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Understanding Gender

Common questions about gender identity and ways to support transgender people

Transgender people identify with a gender other than the one associated with their sex assigned at birth.

Despite a number of recent executiveand legislative attempts to deny transgender people access to public accommodations, health care and military service, new data from a 23-country survey, including the United States, reflect increasing tolerance and support for transgender people among the majority surveyed.

Given these tensions, we asked Hale Thompson, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, to help answer some common questions about gender identity.

What is gender identity?

Gender identity is one's internal sense of self as it relates — or doesn't relate — to the societal roles and expectations associated with one's sex assigned at birth.

Cisgender refers to gender identities that align with one's sex assigned at birth.

Transgender refers to identities that differ from those associated with sex assigned at birth.

What is gender expression?

Gender expression refers to how one communicates to the world in terms of their gender identity. Behaviors, dress, hairstyles and voice intonation all play a role.

Are there only two genders?

Most people in the U.S. move through the world as if there are only two genders, but there are many. Some people identify as men, others as women. Some feel they have no gender at all, while others feel they have several, or that their gender is fluid.

We tend to assume gender identity and expression are fixed. Actually, they're quite dynamic.

What is gender fluidity?

How one's gender is expressed can shift over time. We tend to assume gender identity and expression are fixed. Actually, they're quite dynamic. David Bowie is a popular example of someone who had a very fluid gender expression.

While most individuals generally express themselves within one gender, everyone experiences some level of gender fluidity. Some days we may want to assert a particular aspect of our gender — maybe a power suit that asserts one's masculinity is appropriate for a work meeting. Other days — for instance, when wearing a ceremonial robe at a religious event — one might want to express a gentler gender.

Is gender defined by whom you are attracted to?

Gender identity and sexual attraction are very different things.

Neither your gender identity nor sex determines who you're attracted to. Like cisgender people, transgender people can be gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual or asexual.

Is someone who dresses in a different gender's traditional clothing transgender?

Not necessarily.

There are feminine men. There are masculine-presenting — also referred to as "butch" — women. There are androgynous people who have a combination of both feminine and masculine attributes.

However, some people take steps to match their exterior to their inner feelings by changing their hair, clothes, name and pronouns. Some use hormones and surgery.

Learn about Rush's commitment to the LGBTQ community

Do pronouns matter?

They totally matter. Imposing pronouns other than ones people use for themselves is disrespectful.

It can be really challenging for people to shift pronouns used for an individual they have known for many years, and mistakes will be made.

If misgendering occurs, acknowledge the mistake and express the desire to do better.

How should I react to a loved one who is exploring their gender identity?

Show compassion and patience. Coming out to family and friends can be stressful.

Allow that person to explore their gender, and let them go where they go. There is no one path to gender, and people make all sorts of different decisions. Don't make assumptions about how they should behave.

How can I be an ally?

Do the work to overcome your own biases about gender identity. Learn how to show positive support.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Practice active listening without judgment.
  • Advocate to stop discrimination and violence toward gender non-conforming people.
  • Offer to accompany newly transitioning friends or family members to doctors' appointments or other places where access may be difficult.
  • If you have difficulties understanding, seek out information or therapy for yourself; do not burden your trans loved one with educating you or taking care of your discomfort.

Most important, continue to love the person the way you always have. Like everyone, they need friendship and support.

Read "Pride Month: Beyond the Parade," a blog post by Hale Thompson about the challenges and oppression LGBTQ people continue to face in our society.

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