What are some of the foundational terms and concepts for engaging in gender-affirming practices?

On this page

What is the gender binary, and why is it a problem?
  • The gender binary refers to the belief that people come in exactly two sexes/genders: female and male, women and men. That belief shows up everywhere. In grammar, public restrooms, legal documents, surveys, sports leagues and clothing departments, people are constantly asked to identify themselves as one of only two possible options. But this binary is not based in the scientific reality of sex. While most people have biological sex characteristics that fit neatly with one or the other sex category, not everyone does; people whose bodies include both “male” and “female” traits, or who have sex chromosomes that are neither XX nor XY, are known as intersex people. (See article: How common is intersex?)
  • The binary also doesn’t reflect the social and cultural realities of gender. Many cultures past and present have recognized social gender identities that are neither male nor female. And in the U.S. today, studies suggest that there are 1.4 million transgender Americans; one in three young adults (ages 18-29) knows someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns; and “nearly half of Americans now see gender on a spectrum and feel comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns.”  See What’s Your Pronoun?: Strategies for Inclusion in the Workplace (pdf).
  • Although the gender binary is a social fiction, it has real and harmful consequences: intersex babies are routinely subjected to medically unnecessary genital surgeries to “normalize” their appearance. And failing to recognize gender identities and expressions that don’t match up with a person’s assigned sex (in the case of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people) can negatively impact self-esteem and acceptance, as well as making members of those groups less likely to seek out help from professors, medical providers, and more.
  • Gender affirming spaces and practices aim (1) to not reproduce myths about binary sex and (2) to acknowledge and welcome people of different genders. For example, you might do this through language like “people” rather than “men and women,” “people of a different sex” versus “people of the opposite sex,” and “all genders/any gender” rather than “both genders.”
What is the difference between gender, sex assigned at birth, and sexuality? 
  • Biological Sex: (noun) A medical term used to refer to the chromosomal, hormonal, and anatomical characteristics that are used to classify an individual as female, male, or intersex. Often referred to as “sex,” “physical sex,” “natal sex,” “anatomical sex,” or specifically as “sex assigned [or designated] at birth.” Terms like “AFAB” and “AMAB” (assigned female at birth; assigned male at birth”) may also be used in place of “biological female” or “biological male.”
  • Gender Expression: (noun) The external display of one’s gender, through a combination of dress, demeanor, social behavior, and other factors, generally measured on scales of masculinity and femininity. Also referred to as “gender presentation.”
  • Gender Identity: (noun) The internal perception of a person’s gender and how they label themselves. Common identity labels include man, woman, genderqueer, trans, and more.
  • Gender Non-Comforming: (adj) Someone whose gender presentation does not align in a predicted fashion with gender-based expectations.
  • Nonbinary: (adj) someone whose gender identity blends elements of being a man or a woman, or a gender that is different than either male or female, or someone that does not identify with any gender.
  • Transgender (Trans): (adj) (1) An umbrella term covering a range of identities that cross over socially defined gender norms. (2) A person who identifies with a gender other than what was expected based on the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Sexual Orientation: (noun) The type of sexual, romantic, emotional/spiritual attraction one feels for others, often labeled based on the gender relationship between the person and the people they are attracted to.
  • Microaggression: (noun) subtle or overt, intentional or unintentional interactions or behaviors that communicate bias toward marginalized groups. Micro does not signify “small” in terms of impact, but rather signifies that these interactions tend to happen by one person to another person, rather than an explicit bias comment to a group. These interactions, especially over time, can cause physical and psychological harm, often being described as “death by a thousand papercuts.”

Gender, sex, and sexuality can be connected but it is important to also see them as different pieces of what makes up a person’s identity. We cannot make assumptions. If someone presents themselves in a masculine way in their gender expression, this does not mean we can assume that their gender identity is male. It is also important to note that these identities and expressions are not stagnant; the way people identify themselves can change over time. To better understand the differences, check out this graphic: “The Gender Unicorn” by TSER (pdf).

