A Gender Terminology Refresher

The mainstream conversation about gender identity has widened significantly in the last few months, between Caitlyn Jenner’s public transition and Miley Cyrus and Ruby Rose appearing in the public eye identifying as genderqueer. It may be a great moment for a refresher on gender terminology, so here at The Frisky, we wanted to provide you with a glossary of terms! Let’s dive in.

  • Sex is a medical term, and is determined by your genitals, basically. It describes, roughly, how your body functions. The appropriate terms here are “male,” “female,” and “intersex,” but Anne Fausto-Sterling has argued that there are, in fact, at least five sexes.
  • Primary Sex Characteristics are reproductive characteristics, i.e. ovaries, testes, penises, vaginas.
  • Secondary Sex Characteristics are physical characteristics that appear after a person has gone through puberty – breasts for females, for example, or Adam’s apples for males, among many other characteristics.
  • Intersex refers to people who are born with both male and female primary sex characteristics.
  • Sex Assigned At Birth refers to the idea that when people are born, we are categorized generally into “male” or “female” based on our genitalia. Then, based on that sex assignment, we’re generally raised and socialized as boys or girls. This is an especially sensitive topic for intersex individuals, whose primary sex characteristics have often been surgically altered to fit them into one of the two conventional sex categories, and who can then be forced to be socialized as one of the two conventional gender categories. In this way, our culture erases the identity of people who exist between sexes.
  • Gender refers to roles that were socially constructed based on sex. A person’s gender doesn’t always correspond to their sex – ergo, because someone has female secondary sex characteristics, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that person is a woman. Gender has to do with the behaviors we perform, and it has to do with the way we perceive ourselves in terms of the spectrum between (and probably beyond) masculinity and femininity.
  • Gender Identity is the way a person perceives their own gender (i.e. the only perception of their gender that matters!).
  • Gender Expression refers to the way an individual performs their gender, based on cultural notions and norms of masculinity and femininity that have to do with dress, self-presentation, and behavior.
  • Cisgender means that gender and sex assigned at birth correspond. The prefix “cis-” is Latin and means “on this side of.”
  • Transgender means that an individual’s gender identity isn’t the same as their sex assigned at birth. “Trans-” is also Latin, and means “on the other side.”
  • Genderqueer and Non-Binary are very roughly analogous terms for people who identify as falling outside of the gender binary, being neither men nor women, regardless of sex.
  • Gender Fluidity refers to a performance of gender that fluctuates between masculinity and femininity.
  • Cross-Dressing refers to the act of wearing clothes that aren’t associated with your gender. It’s not the same thing as drag: Cross-dressing is a day-to-day thing, something one does because it’s personally pleasing or comfortable.
  • Drag is a theatre-style performance of crossing genders. Drag kings are people who perform masculinity for a drag performance; drag queens are people who perform femininity for a drag performance. While there is some overlap between the drag community and the trans* community, being trans* and performing and living in a gender are not the same thing as drag, which is done specifically for entertainment.

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