Gender identity refers to an individual’s innermost sense of self as a man or a women, as lying somewhere between these two genders, or as lying somewhere outside gender lines altogether.  Unlike sex, which refers to one’s biological and reproductive physiology, gender refers to social and behavioural characteristics, such as appearance, mannerisms and roles, as well as one’s internal and psychological sense of self.

Transgender refers to a person whose biological sex assigned at birth does not match their gender identity. A trans person’s outward appearance, expression and/or anatomy do not fit into conventional expectations for men or women. Transsexual people generally identify internally with the sex “opposite” to the sex assigned to them at birth. Some people may not identify with either male or female genders, and others may identify with both.

Trans may also be used as umbrella terms for anyone whose gender identity differs from their birth sex and/or whose gender expression contravenes social expectations of the range of possibilities for men and women.  This refers to how people present their sense of gender to the larger society – either as masculine, feminine, or something else – generally through behaviour, clothing, hairstyle, voice and/or the emphasis or de-emphasis of bodily characteristics.

How do I refer to someone who is trans?

As a general rule, use the gender pronoun that matches the way a person is dressed and other cues of gender expression (hairstyle, makeup, shoes, name, etc.) even if their presentation does not match the sex designation on their identification documents.

For most people, questions about their gender can be distressing; therefore, questions about a person’s gender identity should be handled with great sensitivity and caution.  Such questions should be asked only on a need-to-know basis (not because you are curious).

If it is necessary for the task at hand, you may try an indirect question, such as, “Can I refer to you by your first name?” or “How would you prefer that I address you?” hoping they indicate a title (Mr., Ms., Mrs., etc.) or a pronoun that gives you a cue on which you can act.  While some people will be upset by a direct question, if you are gentle and non-confrontational, most will understand that you are doing your best to be sensitive and respectful.