TRANSforming Gynecology

Understanding the terminology of gender identity

Use vocabulary to reduce barriers


TRANSforming Gynecology is a column about the ways in which ob.gyns. can become leaders in addressing the needs of the transgender/gender-nonconforming population. We hope to provide readers with some basic tools to help open the door to this marginalized population. We will lay the groundwork with an article on terminology and the importance of language before moving onto more focused discussions of topics that intersect with medical care of gender-nonconforming individuals. Transgender individuals experience among the worst health care outcomes of any demographic, and we hope that this column can be a starting point for providers to continue affirming the needs of marginalized populations in their everyday practice.

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We live in a society in which most people’s gender identities are congruent with the sex they were assigned at birth based on physical characteristics. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people – often referred to as trans people, broadly – feel that their gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth. This gender nonconformity, or the extent to which someone’s gender identity or expression differs from the cultural norm assigned to people with certain sexual organs, is in fact a matter of diversity, not pathology.

To truly provide sensitive care to trans patients, medical providers must first gain familiarity with the terminology used when discussing gender diversity. Gender identity, for starters, refers to an individual’s own personal and internal experience of themselves as a man, woman, some of both, or neither gender.1 It is only possible to learn a person’s gender identity through direct communication because gender identity is not always signaled by a certain gender expression. Gender expression is an external display usually through clothing, attitudes, or body language, that may or may not fit into socially recognized masculine or feminine categories.1 A separate aspect of the human experience is sexuality, such as gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian, etc. Sexuality should not be confused with sexual practices, which can sometimes deviate from a person’s sexuality. Gender identity is distinct from sexuality and sexual practices because people of any gender identity can hold any sexuality and engage in any sexual practices. Tied up in all of these categories is sex assigned at birth, which is a process by which health care providers categorize babies into two buckets based on the appearance of the external genitalia at the time of birth. It bears mentioning that the assignment of sex based on the appearance of external genitalia at the time of birth is a biologically inconsistent method that can lead to the exclusion of and nonconsensual mutilation of intersex people, who are individuals born with ambiguous genitalia and/or discrepancies between sex chromosome genotype and phenotype (stay tuned for more on people who are intersex in a future article).

Dr. Andrea B. Joyner

Dr. Andrea B. Joyner

A simplified way of remembering the distinctions between these concepts is that gender identity is who you go to bed as; gender expression is what you were wearing before you went to bed; sexuality is whom you tell others/yourself you go to bed with; sexual practice is whom you actually go to bed with; and sex assigned at birth is what you have between your legs when you are born (generally in a bed).

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