Demystifying terms about gender identity

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
Demystifying terms about gender identity


Demystifying Terms about Gender Identity (warning: facebook link)

When talking about issues related to the LGBT community, the always-evolving terminology can be difficult to grasp. When watching this week's Two Spirits broadcast or in discussions about the film, you may find yourself confused about terms such as "transgender."  Here’s a quick reference guide to help you understand which words apply to which situation. (Please note, however, that this list is nowhere near an exhaustive list of terms used in this community, nor are the terms themselves or their definitions universally accepted or used.)



Two Spirit - An English term that emerged in 1990 out of the third annual inter-tribal Native American/First Nations gay/lesbian American conference in Winnipeg, describes Indigenous North Americans who fulfill one of many mixed gender roles found traditionally among many Native Americans and Canadian First Nations indigenous groups.


Berdache - Until recently, the term berdache was used by (mostly white) anthropologists as a generic term to indicate "two-spirit" individuals; Use of the term has widely been replaced with two-spirit. It is considered by many to be a pejorative.


Gender identity - A gender identity is the way in which an individual identifies with a gender category, for example as being either female or male, or in some cases being both or neither.


Gender expression – A person’s outward presentation of their gender identity. It could range from the highly feminine to the highly masculine – regardless of the individual’s biological sex – and can also be a mixture or balance of both, or an expression not directly correlated to either male or female gender.


Gender binary – This term is used to express the social and cultural pressures to fall neatly and unambiguously into male or female gender roles and identities. This leaves less room for feminine expression in men and masculine expression in women. 


Cisgender - The term was coined as an antonym referring to non-transgender people; i.e. those who identify with their gender assigned at birth. The reason for the term was to provide an alternative to the word “normal” when discussing non-transgendered people.


Transgender – This is an umbrella term applied to a variety of individuals, behaviors, and groups involving tendencies to vary from culturally conventional gender roles. It does not necessarily apply only to people who wish to physically change their sex through surgery. Also expressed as gender


Genderqueer – This term is also known as “non-binary.” Someone who identifies as genderqueer may think of themselves as both man and woman,  neither man nor woman (genderless, agender); moving between genders (gender fluid); third gendered or other-gendered; or having an overlap of, or blurred lines between, gender identity and sexual orientation.


Transsexual - The word transsexual, unlike the word transgender, originated in the medical and psychological communities. Many (but not all) self-identified transsexuals do or desire to surgically change their bodies to reflect their gender identity. However, some people who self-identify as transgender may also choose to undergo surgical gender reassignment.


MTF/FTM - "Male-to-female" or "female-to-male," used to denote a transgendered person trasitioning or transitioned to the opposite sex, usually via hormones and surgery.


Transvestite – This is an old-fashioned and out-of-favor term for people (mostly heterosexual, and mostly men) who derive pleasure from dressing as the opposite sex.


Cross-dress – A slightly updated term wearing clothes traditionally associated with the opposite sex, but not necessarily deriving sexual satisfaction from it.


Drag – Drag is term that can apply any gender, sex, or orientation wearing clothes of the opposite gender for comedic effect or entertainment.


Bi-gender – Someone who moves between traditionally female gender expression and traditionally male gender expression.


Third gender — Third gender can also be a catch-all term for people who do not fall unambiguously into one of the predominant two discrete gender identities of male or female.


Androgynous — Androgyny generally refers to someone whose gender expression is a mix of masculine and feminine.


Intersex — Importantly, this term does not relate to gender, but to the physical manifestation of mixed or ambiguous combinations of the physical features that usually distinguish female from male. This is usually understood to be congenital, involving chromosomal, and physical ambiguity. An intersex individual may have biological characteristics of both the male and the female sexes. The term has displaced “hermaphrodite” in recent decades.



Sources: Youth Gender Project; Wikipedia; Diane Wilson


This is a public note on the facebook page of Independent Lens/PBS in relation to their upcoming documentary Two Spirits (babble thread here). I've posted this in its entirety for those without access to facebook, in the hopes that copying it in good faith for educational purposes will honour the authors' original intention and won't violate their' copyright. I found it extremely helpful, and since discussions of vocabulary and identity recently came up on another thread, I thought it would be useful to have as a permanent resource.



bagkitty bagkitty's picture

That is probably the most serious misunderstanding/misdefinition of drag that I have ever seen commited to ink pixels.


