Breaking Down the Binary: A Gender Identity Resource

By Shane Stahl • March 19, 2019 • 9:28 am
As the work to secure express and enduring LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections across the
country continues, it’s important to understand why it’s so vital that the category of gender identity be included. While many people understand what it means to be transgender, identities such as genderqueer, genderfluid, and intersex are still sometimes misunderstood by people who do not share those lived experiences, or do not know someone with these identities. It’s okay to have questions and not be sure if you are doing or saying the right thing. 

Over the next few weeks, we’ll work to break down the many different gender identities that exist, provide context for what each means, and further illustrate how gender identity protections benefit a multitude of different people.   

Before all the details though, a primer: what exactly does “gender” mean? 


Often times, gender and sex are used interchangeably to describe people. However, it can be surprising to learn that gender and sex are actually two different things.  

“Sex” generally refers to physical characteristics present at birth, which an attending physician evaluates to assign an “M” or “F” on the birth certificate. For most of us, this is very straight-forward. (But not everyone — keep an eye out for our blog on intersex experiences for more information).   

Gender, however, is an entirely different concept. It describes a person’s innate sense of who they are and how they express themselves.  Many of us think of it as a binary, or an either/or. The gender binary we are generally taught appears as such: 



However, gender actually has a lot more layers, and comprises several continuums:


MALE                                                                        FEMALE


MAN                                                                          WOMAN


MASCULINE                                                         FEMININE

For example, someone may self-identify as male and a man, but also identify as having more feminine traits.

The general prevailing thoughts on sex and gender are relatively simple: those biologically male at birth will behave masculine and identify as men, and vice versa.  

However, as our understanding of gender has grown, we now know that sex characteristics have no bearing on a person’s gender. For example, some people are born male, but find their internal, authentic sense of who they are is a woman; some people may consider themselves in between masculine and feminine or don’t identify as either a man nor a woman; furthermore, some people are born female and do identify as women and are feminine. There can be many combinations because we’re now learning that sex and gender are distinct.   

NOTE: Sex and gender are separate from sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is who you are attracted to or want to be with. Everyone has a sexual orientation. The most common ones are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer. Just as non-transgender people can have any sexual orientation, transgender people can also have any sexual orientation. For instance, a transgender woman (someone who was raised as a boy, but knows her true self to be a woman) might be attracted to men and therefore be straight, or she might be attracted to women and therefore be a lesbian, or she might be attracted to a range of genders and therefore be bisexual.   

For many of us, the idea that sex, gender, and sexual orientation are different is a new concept. It’s okay to have questions. What’s important is that we respect others as they make their journey to living their authentic lives. 

Click the ‘Breaking Down the Binary’ tag to explore more resources in this series.

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