With much exposure in popular culture into the private lives of celebrities such as Caitlin Jenner, Laverne Cox, Ellen DeGeneres, RuPaul Charles, and George Takei, words describing gender and sexuality are on the front page. Misuse of these descriptors can lead to misunderstandings and confusion – mixing up the differences between trans and gay and intersex and non-gendered folks. In fact we are all learning how we fit into the world and how to be respectful of others: our kids are learning these terms in school, workplaces are striving to understand and to use appropriate language for their employees and customers, people we know and love are using words to express their unique identities, and some of us may also be trying to find language that describes our own gender and sexuality. Here are some distinctions that might be helpful to better understand the diversity of gender and sexual expression of all people in the world.
This is the physical body, the sex assigned at birth: male for those born with a penis, female if you came into the world with a vagina, and intersex if your sex was deemed ambiguous. Some intersex folks are assigned one gender at birth but later discover through infertility or puberty that they are intersex.
Our gender is something that we know in our minds and identify for ourselves. It is our own individual and internal experience of what our gender is, regardless of what our bodies look like. Options include male, female, trans, genderqueer, non-gendered, non-binary , and gender-fluid (those who identify with the latter variations often believe that there are more than two genders or that the current view of gender is flawed).
A trans person identifies fully or partially with a different gender identity than the biological sex assigned to them at birth. For example, a transwoman is a person whose biological sex was male at birth but who sees themselves (Ie their gender identity) as female.
Someone cis-gendered identifies with the same gender that they were assigned at birth, eg someone assigned female at birth and identifies as female. Cis-gendered folk make up the majority of the population. Their biological sex matches their gender identity.
Why then do we need the term cis? Without the term cis, there is a tendency to label any particular woman for example either a “regular” woman or a trans woman. But everyone's identity is equally valid and no one is more “regular” than another. Although one experience may be more commonly seen, we are all people. Thus many folks are using the term cis-gender so that we all have a label: either cis-gender or trans-gender.
By the way, cis and trans are latin prefixes sometimes used in science. Cis- means “on this side of” and trans- means “on the other side of”. Thus someone cis-gender experiences their gender on the same side as their biology (eg female/ female) and someone trans-gender experiences their gender on the other side of their biology (eg female/ male).
Our gender expression is the external appearance of our gender identity, how we present ourselves, in terms of our hair, clothing, behaviour, nails, etc. Gender expression may not conform to socially constructed gender norms- feminine, androgynous or masculine. A cis -gender woman (female biological sex and female identified) might prefer to dress in ways more socially identified as feminine or might feel more comfortable in male clothes or something non-gendered or androgynous.
A cross-dresser on the other hand is someone who at times will change their appearance in terms of clothing, behaviour etc to that more commonly associated with the opposite sex of their biology, often for erotic or performance purposes. A cross-dresser might live as and identify mostly as one gender (eg cis-gender male) but sometimes enjoy dressing up as a different (eg female) gender when expressing their sexuality on their own, with a partner or in public.
Sexual attraction is thought to originate in the womb before birth. Many people assume that they are heterosexual or “straight” because the dominant culture, media and people in our surroundings are heterosexual and because of the pressure to conform. Some realize when young, old or somewhere in between that they are in fact not straight. Some are homosexual/ gay/ lesbian (attracted to the same sex), bisexual (attracted to men and women), queer (an umbrella term for attracted to the same and/or opposite sex) pansexual (attracted to people of all genders: male, female, genderqueer, trans folk etc) or asexual (not sexually attracted to anyone although may be romantically attracted to one or more genders).
An umbrella term used by some indigenous/ First Nations people that includes gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or trans folk.
Why sweat the semantics? Isn’t this just too much trouble? It is important that we remember that most of us do not question our gender or sexual orientation. We may have self-acceptance and societal understanding and recognition. But myths, stereotypes and prejudices can be nourished by misunderstandings of diversity surrounding gender and sexual identity. Understanding and using the correct language can go a long way so that, regardless of our gender or sexual orientation, we can all be included and validated as equals as we are. Just as those of us who fall into a mainstream demographic like to be understood and accepted, everyone’s attitudes towards those whose sexual identity and sexuality fall out of the mainstream demographic also need understanding and respectful use of language. Doing so can build bridges, add richness to our own experiences and make a big difference in everyone’s lives – in our families, workplaces and communities.
This article appears in the November 2016 issue of Tonic Toronto.