What is gender dysphoria?
  • Gender dysphoria is a feeling of distress that comes from one’s assigned sex not matching the gender identity one holds. Not all gender nonconforming people experience dysphoria. Clinically, mental health providers can diagnose gender dysphoria as part of the process of meeting insurance requirements to grant a trans person access to gender-affirming hormone treatments and surgeries.This is consistent with the latest guidance from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but it is a highly controversial practice and there is a lot of advocacy to take out all gender identity “mental health disorders” from the DSM. Despite the controversy surrounding the continued inclusion of gender dysphoria in the DSM, please be advised that, depending on where they are located, some trans or GNC individuals may seek out a diagnosis in order to obtain amended legal documents. To see what is required to change a name or gender marker on legal documents by state, check out the National Center for Transgender Equality website.
  • Individuals may also address feelings of gender dysphoria non-medically, such as by changing their name and/or pronouns, adjusting their appearance and gender expression, or otherwise telling people how they identify and would like to be identified. People experiencing gender dysphoria have heightened risks of many mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, isolation, low self-esteem, substance abuse, self-harm, and suicide (APA 2015); however, studies have shown that these elevated risks are rooted in the stigma and social exclusion that trans people face; being transgender is not, in itself, a mental illness, nor the cause of the mental health struggles. Cultivating an inclusive, gender-affirming campus climate is among the most important things we can do to promote the wellbeing of trans and nonbinary community members.
    See articles:
    Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender Noncomforming People, APA 2015 (pdf)
    Why Transgender People Experience More Mental Health Issues
  • Power imbalances can exacerbate dysphoric thinking. For example, when professors invalidate, misgender, or otherwise do not support trans students, it can create enhanced feelings of dysphoria because of the power dynamic between professors, who are often seen as authoritative figures by their students.
Why are pronouns important?
  • Telling someone your pronouns means telling them how you’d like to be referred to. And taking the time to learn someone’s pronouns and use them correctly—even if they’re unfamiliar to you—is a basic gesture of respect.
  • People who are transgender, nonbinary, and/or gender nonconforming often face misgendering (being referred to as a gender they do not identify with), which is harmful (see article: What Does It Mean to Misgender Someone?).  Misgendering can become a source of significant discomfort or self-consciousness, distraction from learning, and even severe physical or financial risk (in the case of people who are “outed” in front of transphobic colleagues, friends, or family members). Long term misgendering may lead to trauma responses and gender dysphoria in the individual who has been consistently misgendered.
  • Sharing pronouns can help normalize sharing & asking about people’s pronouns, rather than making assumptions based on their name or how they look. And for cisgender folks (that is, people who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth), it’s a way to support trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people in our communities.
What are some examples of gender-neutral pronouns, and how do I use them?

In English, singular first- and second-person pronouns are already ungendered (I and you). Here are some examples of third-person pronouns and their use:

    • She/her/hers: “This is Roary. She is a first-year student, and her intended major is Bioinformatics. You can find her studying in the library.”
    • He/him/his: “This is Roary. He is a first-year student, and his intended major is Early Childhood Education. You can find him studying in the library.”
    • They/them/theirs: “This is Roary. They are a first-year student, and their intended major is Sociology. You can find them studying in the library.”
    • Ze/hir/hirs (also sometimes ze/zir/zirs): “This is Roary. Ze is a first-year student, and hir intended major is Hispanic Studies. You can find hir studying in the library.”
    • Sie/sir/hirs:This is Roary. Sie is a first-year student, and hir intended major is Chemistry. You can find sir studying in the library.”
    • E/em/eirs: “This is Roary. E is a first-year student, and eir intended major is Visual Art. You can find em studying in the library.”
    • No pronouns: “This is Roary. Roary is a first-year student, and Roary’s intended major is Philosophy. You can find Roary studying in the library.”
    • Other examples of gender-neutral pronouns.
I don’t know somebody’s pronouns. How do I find out?
  • Ask yourself whether you need to know someone’s pronouns, especially since this can feel like a personal question to some people. If it’s a limited or one-time interaction, can you use the person’s name rather than pronouns to refer to them in the third person?
  • Check out their communications: have they shared their pronouns in their email signature or video conferencing (e.g., Zoom) handle?
  • Ask them, ideally privately instead of putting them on the spot. If it’s important for you to know (say, you’re introducing a speaker), try something simple but direct: “When I refer to you, what pronouns should I use?” Or, since people’s pronouns can change over time, “Do you still use ___ pronouns?”
Should I include my pronouns in all my correspondence/professional website? Where are other places where I could be sharing this information? 

