Here at Refinery29, we know that gender is a social construct, not an innate binary. And while there’s never been more evidence to support this fact, there’s also a disturbing amount of misinformation on the topic out there.
Of course, allyship can look different for everyone. And it's not about passing any tests or inherently knowing everything; it’s a work in progress. A horizon line rather than a destination one can reach. In other words, allyship is a doing word. And one thing we can all do is work to learn more. Not only to understand the lived experience of people outside the gender binary but to alleviate the burden of education that often falls on oppressed people to share their stories of discrimination and trauma in the hopes of educating their peers.
But where to begin?
A cornerstone of allyship (and indeed social change at large) is language. Understanding and sharing the appropriate language around gender is vital to establishing safer, more open, and welcoming spaces for all. And that means using the many excellent resources available online. While you may not always know what means what—all that unlearning doesn’t come at once, after all—adopting the right language is a great place to start.
We worked with Australian academic Yves Rees to create a guide (in the form of a handy glossary of gender-related terms and their definitions) for allies to broaden their perspectives and grow their understanding of the gender spectrum.
Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, and that language around gender identity is constantly changing. It’s also important to note that definitions and labels can never do justice to the complexity of individual identities and experiences. Definitions are inherently limited and therefore flawed. Every TGD person will understand these terms in their own way and that’s the beauty of it.
Gender identity terms to know (and love)
Acronyms for ‘assigned female at birth’ and ‘assigned male at birth’. This refers to the sex someone was assigned at birth. As they grow up, an individual’s gender identity may differ from their assigned sex.
A person who does not identify with any gender identity in particular, or intentionally doesn’t follow expectations of gender.
This is a gender identity in which a person identifies as being neither 'male' and 'female'. We often associate androgyny with a neutral aesthetic, but in fact, androgynous gender expression can take any form.
The gender that society assumes a person to be based on their presentation or perceived sex assigned at birth.
Brotherboy and Sistergirl:
Terms used by some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to describe trans people. Brotherboy typically refers to people with a masculine spirit who may be assigned female at birth, while Sistergirl typically refers to people with a feminine spirit who may be assigned male at birth.
A term used to describe people whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth—in other words, people who are not transgender. "Cis" is a Latin prefix translating to "on the same side as," and is, therefore, an antonym of "trans."
While anyone may wear clothes culturally associated with a different gender, the term cross-dresser is typically used to refer to men who occasionally wear clothes, makeup, and accessories culturally associated with women. This activity is a form of gender expression and is not done for entertainment purposes. Cross-dressers do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time as women.
The name that a person was assigned at birth, mostly used in the context of someone who has transitioned and changed their name. To ‘deadname’ someone is to refer to them by their birth-assigned name and is deeply hurtful. Avoid at all costs, unless advised otherwise by the specific trans individual.
Also sometimes referred to as ‘bigender’, the term refers to someone who experiences their gender as partly boy or girl and partly another gender.
A (usually cisgender) woman who performs as a man for an audience (drag king) or man who performs as a woman (drag queen).
Describes someone who expresses gender in a feminine (feminine presenting) or masculine (masculine presenting) way.
An acronym for 'female to male', usually referring to people who have transitioned from female to male. MTF is the opposite. Some members of the trans community find these terms outdated and bio-essentialist.
External manifestations of gender, expressed through a person's clothing, hair, mannerisms, name, body characteristics, and pronouns. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although what is considered masculine or feminine changes over time and varies by culture. Typically, transgender people seek to align their gender expression with their gender identity, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth.
A person's internal sense of their gender. For transgender people, their internal gender identity does not align with the sex that they were assigned at birth.
A term used to describe some people whose gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity. This is different from being transgender or non-binary. The term is not a synonym for transgender and should only be used if someone self-identifies as gender non-conforming.
An umbrella term to describe genders other than the binary of man and woman. Many cultures around the world recognise gender diversity. For example, some First Nations cultures in Turtle Island (North America) recognise Two-Spirit people who are neither men nor women.
