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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?

Different societies have different ideas about how people should behave, look or dress depending on their bodies. These ideas and expectations are what makes up the concept of ‘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’. This is then usually paired with a ‘gender assigned at birth’, which is the set of characteristics that are expected of a person with a certain sex.

  • 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. 

Sex has historically been presented as two categories: male and female. However, sex is a spectrum. Some people are intersex, which means they have a variation of sex characteristics (genitals, chromosomes, internal reproductive organs, etc.) that don’t align with traditional ideas of male/female bodies. Find out more about being intersex here.

When ideas and expectations about gender are applied in ways which are strict or inflexible, they can limit people’s opportunities and choices, and can damage people’s confidence and relationships. These sets of restrictive ideas can also be known as ‘stereotypes’.

What is a stereotype?

A stereotype is a widely held but fixed and overly simplified idea of a particular type of person.

Many children and adults don’t conform to the gender stereotypes expected of them, simply because they don’t happen to enjoy the clothes, hobbies and interests, behaviours or communication styles (typically ‘masculine’ or typically ‘feminine’) that are considered appropriate for them.  Many people who don’t conform to a gender stereotype are confident and happy in their gender identity and in their bodies.

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 that aligns with the sex you were assigned 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 sex at birth which doesn’t align with their gender identity, 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.

Gender binary

The 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’. 


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 behave in ways labelled as ‘feminine’, such as by wearing ‘feminine’ clothes, and women can behave in ways labelled as ‘masculine’, such as by wearing ‘masculine’ clothes. Non-binary people’s gender expression can be ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’, both or neither, either at the same time or on different days. 


Transitioning is the word given to any changes a trans person makes in order to live more comfortably. It could mean anything from changing their name and/or pronouns, to expressing their gender identity through their clothes or other types of external expression. This is often called a ‘social transition’.

Transitioning might involve taking hormones or having surgery to change a person’s body. This is known as ‘medical transitioning’. 

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

There is no one single way to transition. The assumption that you have to transition in a certain way, look a certain way or behave in a certain way if you are trans is sometimes called ‘transnormativity’, and is unhelpful because it is another set of stereotypes.

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 any harassment or bullying of people because of how they identify is wrong.


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.

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

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. Controlling how people express their gender is a 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.

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

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.2

Not everyone identifies with one gender, some people will have a different gender to the one aligned with the sex they were assigned at birth; and others simply don’t present in stereotypical ways. Any harassment or bullying of people because of how they identify or present is wrong.   

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 about trans and non-binary identities, 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 Stories
    Online spaces helped me discover my identity: Lois’ Story
    Real Stories
    Looking for ‘The One’: Em’s Story
    Real Stories
    Supporting a trans partner: Emma’s story
    Find LGBT+ 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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