Understanding Gender Identity

Our gender identity is how we feel in relation to being male or female. What our sex is and what our gender identity is can mean different things.

Find out more about the different terms used to describe gender identity.

What is the difference between sex and gender?

Sex refers to someone's biological identity as a male or female – characterised by having male or female genitalia i.e. a penis or a vagina.

Gender is the socially constructed roles and behaviours attributed to males and females.

Society plays a large part in defining “acceptable” male and female roles, though many of us feel that we don't fit fully into either of these definitions.

A personal feeling of maleness, femaleness, or being somewhere in between is known as our gender identity.

Here is a useful way to think about gender:

  • Your physical body - as well as your genitals this includes your reproductive system, your chromosomes and characteristics like breasts or facial hair
  • Your gender identity - how you feel in relation to being a man or a woman
  • Your gender expression - how you show your gender. This could be characteristics, clothing, behaviour, or interests

For some people however their physical body, gender identity and gender expression do not all match, and it raises a lot of questions. The gender role that society expects them to fit into based on their birth sex doesn’t always match their gender identity.

Understanding gender identity infograph

Comedian Sam Killerman describes the difference between gender and sexuality, in a funny and informative TED talk video below.

It's important to remember that you shouldn't ever feel as though you have to fit into typical gender stereotypes in order to be able to call yourself a particular gender - as Killermann says:

I identify as a man, but I identify with a lot of what it means to be a woman. I’m sensitive, kind, familial, and I really like dark chocolate (kidding — stuff’s disgusting). Possessing this 'woman-ness' doesn’t make me any less of a man. But it’s a large part of my gender identity, and those traits affect my life and influence my decisions as much and more than many of my 'man-ness' does.

Gender Dysphoria

Gender dysphoria is a term that describes a feeling of unease caused by a mismatch between someone's biological sex and their gender identity. Gender dysphoria might cause someone to have low self-esteem, to become withdrawn or have depression or anxiety. If you are experiencing any of these feelings head to our #AyeFeel homepage to find information and support.

Young children may show an interest in clothes or toys that society tells us are for the opposite gender. But, this type of behaviour is common in children and is part of growing up. It does not mean that all children behaving this way have gender dysphoria or other gender identity issues.

However, some young people may feel lasting distress, which gets worse as they get older. This often happens around puberty, when young people might feel that the way they look does not match their gender identity.

See a GP if you think you may have gender dysphoria. If the GP agrees, they can refer you to a gender dysphoria clinic (GDC) where you’ll be assessed by a specialist team. You do not need to be assessed by a mental health service first.

You can self-refer to a GDC, but a referral by a GP is best. This is because they can give the GDC your detailed medical history.

More information on GDC, gender dysphoria and your rights can be found on the NHS Inform website

Find out more about LGBT issues including guides to coming out and dealing with homophobia/transphobia on our LGBT+ page.