Someone for whom gender identity and presentation is not fixed or static. A gender-fluid person doesn’t confine themself to one gender, but instead, they may fluctuate between presenting as feminine, masculine, neither, or both.
Someone who experiences their gender as in between other genders, such as someone whose gender falls somewhere between being a man or a woman.
A verb, meaning to refer to someone using the wrong pronoun or term, such as calling a transgender woman ‘he’ or a transgender man ‘her’. To misgender someone is hurtful and offensive and should be strictly avoided. However, if you do misgender someone by accident, don’t get upset or defensive. Doing so creates the need for added emotional labour from the trans person in question. Instead, just acknowledge your mistake, apologise swiftly, correct it, and privately commit to doing better next time.
A gender-neutral title, used instead of Mr., Mrs., or Ms. for someone who does not identify as either a man or a woman.
Terms used by people who experience their gender identity as falling outside the binary categories of man and woman. The term is not a synonym for transgender or transsexual and should only be used if someone self-identifies as non-binary and/or genderqueer. Non-binary is sometimes shortened to Enby or NB, although some non-binary people find this infantilising.
A gender identity that refers to people who experience many gender identities either simultaneously or over time.
The classification of a person as male or female. At birth, infants are assigned a sex based on the physicality of their external anatomy. A person's sex, however, is actually a combination of bodily characteristics including chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics.
The singular 'they' can be used to describe someone who identifies as neither male nor female. It is increasingly common for people who have a non-binary gender identity to use they/them as their pronouns. It can also be used when you don’t want to assign a gender to someone whose gender identity you are not yet aware of. For instance: “Someone has left their phone behind. I wonder if they will come back to get it?” They/them is the most common gender-neutral pronoun, but there are also many others. These ‘neopronouns’ include ey/em, xe/xem and zie/hir.
A term used as shorthand to mean transgender, transsexual, or sometimes to be inclusive of a wide variety of identities under the transgender and gender diverse umbrella. Some non-binary and gender diverse people may feel they belong within the trans umbrella; others see their gender identity as being distinct from trans.
Transfeminine (trans femme) and transmasculine (trans masc):
A transfeminine person is someone who was assigned male at birth, but who now identifies and presents as somewhat or totally feminine. This person may or may not identify totally as a woman or a transgender woman, however. Transmasculine is the opposite. In both cases, trans people may casually refer to themselves with the shortened ‘femme’ and ‘masc’ too. Not everyone from the LGBTQ+ community who uses these terms identifies as trans.
A transgender person is someone whose gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth. For instance, someone assigned female at birth may identify as a man or another gender entirely. There are as many ways to be transgender as there are trans people. Some transgender people may change their name, clothes, hair, and pronouns. Others may also pursue medical treatments such as hormone replacement therapy, electrolysis, and/or surgery. However, this process will vary according to the individual and there is no one right way to be trans. It is rude and invasive to ask about the specific changes and treatments that an individual may or may not have undertaken or wishes to undertake.
Transition is a common term to refer to the process by which a trans person comes to express their gender identity. It generally refers to the shift from living as the sex one was assigned at birth to living as one’s true gender. This is sometimes divided into ‘social transition’ (changing name and pronouns etc) and ‘medical transition’ (hormones and/or surgeries). However, many trans people are uncomfortable with the term ‘transition’, as it implies a shift between two identities rather than the process of affirming an identity that was always there. For this reason, the term ‘affirmation’ is often preferred. Gender affirmation is not a one-step procedure; it is a complex process that occurs over a sustained period of time. It can include some or all of the following steps: telling one's family, friends, and co-workers; using a different name and new pronouns; dressing and/o grooming differently; changing one's name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; and possibly (though not always) one or more types of surgery. The exact steps involved in gender affirmation vary from person to person. It's important to avoid the antiquated phrase "sex change."
This is a living, breathing space that will be continuously updated as the subject evolves and we learn more about it. Please reach out to us if you have any suggestions or comments.