Do you understand the difference between sex and gender?  Do you understand what it means to be transgender?  Transsexual?

Many do not.

This post provides a brief and clear description of basic definitions—gleaned from the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other sources—that will help you answer such questions and to be more knowledgeable about transgender persons.

Particularly if you or your children might interface with a transgender person—and odds are really good that you or they do or will—these are things you ought to know.

These definitions are also important to know when discussing transgender people and evaluating policies advocated by politicians, religious leaders, and others.

Here are seven terms to know and their definitions:

1.  Sex is …

a.  Biological:  A person’s biological status as male or female.

b.  Determined by physical attributes, such as,          

(i) Reproductive organs (external and internal),

(ii) Chromosomes, and

(iii) Hormone prevalence.

c.  Normally assigned at birth by observation of genitals.

2.  Gender is …

a.  Psychological, behavioral, social, and cultural:  sometimes referred to with reference to masculine or feminine; sometimes thought of as how one acts and thinks.

b.  Traits—for example, behaviors and thoughts—a society expects and considers appropriate for a person of a particular sex.

c.  Different across cultures, geography, and over time (PBS constructed a map to give viewers a sense of some of the variations in what has been considered appropriate for males and females in cultures around the globe over time).

d.  Sometimes used as a synonym for sex, but that is not the sense in which it is used with reference to transgender persons:  Confusion arises when people are only aware of gender referring to sex rather to behaviors and thoughts, for example, even though gender has had this range of meaning for a long time (gender is used in this article in the behaviors and thoughts sense).

3.  Gender Identity is …

a.  A particular person’s internal sense of their gender.

b.  A person’s thoughts on what traits are appropriate for themselves. 

c.  What a person thinks about their personal gender.

4.  Gender Expression is …

a.  A particular person’s communication of their gender identity to others (via behavior, clothing, hairstyles, personal pronouns, etc.). 

b.  Communication that may be very masculine or very feminine, but most people are in between.

c.  Communication that may or may not match society’s expectations.  (A person who has male reproductive organs who wears clothing and make-up normally associated in that person’s society with women, enjoys activities normally associated with women, and refers to oneself as “she,” for example, may not match their society’s expectations of a biological male.)

5.  Transgender is …

a.  A person whose gender identity or gender expression does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which the person was assigned at birth.

b.  Not necessarily someone who has or plans to change their body — some transgender persons initiate physical changes (to their reproductive organs or otherwise) and some do not.

c.  Not necessarily a term with which everyone who does not conform to society’s expectations in this manner identifies themselves.

6.  Sexual Orientation is … 

a.  An individual’s enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to people of a particular sex or sexes (for example, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual).

b.  Something that varies for transgender people.  (Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or asexual, just as non-transgender people can be.)

c.  Not the same as transgender.

7.  Transsexual* is … 

a.  A person who

(i) feels that they he or she belongs to a sex besides the one assigned to them at birth; and

(ii) has a desire to assume both (a) the gender role and (b) physical characteristics of the other sex.

b.  Someone who might use hormones (that can cause, for example, facial and chest hair, muscular development, or breast development) and/or surgery (in which the person’s reproductive organs are changed) to change their physical characteristics to that of the other sex.

c.  Not the same as transgender.  Not all transgender persons are transsexual.


I hope that these definitions, in context of discussing transgender persons, help your thinking.

I am attempting to learn more about these things myself.  If you disagree with any part of my descriptions, please comment or send a note to me.  I am interested in hearing your thoughts and in getting it right.




Sources & Notes

Transgender people usually label their sexual orientation using their gender (not their sex) as a reference.  A transgender woman (a person assigned the male sex at birth and who identifies and communicates their gender as female, for example) who is attracted to other women often identifies as a lesbian or gay woman.

Updated 1/17, 19: *After publication, a friend and trusted source helpfully told me that many people who might fit this definition of transsexual find the term offensive and that its use has fallen off in favor of simply “trans” unless context makes differentiation necessary (such as in some clinical settings, academic papers, and the like).  Many view a description of a person in sexual terms, i.e., with reference to their sexual organs, as opposed to their behaviors and thoughts (trans), offensive.  Some clarifying edits.