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Understanding Gender

Have you ever experienced confusion regarding the difference between gender identity and biological sex? Maybe you are aware there is a difference but struggle to fully identify the distinction? If so, you are in the right place. Read further to examine and dissect the differences between gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex.

What is Gender Identity?

In short, gender identity is a social construct. It is comprised of one’s roles, behaviors, activities and attributes (Sommers-Flanagan, 2015). A person’s gender can also be thought of as their internal understanding of self as male, female, or an alternative gender (American Psychological Association, 2015). Alternative gender identities will be explored further below. Since gender identity is internal, it may not align with how others perceive a person’s gender expression. Similarly, it may not align with the biological sex assigned at birth (American Psychological Association, 2015).

Examples of Gender Identities:

  • Cisgender: “An adjective used to describe a person whose gender identity and gender expression align with sex assigned at birth; a person who is not transgender/gender non-conforming” (American Psychological Association, 2015, p. 861).

  • Genderqueer: “A term to describe a person whose gender identity does not align with a binary understanding of gender (i.e., a person who does not identify fully as either a man or a woman). People who identify as genderqueer may redefine gender or decline to define themselves as gendered altogether. For example, people who identify as genderqueer may think of themselves as both man and woman (bigender, pangender, androgyne); neither man nor woman (genderless, gender neutral, neutrois, agender), moving between genders (genderfluid); or embodying a third gender” (American Psychological Association, 2015, p. 862).

  • Transgender: “An adjective that is a umbrella term used to describe the full range of people whose gender identity and/or gender role do not conform to what is typically associated with their sex assigned at birth. While the term “transgender” is commonly accepted, not all transgender/gender non-conforming people self‐identify as transgender” (American Psychological Association, 2015, p. 863).

What is Gender Expression?

Gender expression is how we choose to present ourselves according to different aspects of our gender or gender roles (American Psychological Association, 2015). This may be through physical appearance, clothing, and behavior. One’s gender expression can be fluid and change day to day or stay relatively consistent through time. However, what behaviors and appearances are considered to be feminine or masculine may differ depending on the cultural context (Sommers-Flanagan, 2015). Furthermore, as previously mentioned, someone’s perception of another’s gender expression may not always align with the person’s gender identity. This is especially true for transgender people who have not come out or disclosed to others that their gender identity differs from their assigned sex (American Psychological Association, 2015.)

What is Biological Sex?

Biological sex refers to the physical, biological, and anatomical characteristics with which one was born in regards to being either female or male (Sommers-Flanagan, 2015). According to the American Psychological Association, sex is often assigned at birth or even before, during an ultrasound. During this time, the external genitalia is the key identifying factor. However, if the external genitalia is ambiguous, other factors such as internal sex organs, chromosomes, and hormones may be taken into consideration to assign a biological sex. This is done in an attempt to try to assign a biological sex that will be most congruent with the child’s future gender identity. However, this is not always the case. As previously mentioned, for those whose gender identity is congruent with sex assigned at birth the term is cisgender. For those that are transgender or gender non-conforming, they may not identify at all with their assigned sex or to varying degrees (American Psychological Association, 2015).

Examples of biological sex characteristics: sex chromosomes, sex hormones, internal sex organs and external genitalia.

How about you?

As you can see, gender is more complicated than a simple dichotomy of “female” or “male.”

If you are interested in examining the interplay of your own gender identity, expression, and sex, consider the below infographic. More information can be found at


American Psychological Association. (2015). Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People. American Psychologist. 70(9), 832–864.

Killermann, S. (2017). The Genderbread Person Version 4. Retrieved from

Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2015). Counseling and psychotherapy theories in context and practice (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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