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Gender Identity

It’s usually assumed that the sex a person is assigned at birth determines their gender, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Learn more about gender identity and the different ways people can identify themselves.

Person standing in front of mens and ladies toilet doors confused about which one to go through

What is gender identity?

Gender identity means how you experience your own gender. It may seem simple, but it is a lot more complex than you might think!

  • ‘Sex’ is the label people are given by a doctor when they are born, depending on what their genitals and chromosomes look like. We usually assume a person’s assigned sex decides their gender, but it’s more complex than that! 
  • For example, people born intersex may have what are considered ambiguous genitals or internal sex organs, sex hormones, and chromosomes different to what is ‘typical’ for a male and female body.

  • Most societies think there are only two genders that people identify with, male and female. This belief is called the ‘gender binary’. 

  • Most societies also have expectations and stereotypes about gender based on someone’s assigned sex. Like expecting males to be ‘tough’ and females to be ‘gentle’. These gender expectations can affect a person’s social, work, and legal rights.
  • From a young age, most children know what their gender identity is, and find it really hard to think about themselves in another way. People who don’t fit the gender binary, but feel pressure to follow it, can experience an extreme form of distress called ‘gender dysphoria’.
  • But gender identity is about how you experience your own gender, despite what society expects. Your gender can be shown through your identity (e.g. labels, pronouns), body (e.g. appearance) and expression (e.g. how you act, how you dress). 
  • Feeling able to show your true gender identity is important to your emotional and mental health.
  • There are lots of possible Gender identities out there! People can identify as one of the binary genders; as moving between genders; as no gender, or; as another gender altogether.

What's the difference between gender identity and sexual identity?

Gender identity and sexual identity are often confused, but it’s important to understand how they are different.

Gender identity is about how we see ourselves. Whereas sexual identity is about who we’re emotionally and physically attracted to. 

Confusion about gender identity and sexual identity can also make it harder for people to understand themselves, like Trans or gender diverse people who wonder whether they are queer until better understanding their gender identity.

Confusing gender identity and sexuality can lead to people making the wrong assumptions about others, which affects how well we understand and communicate with them. For example, when someone’s gender expression is different to what people expect, they are often thought to be gay or lesbian. Like males who like to play with dolls or girls who buy ‘male’ clothing.

Gender identity and sexuality are also confused when thinking about Trans and gender diverse people. Like an assigned male who is attracted to females and labels their sexuality as ‘straight’, but then transitions to female and re-labels their sexuality as ‘lesbian’.

I’m questioning my gender identity. Is it normal to feel…?

Understanding yourself takes time, so it’s normal to feel unsure about your gender identity. But keep in mind:

  • It’s not “just a phase” and you’re not “just confused”. From a young age, children know their gender identity and find it really hard to think of themselves in any other way.
  • Even if you start feeling comfortable expressing your gender identity, people may try to fit you into boxes. Remember, gender is about more than the gender binary.
  • You can change your mind! Understanding yourself takes time and it is normal to change your mind many times about how you label or express your gender identity before things ‘feel right’ for you

Realising your gender identity doesn’t fit the expectations and stereotypes people have of your assigned sex can be confusing, and sometimes distressing, when you’re not able to be your true self. 

Because of their fears and concerns, many people feel pressured or scared about showing their gender identity, and may keep this a secret to fit in.

Even for those who show their gender identity openly, there can be challenges about expressing yourself safely or feeling invalidated when your gender doesn’t fit stereotypes.  

Choosing to keep your gender identity secret can be distressing and lead to mental and physical health problems. So if you’re unsure about how to express your gender identity safely, take a look at our other tip sheets below.

What can I DO to help me feel more comfortable expressing my gender identity?

If you want to start expressing your gender identity, but are unsure what steps you can take, here are a few ideas that may help:


Learn more about Trans and gender diverse people. Check out Internet articles, books, fiction, blogs, music, shows, and video games about their experiences.
Talk to people you know and trust in the Trans and gender diverse community about their struggles and positive experiences with understanding their gender identity and expressing it.
Build a support network of people that validate your gender identity, even if you’re not sure how to express it yet. If you don’t have people like this around you, consider joining an online support group.
If you feel safe and ready to start expressing your gender identity, consider taking some small steps like making changes to the way you dress, how you wear your hair, or the gender pronouns you use.
Participate in activism for Trans and gender diverse people. This could involve liking a related social media page, posting or blogging about or helping people understand the impact of misgendering.
Research online and local community events being held by the Trans and gender diverse community for people your age and consider attending them to learn more.
If you need more professional support, contact or visit a gender service or support service that works with people in the Trans and gender diverse community.

Remember, you’re not alone

Kids Helpline is always open.

Give us a call, start a WebChat or email us today.

This content was last reviewed 21/02/2018

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