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Background Research


Many people conceptualize gender solely from the point of view of the sex that we are assigned at birth. Those who are assigned female at birth are automatically believed to be woman and those assigned male at birth are automatically assumed to be men. People who take this view understand gender as a “fact" that does not change. However, gender may be better understood as a process —something that we grow into that is shaped by our surroundings (e.g., families, communities, cultures), and that remains fluid throughout our lives (Airton, 2018). Our understanding of gender is shaped throughout our lives by the different experiences we have; for example, you may remember being told that something is “only for girls” or hearing sayings like “boys don’t cry” (Chang, Sing, & dickey, 2018).

We are starting to understand that gender is more complex than the sex we are assigned at birth.Even though there has been a recent trend towards a better understanding of trans identities, it is important to note that transgender and gender diverse identities have existed around the globe for a long time (Chang, Singh, & dickey, 2018). To best understand gender identity, an good startng place is understanding contemporary basic concepts and definitions. For example:

Transgender: Transgender is an umbrella term that typically describes people who do not identify fully with the gender assumed for them, particularly if those assumtions are based on their sex assigned at birth. This may include people who at times, but do not always, identify with their assigned gender or who identify with other genders along with their assigned gender. Transgender identities can be understood as including both binary identities (e.g.,  transgender woman, transgender man) as well as non-binary identities (e.g., genderfluid, genderqueer, agender). However, it is important to remember that although transgender is used as an umbrella term, some non-binary folks may not utilize this term. (The Safe Zone Project, 2021; TransWhat?, 2021).

Nonbinary/Non-binary: The term non-binary is used when an individual does not feel their gender identity can be defined within the gender binary (e.g., man or woman). A nonbinary individual may or may not be a part of the transgender community. Many nonbinary individuals have gender identities that are unique to them and, therefore, nonbinary cannot be described with a concise nor definitive definition. Nonbinary folks may also experience fluidity in their gender identity or feel that they encompass more than one gender identity sometimes or all the time (LGBT Foundation, 2021; The Safe Zone Project, 2021).

Cisgender: People who identify as cisgender believe their gender identity is the same one that they were assigned at birth (e.g., a person with a vulva who was assigned female at birth and identifies as a woman; The Safe Zone Project, 2021).

Linking back to the idea of gender as a “fact” versus “process,” many people who see gender as a “fact” believe that gender is a binary concept. The gender binary refers to the set of cultural beliefs in two genders with rigid expectations and roles (Chang, Sing, & dickey, 2018). However, even people who are cisgender typically do not exist easily on the gender binary. To better understand the complexities of gender for individuals, it can be helpful to utilize visual guides such as the Gender Unicorn (see below). The Gender Unicorn is a common guide that illustrates that gender identity, gender expression, sex assigned at birth, physical attraction, and emotional attraction are all distinct factors that vary from person to person (Trans Student Educational Resources, 2021). This tool is also helpful to clarify that gender and sexuality are not the same but two different processes. There is a common misconception that one’s gender identity and sexuality are linked; however as you can see below, this is not the case:


Citations/Further Reading:

Airton, L. (2018). Gender: Your guide: A gender-friendly primer on what to know, what to say, and what to do in the new gender culture. Simon and Schuster.

Chang, S. C., Singh, A. A., & dickey, l.m. (2018). A clinician's guide to gender-affirming care: Working with transgender and gender nonconforming clients. New Harbinger Publications.

LGBT Foundation. (2021) Non-binary inclusion.

The Safe Zone Project. (2021). LGBTQ+ vocabulary glossary of terms.

Trans Student Educational Resources. (2015). The Gender Unicorn.

TransWhat? (2021). Glossary of terms.