity that isn’t simply ‘man’ or ‘woman’: the word for this is non-binary, which 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 moves around, is in between, or something else entirely. 

These are not the only ways in which people define their gender identity. See more terms and definitions to do with gender and gender identity.

Gender expression

Gender expression is the way a person might behave or dress in gendered ways . Your gender expression doesn’t have to be a reflection of your gender identity. Men can wear feminine clothes and make-up and women can wear masculine clothes and not wear make-up. Non-binary people’s gender expression can be masculine, feminine, both or neither, either at the same time or on different days. 

Trans people have been incorrectly labelled as either a man or a woman, so they often have to fight to be allowed to express the gender they want to. Think about how people sometimes react when boys put on ‘girls clothes’, or when girls behave ‘like boys’; people can feel uncomfortable or angry about it.

Imagine you’re a woman, but everyone expects you to be a man, and every time you express your gender people try to stop you. This makes life very hard and this controlling of how people express their gender is a very unpleasant form of bullying that trans and non-binary people often experience. Think about this next time you see someone teasing or criticising people in this way.


Some trans people may take hormones or have surgery. This is known as ‘medical transitioning’. 

Some trans people may change the clothes they wear in order to express their gender. Some may cut their hair differently or start or stop wearing makeup. They might change their name. They might also start using different pronouns. This is what is called ‘social transitioning’. 

Some trans people may officially change their gender or sex on legal documents, which is called ‘legal transitioning’.

For some trans people it might be unsafe to transition. It can also be very difficult, expensive and stressful to get hormones or have surgery, and some trans people don’t want to transition at all. 

Those who don’t transition for whatever reason are still valid and deserve to have their gender respected. Transitioning can be very hard, but many trans people are happier after they’ve transitioned. 

If someone tells you they’re transitioning, be friendly and supportive. See our page on transitioning to find out more.

Being respectful

The key thing to remember is that not everyone is either a boy/man/male or a girl/woman/female, and that some people will have a different gender to the one they were assigned at birth. There is nothing wrong with this, and any harassment or bullying of people because they have gender identities other than male or female is not okay. 


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

It can feel uncomfortable to be misgendered. This is partly because a person’s individual identity is very important, but also because society has very strict rules, stereotypes and assumptions about what people ‘should’ do, based on ideas of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ behaviour. This is restrictive for everyone, but it can be even more challenging for trans people to express their gender identity as they want to.

You should always be respectful of people’s gender identity and expression.

Sometimes, it can feel difficult or complex to understand gender and you might worry about getting it wrong, but there are actions you can take like doing research on websites like Gendered Intelligence and Stonewall, talking to people about gender, not making assumptions based on what people look like, and trying to be sensitive and inclusive.


    Other Stuff you might find useful…

    Real Story
    Supporting a trans partner: Emma’s story
    Find LGBTQ+ support near you
    Gender: a few definitions
    Coming out
    What is the difference between sex and gender?
    Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying
    Advice on coming out


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