From Cis to Trans Fem, activist Fox Fisher breaks down the who, what, and whys of gender expression…
Pronouns are an incredibly important part of people’s identity and our way of identifying with the world. Using the right pronouns for people shows that you are aware of their identity and you respect it. It’s therefore incredibly important to make an effort to use the right pronouns for people at all times, even when referring to them in the past. People’s pronouns might not always fit to what you assume them to be, so if someone corrects you or if you accidentally use the wrong one, just say you’re sorry and move on.
Most people will use either “he/him” or “she/her” pronouns, but there is a growing number of people using gender-neutral pronouns such as “they/them”. They and them has existed as a singular pronoun in the English language for centuries and is a grammatically correct way of referring to someone. Most people even do it without noticing, like when you don’t know someone’s gender. I.e. “Someone left their hat, I wonder if they’ll be back to get it.”
People whose gender identity matches the gender and sex they were assigned at birth are cisgender. While many might claim the term “cis” is offensive and pushing on them an identity they don’t want, it is important to note that cis is nothing but a descriptor. Cis is to trans what straight is to gay. Neither can exist without the other, and neither are offensive terms. They simply reflect our place in society in relation to gender identity.
Gender refers to our cultural understandings and expectations of what it is to be a woman, man or a non-binary person. While gender and the norms attached to it are socially constructed, it inevitably affects someone status in society. People’s perceptions of your gender will ultimately affect how you are treated in society in social situations and is one of the bases of gender-based oppression. Gender is also sometimes used by individuals to describe their experience of gender and their identity.
Refers to how you express yourself, whether that is in masculine, feminine or androgynous terms. Gender expression is often tied to gender identity, i.e. women present in a feminine way, men in a masculine way, but it doesn’t have to be. Some women present in a masculine way and some men in a feminine way, and it doesn’t make them any less men or women. Similarly, non-binary people also have a range of expressions and despite popular belief, not all non-binary people are androgynous blobs that walk the line of gender and no one can ever perceive them as a man or a woman. Many non-binary people take on typical gender expressions and are generally seen as men or women by strangers. It’s important to realise that our gender expression or gender identity do not necessarily correlate.
Gender identity refers to someone’s innate sense of self in terms of gender. It is an intrinsic part of who we are, and everyone has a gender identity. It is whether you feel that you are a man, a woman or a non-binary person. Your gender identity isn’t bound by your genitals or sex characteristics, as people do not need to look down their pants or in the mirror to know what their gender identity is.
Some people might’ve never had to think about their gender identity as they were assigned the right gender and sex at birth, and therefore might feel a disconnect from this word. Similarly, straight people rarely have to think about their sexual orientation and that reveals just how quick we are to point out difference, but never speak about the position of those who fall into the ‘norm’ of gender and sexual orientation.
Refers to people whose gender identity isn’t exclusively a man or a woman. It can refer to people whose gender identity is both, in between, fluid, or completely outside of the binary of gender. Non-binary is often used as an umbrella term for all identities that fit into that mould, such as genderfluid, genderqueer, agender and bigender. It can also be used to describe personal identity, i.e. “I am a non-binary”.
It is common that people might refer to non-binary people as “gender non-binary”, but this term isn’t a term non-binary people use to describe themselves and you would never say: “This is Susan, she is a gender woman”. It just doesn’t work.
Sex (sex characteristics)
Sex is the categorisation of sex characteristics into male, female and intersex. Essentially these terms are a simplification of the diversity of biological sex, as there is a vast difference between people within those categories. Sex characteristics are divided into primary and secondary sex characteristics. Primary refers to attributes such as chromosomes, hormone production, reproductive organs and genitals. Secondary sex characteristics are outer physical attributes that develop based on your hormone production, such as hair growth, fat distribution and bone structure.
While some might claim that you can never change your biological sex, it is important to remember that you can change the vast majority of your sex characteristics through hormone therapy and/or surgeries. Essentially the categorisation into “male” and “female” is little but our cultural norms and understandings of how we categorise bodies and does not take into account people’s experiences and sense of self.
Trans is an umbrella term for all things trans. It includes all people that don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and therefore includes trans women, trans men and non-binary people.
Refers to any trans person (i.e. trans women and non-binary people) that experiences or expresses themselves in more feminine terms. Trans feminine people usually experience their gender more on the feminine spectrum of things, which can include expressing themselves to the world in a way that is seen as feminine.
Trans girl / Trans woman
A girl/woman that was assumed to be a boy at birth based on her outer genitalia.
Trans boy / Trans man
A boy/man that was assumed to be a girl at birth based on his outer genitalia.
Refers to any trans person (i.e. trans men and non-binary people) that experiences or expresses themselves in more masculine terms. Trans masculine people usually experience their gender more on the masculine spectrum of things, which can include expressing themselves to the world in a way that is seen as masculine.
Transitioning refers to a social and medical process trans people can go through as they start to live as their authentic selves. A social transition usually includes starting to use a different name and/or pronoun that reflects someone’s gender identity and experience. Some trans people (but not all) also seek a medical transition that can include hormone therapy and surgeries to change their physical characteristics, i.e. top surgeries, genital surgery and facial feminisation surgery. It’s important to note that each person and their needs are different and not only to trans women and trans men transition but also some non-binary people. Transitioning should therefore not be seen as a binary sliding scale of going from A to B or ‘going all the way’ or not.
This list is of course just a short list and is in no way a comprehensive list of all things trans. It’s also important to note that terms and concepts change through time and differ between context and cultures. They should therefore only be seen as an indicator and general explanations.
No trans person was born with the language around gender and sex, and we are constantly learning new things and trying to navigate our way through a culture that is so embedded with binary understandings of these things. It’s important that we all make an effort to respect each other and each other’s identities and ultimately everyone should be allowed to be themselves regardless of concepts, definition and terminology.
To find out more information, and to unpick other terms, go to http://www.transstudent.org/definitions/
Fox Fisher is a non-binary trans rights campaigner, artist and filmmaker.