The gender glossary

With the rapidly increased visibility of gender variant communities in British media it can sometimes be hard to know which words to use. This glossary is not comprehensive, but aims to explain the main terms in a simple, clear way. 


When babies are born, they are assigned a sex of male or female based on their external anatomy. Sex is actually made up of a combination of hormones, chromosomes, and internal reproductive organs. The sex of an infant is what is written on the birth certificate.


Gender identity

This refers to people’s deep-seated, internal sense of what their gender is. For transgender people, this does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. For most people, their gender is either man or woman, but for others it does not fit so neatly into these two choices. Gender identity is purely internal and is not visible to other people.


Gender expression

This refers to the physical indications of gender that people express through their clothing, haircut, behaviour, pronouns, name and more. Society typically categorises these expressions into masculine and feminine although the definition of what fits into these varies between cultures.


The Gender Unicorn
This handy graphic explains which part of the person gender identity, expression, sex and orientation affect. Graphic via Landyn Pan. Click image to enlarge


Sexual orientation

A person’s sexual orientation describes the people they find romantically, sexually and physically attractive. Being transgender does not have anything to do with a person’s sexual orientation. A transgender person can be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual or any other orientation.



An umbrella term that describes people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Many transgender people will opt to undergo medical treatment including hormones and/or surgical procedures in order to change their bodies, but not all do. A transgender identity is not dependent upon medical procedures.

What does it mean if someone is transgender?



A slightly older term still preferred by some people who have sought permanent physical change to their bodies. This is a specific and not general term and only applies when an individual uses the term themselves.


get the language right
Language is an important tool in showing your respect for transgender people. Image via Hampton Roads Pride



Transgender people are not cross dressers. Cross-dressers are usually heterosexual men who occasionally wear clothes, make-up and accessories that are typically associated with women. They do not wish to change their gender to become women. In the past they have also been described as transvestites.



The transition is the journey undertaken by transgender people in which they seek to change their visible gender expression to match their internal gender identity. This can include personal, medical and legal steps and generally occurs over a prolonged period of time.


Gender dysphoria

The medical term for what is experienced by those who are transgender. Importantly, it is not classified as a mental health condition.


transgender umbrella
Illustration via Mel Reiff Hill. Click image to enlarge


Somebody whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. ‘Cis’ is a Latin prefix meaning ‘on the same side as’, making it an antonym of ‘Trans’, which means ‘on the other side of’.



If someone identifies as non-binary, then they don’t feel that their identity fits with either man or woman. They can feel like they are both, neither or a mixture of both. This can also be called gender non-conforming or gender queer. These identities are distinct from being transgender and should only be used if the person identifies themselves in this way.


gender glossary


Gender fluid

People who identify as gender fluid usually feel that they are a mix of man and woman. While they’re always a mixture of genders, some days they may feel they identify more with one than others. In Native American culture the term Two-Spirit is used to describe people who possess qualities of both man and woman.


Gender variant

Somebody who either through choice or nature does not conform to any societal expectation of gender.


This glossary was compiled in reference to the comprehensive GLAAD media reference guide
Feature image via Zen Care