Sharing your pronouns can help normalize sharing and asking about pronouns, instead of making assumptions based on somebody’s name or how they look. And many forms of electronic and print communication can provide easy tools for doing this.

    • Email signatures: Gmail and many other email services give you the option to create an automatic signature (Create a Gmail signature instructions). Many people choose to include information such as their name, position title (if any), institutional affiliation, and pronouns. See some signature samples. Preferred Email Signature guidelines created by Wheaton’s Marketing and Communications department showing how pronouns should be displayed can be found on insideWheaton.
    • Video conferencing: Some video conferencing software gives you the option to change how your name displays to other participants in the call. By appending pronouns as part of your name, you can display those to meeting participants, too. See how to add pronouns in zoom.
    • Other places you might consider listing your pronouns include: course syllabi, CV or resumé, business cards, your personal webpage, etc.
  • If you are asking others to share information about themselves (preparing nametags for an event, preparing a survey form), make sure you allow for more than two genders. This might mean providing space for people to enter their own pronouns or including gender-neutral honorifics such as Mx. (parallel to Mr./Mrs/Ms.) in a dropdown menu.
Doesn’t focusing so much on pronouns actually reinforce the central importance of gender? Wouldn’t it be better to move toward a place where we use gender-neutral pronouns for everyone? 

That’s a complicated question, and reasonable people disagree!

    • Some, like feminist scholar Judith Lorber, have called for a “world without gender;” columnist Farhad Manjoo (and scholars like Abigail Saguy and Juliet Williams, as well as Robin Dembroff and Daniel Wodak) argue we should all adopt “they/them” pronouns.
    • Evidence from child development scholarship and interviews with post-transition transgender men tells us that assigning or assuming someone’s sex and gender leads us to make all kinds of assumptions about that person’s experiences, capabilities, interests, and personalities.
    • Advocates of the gender-neutral approach argue that gender-neutral language may help us overcome some of our gender biases and assumptions. Preliminary research from Sweden, which introduced a gender-neutral pronoun in 2012, suggests that teaching people to use gender-neutral pronouns can make them more open-minded.
    • The bottom line: Several scholars have begun to advocate for a “world without gender,” including the widespread awareness and use of gender-neutral pronouns and other terms of address. We can take steps to deemphasize gendered norms and expectations in our interactions, but—since we still live in a heavily gendered world—we must continue to take gender-affirming steps to support trans and nonbinary people.

On the other hand, some trans and nonbinary people insist that surface-level gender neutrality may undermine their own identity claims and ability to assert a social identity.

    • While these authors share the view that gender shouldn’t determine a person’s life chances or rights (and that binary gender schemes are arbitrary and harmful), they also point out that gender-neutral approaches are often championed by people who are cisgender: cis people, not trans/nonbinary people, are leading the charge (however, it should be noted that some of the advocates of a universal they/them are trans/nonbinary).
    • There are also objections that the focus on pronouns is anglocentric. Plenty of societies whose languages are less gendered nevertheless have strict gender roles (but less ability for gender non-conforming folks to identify themselves through language); and in languages with grammatical gender (particularly Romance languages, such as Spanish or French), LGBTQ+ people nevertheless find ways to challenge and queer language and identity.
    • The bottom line for this position: recognizing, identifying, and celebrating gender identities and differences doesn’t have to equate to inequality, and in fact erasing gender through 100% gender-neutral language does a disservice to some of the trans and nonbinary people (as well as cis people) for whom gender matters a great deal!