Red Tory Tea Girl

How would you define drag then bagkitty? My last job before transition, being in a casino as I was, felt a lot like drag, like I was performing, among other things, a learned male gender, for the patrons, which is ultimately why I quit but that's beside the point. I was performing a gender at variance with my identity for entertainment purposes instead of not-getting-my-ass-kicked purposes. Anyway, would love to hear your definition, even if it's a link to Judy's song from Better than Chocolate. Laughing

bagkitty bagkitty's picture

Well, I would have left out the shot about it being for "comic effect" or "entertainment". I have always worked under the assmumption that some forms of drag (leather drag, business drag) were taken very, very seriously by those participating in it.Wink


Red Tory Tea Girl

google doesn't give me anything on business drag so I'm going to assume it's the equivalent of dressing up like Alan B'Stard... AKA my 2004 parliamentary campaign.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Well, it's simplistic, certainly, but I could think of worse definitions. Judith Butler calls drag a method of resistance to social gender norms through parody (which is, I suppose, what the misapplied "comedic" or "entertainment" effect is trying to describe. Not quite the same thing). Drag reveals the performativity of gender, demonstrating that it is based on cultural, rather than biological origins.

bagkitty bagkitty's picture

Of course I forget to mention academic drag.

I am not sure if the effect is supposed to be comical or entertaining - although I imagine  someone will be along to explain it to us all shortly. Of course, outside of Easter, I guess it is the only excuse most people have to don a bonnet.

I will, however, take issue with some of the colour choices.


I guess some people just didn't get the memo about it being inappropriate to wear safety orange outside of deer hunting season.

Not to mention those who blur the boundaries between academic drag and clerical drag.


Sven Sven's picture

bagkitty wrote:

Of course I forget to mention academic drag.

I am not sure if the effect is supposed to be comical or entertaining

I don't know.  But he sure looks suspiciously like William Shatner...

bagkitty bagkitty's picture

Tsk, tsk, that is DOCTOR William Shatner.... it is so rude to omit the honorifics. [I was going to add the :rolleyes: smiley until I remembered it is only really available on EnMasse... just as well I guess, I really would need to use a rolleyes that would spin like the cylinders on an old style slot machine]

Maysie Maysie's picture

Looking at the photo I'm reminded of a duo, Romanovsky and Philips, who sing a great song called "Homophobes in Robes".

I couldn't find it on Youtube, but I did find Give me a Homosexual. They're fun and wacky. Enjoy.

*waves to bagkitty.

Happy Pride!

P.S. For you bagkitty: rolling eyes

Red Tory Tea Girl

I will say that the construction of trans people as MtF or FtM is patently degendering. Trans women were never male, though they were coercively assigned male at birth. It's an equating of gonadal morphology with neurology that's not really worthy of a sapient species.



Judith Butler;  Part 1/6

"What is a man? What is a woman? What is masculinity? What is feminity? What is homosexuality? What is heterosexuality? What is everything that wouldn't fit in these alternatives? We've read Judith Butler because she's a person thinking about identity and the norms. And a norms politics that isn't based on a stable identity, an eternal identity, that doesn't assume an identity.


Laverne Cox . the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy n the hit Netflix show Orange Is the New Black and appeared on the cover of Time magazine, said on respect of Gender Identity 'We're born who we are and the gender thing is something someone imposes on you,' '

Several months ago, Cox appeared on Katie Couric’s daytime talk show and refused to answer questions about the state of her genitalia.

“I do feel there is a preoccupation with that,” Cox said to Couric after she tried to force the issue. “The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.”

I love this powerful woman!


This was forwarded to me by an octogenarian M2F transgendered friend.

Red Tory Tea Girl

BTW: Gender Identity? It's like saying Lifestyle Choice, and the entire intent, in addition to deletitimizing out trans people, is to imply transness is a choice instead of transition being a choice some have the resources and privilege to make.


Trans is not a verb, it's an adjective, and she was never male, ugh.