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Gender identity – Terms to know
by Rob June 3rd 2012, 12:21 PM

Gender identity – Terms to know
By Chess (Celestial.)

When someone hears the word ‘gender’, most people automatically think of the binary system: male or female. However, more and more people are coming to an understanding about the gender spectrum, which goes beyond the simple ‘male or female’ mentality that many people hold. A lot of people also assume that the terms 'sex' and 'gender' are interchangeable, but sex refers only to the physical characteristics (i.e. reproductive organs). Of course there are many people who do simply identify as male or female – if their biological sex matches their gender identity, they may be referred to as ‘cisgendered’. That said, there are also people who don’t fit neatly into the gender binary. This can come in many shapes and forms, some of which will be discussed below.

One of the most obvious examples of a gender identity which falls outside of the binary is the idea of being transgendered. As the name implies, this describes people who feel that their gender does not match their biological sex. The two most prominent types are female-to-male (people whose sex is female but gender is male) or male-to-female (people whose sex is male but gender is female). Abbreviations may be used to describe these two gender identities, with 'FtM' and 'MtF' being the most common. These people may choose to undergo a transition toward their desired sex, often through Sexual Reassignment Surgery, but many choose not to go through this (often due to the expensive nature of the procedure). The term transsexual is sometimes applied to people who have gone through the procedure, who are planning to go through it, or who simply want to go through it.

There are some less obvious parts of the gender spectrum, which are sometimes covered by the umbrella term ‘genderqueer’. This could include people who identify as bigender (male and female), gender neutral (no gender), neutrois (neither male nor female, and aiming to lose all appearance of either), and androgynous (someone whose gender/sex cannot be determined by looking at them or even interacting with them - the way they express their gender identity may be physical, psychological, or both). Someone who is gender-fluid may find that their gender identity changes, whether gradually or suddenly – for example, they could identify as female at one point, male at another, and both at once.

There are also people who deliberately mock or go against traditional concepts of gender. These are often aptly known as ‘gender non-conforming’, and may not identify as genderqueer in any way. They may engage in acts which typically go against gender roles, or combine characteristics of more than one gender. This could include such things as cross-dressing or drag. These people fall into two broad categories: those who aim to challenge society's views on gender and gender roles (for example, a cisgendered male wearing a skirt), or those who go against traditional concepts so they can express their gender identity as they see fit (for example, a male-bodied, female-identified person wearing a skirt).

In addition to names for categorising gender identity, there are other phrases which may come up in discussion of the topic. For example, binders (used to mask female features like breasts and curves), gaffs (used to hide the appearance of a penis), or packers (used to give the appearance of a penis) are all ways to alter the outward appearance of an individual. Other terms include: passing, where a transgendered person is assumed to be their identified gender (e.g. a female-to-male being taken for a biological male); stealth, which could be seen as an extension of passing, since it refers to a person living as their identified gender without people realising it is not the same as the sex they were given at birth; and being read, where a person is seen as a member of a particular gender (differing from passing in that the responsibility is on the person doing the reading).

These are just some of the basic terms associated with gender identity. It can be a tricky thing to understand, especially in a world where people are taught that there are only two genders, each with their own traditional roles. Gender identity is often misunderstood, or people simply don’t think about it, but it’s a very interesting concept, and one to which people should pay more attention. If you're interested in learning more about gender identity, a good starting point is to talk to a local LGBT group or organisation - the people there are usually friendly and happy to help, and may be able to give you the answers you're looking for.
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