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.


In the wake of the Orlando shootings, there has been a major backlash online and in the US Congress against prayers being uttered for the dead and their grieving families. Expressed as frustration for a lack of action, individuals have taken to calling out the “thoughts and prayers” syndrome that keeps the United States in a perpetual state of inaction on gun control and have further argued that the question is particularly being ignored in the case of Orlando because the victims were Latino, members of the LGBTQ community and killed by a so-called “Islamic” “terrorist”.

As a result, individuals who do feel compelled to pray for a variety of reasons have had to confront themselves and their intentions with regards to their status as allies of the LGBTQ movement. Is it possible to pray for the dead and their families to find peace and safety while still remaining active and vigilant in the struggle for the right to life of those in the community? Of course.

After the shootings happened, I started to see these “Policy, not prayer” posts online but they weren’t emerging from the pages of my queer friends. Rather, they came from the pages of militant atheists – the kind who push for secular homogenization at every single inappropriate turn without really realizing its deeply historically Christian origins. In this case, I became outraged. How dare they take the opportunity to push an anti-prayer agenda? Was I beginning to sound like the “War on Christmas” people?!

Well, after some reflection: no, I don’t think that is the case. I wrote a rant about it on my Facebook and came to realize that it was more about accepting one another and how we grieve in the world:

“Can people stop with the passive aggressive posts telling people to stop praying and instead make policy changes for people in Orlando?

First of all, a lot of people who are praying are abroad and have zero capability to influence American domestic policy.

Secondly, who exactly are you speaking to? Politicians who only offer prayers but don’t change policies? That’s fair enough but then that message needs to actually get to them…not be posted on Facebook as yet another aggressive secular campaign on the uselessness of prayer. We get that you don’t think prayer does anything and that’s fine. Don’t tell believers how to grieve and help, especially when many of them are from within the LGBTQ community and this is how they mourn what happened yesterday.

Lastly, praying and public policy change are not mutually exclusive actions. And I think I am the living embodiment of that principle so it’s fair for me to put that on the line. If you want me to stop praying, you will definitely have me stop public policy work as well. And I’m doing a lot of it, alhamdulilah. Prayer gives me hope that the actions I engage in will be acceptable and successful.

Not everyone exists in this world in the same way you do. As I think Orlando fully exemplifies. If there is a lesson to take from the bloodbath of hatred, it’s that homogenizing narratives of how people should be and what they should do are always harmful and violent.

And I have to say, that given how much of the religious establishment has been cursing the LGBTQ community, well, forever… it is a little refreshing to see people praying for this long-oppressed community many of whose members consider themselves believers too or might have been if they hadn’t been so harshly outcast and demonized. And even if not, it’s still a necessary change in the dynamic between these 2 communities where many individuals live on the ambiguous faultlines between them.

Let’s all engage in some deep acceptance of one another. Division serves no one except those who thrive on hegemony and are served by it.


I’m done now.”

Immediately after I posted this, a gay friend of mine shared a “Policy, not prayers” image. I felt sick to my stomach and realized that while I had been addressing the militant atheists, I had failed to think about it from the LGBTQ perspective. He later removed it after he saw my rant; however, the conversation that followed was very eye-opening for me and helped me remember that prayers, however well-meaning, may be uncalled for by individuals in the LGBTQ community and may even be received with revulsion as they conjure up remembrances of “pray the gay away” and other traumatic interactions between queers and especially Christian far-right groups. Ultimately, you do not need to make your prayers public.

What you do need to make public, however, is your action. And after Orlando, there is no longer action and inaction. There is only action and tacit acceptance of the systemic oppression and violence against minority groups. If you are against social injustice for some groups, you have to be against social injustice for all. Period. Full stop.

In checking in with my friends in the LGBTQ community, I learned some very important lessons about being an ally and how to make your action meaningful (however local it has to be):

