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Gender Spectrum has provided this quick introduction to gender on their website.

This 20 minute video, called "Transgender Basics," does not address issues of faith communities, but provides an excellent, audio-visual overview of transgender issues. Developed by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center (New York, NY). Available for free, on-line.


Key Points

Everyone has gender. Gender is assigned at birth and defines legal, medical, and social expectations for the rest of our lives. The specific expectations vary by culture. Many, if not most, of us struggle with at least some of the expectations of our assigned gender. 

The simple male/female model of gender involves a wide range of assumptions about not only body shape and size, chromosomes, hormones, but also about behavior, desire, and identity. Yet, real people have genders that are much more beautiful and varied than that model suggests!


Going Deeper: Gender Concepts

If we look beyond the simplistic notion that there are two and only two gender options, we open ourselves to a beautiful and varied, multi-dimensional understanding of gender. The following concepts provide a beginning toolkit for understanding the many gender dynamics at play in this rich diversity.

Assigned Gender

At birth, most children are assigned a gender based on a cursory review of the organ between the child's legs.

  • If the organ is more than 2.5 cm, the child is labeled a boy.
  • If the organ is less than 1 cm, the child is labeled a girl.
  • For those children that fall in between, life is more complicated. A gender is typically assigned by a medical team, which may also prescribe a "treatment plan" to surgically reshape the child's genitalia until they conform to the doctor's expectations.

This gender assignment process is non-consensual, legally binding, and understood by many to be permanent. All kinds of assumptions are made about the person based on this initial gender assignment.

Affirmed Gender (or Gender Identity)

Someone's internal sense of their own gender is called their "affirmed gender" or "gender identity."

In most people, the gender assigned at birth and the gender affirmed by the individual's experience match up with relative ease.

Sometimes, there is a conflict between the individual's assigned gender and affirmed gender. Such a conflict may or may not be hidden well, depending on the individual situation.

Gender Norms and Expectations

Specific gender expectations and social norms depend on cultural context and can change over time. Some cultures allow for more gender diversity than others.

Yet, in far too many places, the assigned gender will shape the child's social life forever, imposing both opportunities and constraints -- what to wear, how to behave, who to desire, and even what jobs to hold.  In these contexts, all kinds of people to struggle with gender norms and expectations that feel too restrictive.

Gender Expression

Gender expression refers collectively to all the gender cues that an individual offers to the world -- cues which, intentionally or unintentionally, signify gender to others. These cues are always interpreted through cultural gender norms and expectations.

Gender is a highly social construction. Gender expression may be a natural reflection of someone's personality and gender identity -- or it may be a performance designed to meet expectations.

Gender Markers

So how is gender determined on a day to day basis?

Most often, we "read" one another's gender based on visible (or audible) gender markers.

  • Secondary sex characteristics (size of breasts, hips, adam's apple, shoulders, hands; patterns of hair growth; voice pitch, etc) are powerful gender markers.
  • Gender is also communicated through socially significant decisions. Clothing, accessories and hair style are key gender markers -- but choices about things from toys and friends, to bathrooms, careers, and hobbies are also significant.
  • Less tangible attributes, such as logical thinking, emotional intelligence, or how someone occupies space can also be read as a gender marker.
  • In some circumstances, legal documentation may come into play, such as a driver's license, birth certificate, or medical records.

Yet, no one characteristic is definitive on its own. Even legal documentation of gender will be questioned, if it doesn't match up well enough with the rest of the gender markers that are being presented.

  • While genitalia is widely said to "determine" gender, it is rare that we expose ourselves in any normal social context. Thus, genitalia and other reproductive organs do not function as gender markers in most day to day interactions.
  • Likewise, much is made about chromosomes, hormones, and the biological basis of gender, but many of us go through most of our lives without having our chromosomes or hormone levels examined.

We process so many different gender markers whenever we notice gender on a day to day basis. It's not at all like choosing between two points (masculine/feminine) or even finding a point on a spectrum (like a straight line between two gendered extremes).

Gender is much more like a giant Koosh Ball of gender markers. Somehow, we take this knot of (sometimes conflicting) gender markers, interpret them through our particular expectations and cultural understanding in order to come up with a determination about someone's gender.

Wouldn't it be easier to just ask?


Trans Basics
Gender vs. Sexuality
Beyond the Binary
Labels and Vocabulary
Myths and Sterotypes
Children and Youth
Is it an Illness?