Feminism 101 Vocab: Gender

There’s a lot of talk about gender and gender identity these days that is even reaching mainstream conversation. Sometimes it can be difficult to follow if you’re not familiar with all the terminology so I’ve compiled a starting list of gender-related vocab with basic definitions. Keep in mind that words and categories have histories and undergo change. The vocabulary of gender in particular is extremely dynamic and contested. Even defining “gender” alone was quite a challenge… Use these definitions just as a starting point for understanding some of the issues and conversations around sex, gender and identity!

Biological Sex

Biological sex refers to how a body is medically/scientifically classified according various physical traits. Traits used to classify bodies as male or female include sex chromosomes (XX, XY), sex hormone systems (estrogen/progesterone, testosterone, androgen sensitivity), gonads (ovaries and testes: the organs that produce reproductive material), internal and external genitalia (penis, vagina, uterus), and secondary sex characteristics (body hair, breasts, Adam’s apple, fat distribution, etc). It’s pretty easy to assume that science can reliably and tidily organize bodies into male and female – this binary is so ingrained in our culture that it can seem like a natural fact – but the reality is that variation and combinations that transgress the two categories of male and female can be found in all the trait systems I mentioned!


While sex refers to the biological make up of a person’s body, gender refers to a person’s personal and social identity. Gender is comprised of the social meanings, roles, expectations, and characteristics ascribed (by one’s self and by society) to sexed bodies (ei, bodies recognized as having a biological sex). Gender is a complex social and psychological component of identity. Someone’s gender identity is the gender that they identify with and recognize as their own. The relationship between personal gender identity (how someone feels) and social identity (how society labels them) is complex and mediated by individual performance of masculinity, femininity, and combinations of both.

Gender Binary

A social system that organizes sex, gender expression, and gender identity into two opposing categories: male/masculine/man and female/feminine/woman. Just as closer examination of biological sex reveals that individual bodies are not so easily sorted into clear male and female opposite categories, the gender binary tends to become blurrier under close examination. Non-binary understanding of gender is increasingly recognized and accepted, but many non-western societies have long included non-binary genders in their concepts of gender and sex. Even the history of gender in Europe and North America reveals that fluid gender expression has always been a part of western culture. For example, Byzantine eunuchs can be viewed as a third gender, and 19th century dandyism was a way for men to play with gender and sexual expression.


From “cis”, meaning “on the same side as”, cisgender refers to a person who’s binary gender identity maps onto their binary biological sex. For example, a cis man is a person who was assigned the gender “boy” or “male” at birth based on his biological sex traits, who continues to identify as a man throughout his life.


From “trans”, meaning “across”, a transgender person is someone who was assigned a gender based on biological sex at birth, but identifies as another gender. A trans person may opt for gender reassignment/gender confirming surgery or hormone treatments to make their body match their gender identity, or simply live as their gender, expressing their identity without medical intervention – or some combination of al! “Transexual” is another term you may hear, which has the same basic meaning but is pretty dated. Transgender should not be confused with “transvestite”, which refers to the practice of dressing as the opposite sex for any number of reasons (sexual fetish, drag performance, you’re a member of Monty Python, etc), and falls under the umbrella of gender expression and play, but is not a matter of core gender identity.


An umbrella term for people whose gender is different than the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans* identities may include FTM or MTF, transwoman and transman, third genders, and non-binary genders.


As I mentioned above, even the physical traits related to biological sex cannot always be tidily categorized into male and female. An intersexed person is someone who’s biological sex differs from the “normative” (expected, culturally recognized as the norm) patterns attributed to male and female. In other words, they have some combination of both male and female sex traits. This could relate to their chromosomes, hormones, internal sex organs, or genitals to varying degrees. An estimated 1 in 100 babies does not fit into the standard medical definitions of male or female, with approximately 1 in 1000 babies undergoing surgery to “normalize” their genitals as either male or female in appearance. Note that the term “hermaphrodite” is an old medical term for people with intersexed genitals and it is now usually found outdated and offensive.


Acronyms for Female-to-Male and Male-to-Female, used to describe transgender people who have transitioned from an assigned gender. Not all trans* people use these acronyms because not all view their gender as having undergone transition, or as being binary. Another set of acronyms you may see are AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth) and AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth).


Two-spirited is a term used by Indigenous North Americans to describe a person who embodies both masculinity and femininity, or one of the mixed gender roles that exist in Indigenous cultures. Two-spirited people traditionally play significant and respected roles and are viewed as spiritually powerful.


A person who does not have a strong, or any sense of personal gender identity.

Genderqueer, Non-binary, Gender Fluid…..

There are numerous terms in circulation for people whose gender identity is outside, in between, or unfixed from the gender binary or is otherwise non-normative/non-conforming. I’m sure I am missing many! Each has its own history and nuanced meaning. Often these terms emphasize challenge and resistance to the gender binary as oppressive, or refer to the fluidity (changeability) of gender identity much in the way someone’s sexuality can be fluid.

lizElisabeth came to Edmonton to do a Masters degree in History at the University of Alberta after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History at the University of Victoria. Her research interests include medieval and early modern social and cultural history, especially issues around medical history and persecution. In the first year of her Masters degree, Elisabeth received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, followed by the Walter H. Johns Fellowship, Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship.She  presented at the HCGSA Conference at University of Alberta in 2016 and will be writing the entry on Leprosy in World Christianity for the De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (forthcoming). She has worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, and as a contract researcher and writer for the Government of Alberta’s Heritage division. In addition to her work as a writer and researcher, Elisabeth works with the Art Gallery of Alberta.



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