Here are some key definitions that we use to understand the differences between things like sex and gender; gender identity and gender expression; and trans identity and sexual orientation. We have also included some ideas for talking about body parts, hormones, and surgeries. Many more terms are defined in our glossary.
While many people use the words sex and gender interchangeably, these words have different meanings.
We define sex as biological and legal characteristics used to classify humans as male, female, intersex or another categories, primarily associated with physical and physiological features including chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive/sexual anatomy. People are usually assigned male or female at birth and this marker goes on legal documents such as birth certificates.
Gender refers to socially and culturally constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and trans people. One example, of a gender role is that boys may be expected to ply with trucks and girls with dolls. The ways people think about gender change over time and are different across cultures.
Often people’s sex and gender match up, but many people identify as a gender that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.
What are gender identity and gender expression?
These are terms that can also be confused with one another. It is important to note that while a person’s gender identity and gender expression are often similar, they do not always match. A person may express gender in a way that differs from how they feel on the inside.
Gender identity is the internal and psychological sense of oneself as a woman, a man, both, in between, or neither. Only you can determine your gender identity.
Gender expression is how one outwardly shows gender, including through name and pronoun choice, style of dress, voice or hairstyle. Gender expression may be referred to as masculine, feminine or androgynous. A person may change how they express themselves depending on the situation they are in (at a business meeting, home alone, out with friends).
What does trans mean?
We use the word trans as an umbrella term that describes a wide range of people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differ from their assigned sex and/or the societal and cultural expectations of their assigned sex. We do this to be as inclusive as possible to all people who are trans and gender diverse.
Check out this Transgender Basics video from The Centre – The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Centre – in New York, NY (linked with permission):
Trans can include people who are:
This list does not capture everyone who identifies as trans and we apologize if you identify as trans and do not see yourself reflected above. We are committed to using inclusive language and invite you to Contact Us with your suggestions for how we can make our language and resources as inclusive as possible.
What’s sexual orientation?
Many people mistakenly believe that being trans is a sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is fundamentally different from gender identity.
Sexual orientation includes patterns of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to groups of people (e.g. men, women, trans people). A person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, their behaviours, and their membership in a community of others who share those attractions is also part of sexual orientation.
Examples of Sexual Orientations include:
What language is used to talk about body parts?
People use a range of words to talk about their body parts. For example, some people use the word penis to talk about their genitalia and others find this word does not fit for them. On this website, we use the word penis* to acknowledge the many different words that are used for this body part.
Some people use the word vagina to talk about their genitalia and others find this word does not fit for them. On this website, we use the word vagina* to acknowledge the many different words that are used for this body part.
What terms are used to talk about hormones?
We use the terms feminizing hormones and masculinizing hormones. This helps to acknowledge that not everyone who accesses hormone therapy identifies as either male-to-female or female-to-male. We also acknowledge that these terms are imperfect, because many people who access hormone therapy are striving to appear as something beyond or between masculine and feminine.
What language is used to talk about surgery?
We are also exploring language to talk about surgery in inclusive ways. Historically, health care professionals used the term sex-reassignment surgery to refer to the range of surgeries trans people access to feel more comfortable in their bodies. We use the term gender-affirming surgeries to acknowledge that surgery does not determine gender, and that people should be treated according to their gender, rather than their sex.
We use feminizing surgeries (rather than male-to-female surgeries) to talk about procedures such as breast augmentation and vaginoplasty, and to acknowledge that many people accessing these procedures whose gender is outside the ‘female’ construct.
We use masculinizing surgeries (rather than female-to-male surgeries) to talk about procedures such as chest surgery, clitoral release, metoidioplasty, and phalloplasty, and to acknowledge that many people accessing these procedures whose gender is outside the ‘male’ construct.
We also acknowledge that these terms are imperfect, because many people who access these surgeries are striving to appear as something beyond or between masculine and feminine. We use them because we have not found words that are both clear and more inclusive.