  1. You need to be quiet and listen. This might be hard for you. I will admit it is hard for me because I’m used to talking a lot. But you have to do it. The best way to learn something about a group that you do not belong to is to listen to the people who do belong to it. You might be surprised to find that they actually belong to your group and to the other group – something you may not have conceived of before. Being quiet means quieting your mind too: don’t be waiting to respond. Don’t be editing what they say. Hear them out. Hear their perspective. You don’t have a right to tell them if their experience with oppression is genuine or not. If you haven’t changed by the end of the conversation(s), you aren’t doing it right.
  2. You need to recognize your privilege. That’s right. Have you felt like shutting off your Facebook and telling the evil world to go away? Must be nice to just shut it all off without having to live the reality of discrimination every day of your life. Yup, I said it. While I’m all for self-preservation and activists taking periodic breaks from action and social media to replenish themselves, you can’t totally tune out. People who are discriminated against do not have the luxury of just turning the violence in the media off – they live it. Also: if you are a religious person and you are thinking, “Well, I’m not gay and I don’t know anyone who is, so I’m really lucky I don’t even have to think about what I would do or how I would deal with this” then you seriously have an entitlement problem. Since when is the fact that something “doesn’t affect you” a justified reason for not giving af while people are suffering? Eat your privilege. Eat every last bite of it and get to work.
  3. You can share ways that you understand their pain, but know that you do not fully understand their struggle. In a conversation with a trans friend of mine, I was giving examples of ways that Islamophobia and Queerphobia are similar: people hate us so much they want to kill us, we never know when we will be the victims of verbal or physical assault, our oppression is compounded by factors like what socio-economic strata we live in, our declared gender, what we wear and the colour of our skin. While this relatability brings us closer together, these experiences do not dovetail perfectly. Recognize that their experience is unique. If you add the fact that a queer person is also a Muslim or Christian, you have an intersection of possible discrimination which makes them far more likely to be lashed out at.
  4. This is not about you (at least not right now). Similar to number 3, remember that it is Way too many Muslims I know were crying foul at the media trying to portray the Orlando shooter as an “Islamic” “terrorist.” This includes hundreds of prominent Islamic scholars who took the time to issue a formal statement on the shootings but spent more than half of it defending the fact that this lunatic idiot didn’t represent Islam. Why in the hell are we pandering to Islamophobes when anyone with half a brain in their heads knows that OF COURSE HE DOESN’T REPRESENT ISLAM. This happens every single time a shooter has an Arab-sounding name. Every. Single. Time. And while that sucks and is worthy of both future action in the form of education initiatives and some condemnation (especially when so-called “political hopefuls” stand to capitalize on it to the detriment of everyone else), recognize that your condolences for the lives lost should come first. Yes, even if you are Muslim. Especially if you are Muslim. As a colleague of mine put it: the life of a child is like a universe to its family and on that horrible Sunday in Orlando, 49 of those universes were extinguished. If the first thought in your mind is to be defensive about how the media portrays Islam, you are not doing this step correctly.
  5. You need to speak the hell up. This is the final step and the most important. To illustrate how important this is, I first need to tell an anecdotal and seemingly unrelated story. Back in December, just after the height of the Islamophobia of the Conservative Party federal election campaign died down with their total decimation at the polls, I organized a Women’s Safety Class at a local mosque to give Muslim women the tools they need to de-escalate violence and remain safe. Rachael Heffernan – a four stripe black belt – taught the class and among many memorable things everyone came away with was a very important point about what your job is as a victim of harassment and possible violence.

Someone in the crowd mentioned that when someone harasses them, they are worried about freaking out because they don’t want to portray Islam improperly and they don’t want to incite the other person to violence against them. Throughout the class, Rachael had been pointing out that more often than not, acting crazy (“like a cat in a pillowcase”) or being unafraid to scream GET AWAY FROM ME as loud as possible usually does the trick against perpetrators because they are looking for passive individuals to bully. Now, if you are concerned about doing that and then having that person extrapolate your self-preserving behaviour to mean that all 1.7 billion Muslims act like cats in a pillowcase…well, as Rachael put it: you can’t cure stupid.

A harasser is a harasser. They are going out of their way to make life difficult and uncomfortable and even hurt you. You owe them absolutely nothing. In this instance, your only job is to GET HOME SAFE. That might mean being the cat in the pillowcase or it might mean remaining silent. Whatever you have to do, do it guilt-free: Just get home. Throughout the rest of the safety class, Rachael shared inspirational stories with us (like the one about a woman who beat her attacker while shouting “I have three kids and I am going home!”) as we continued to chant I’M GOING HOME as our safety mantra.

The same idea can easily be applied to members of the LGBTQ community who face harassment, discrimination and violence with alarming frequency. Just get home. Lobby and be an activist when violence is not a very real possibility. But getting home? That’s your only job when facing an attacker.

But that’s not the job of the people around you, your allies. Their silence is not permissible in my view. Collectively, they have no right to just stand on by. It doesn’t even have to be a situation in which they witness violence against you. It can be (and should be) standing up to everyday micro-aggressions like calling someone a faggot or making gay jokes or using gay as an insult – whether or not an LGBTQ person is even in the room. If you aren’t doing this, you are not an ally. It doesn’t matter if conversations at work or at home become uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter if you lose friends. Who wants to be friends with someone who hates and condones aggression against oppressed minority groups anyway?

You don’t have to attend Pride to support your friends, just like they don’t have to come to the mosque or wear hijab to support you. You don’t even have to agree with each other on anything but you do have to respect each other’s dignity and right to safety. It says a lot about the ally-status LGBTQ community that my gay and trans friends have been the biggest supporters of Muslims as we continue to be scapegoated in Canadian and American elections and, most poignantly, that one of the first things to come out of the Orlando shootings was the “Queers against Islamophobia” campaign. They stood up for you. Will you stand up for them?