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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.

Guy 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 personally experience your own gender. Although it might seem straightforward, it's affected by many complex factors.

  • Sex is the label people are given by a doctor at birth depending on the genitals and chromosomes they have. It's often assumed a person’s assigned sex determines their gender, but the reality is more complex. 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 believe there are only two genders, male and female, that most people identify with in terms of their assigned sex, gender identity and gender expression. The belief that there are only two genders is called the ‘gender binary’
  • Gender is affected by the expectations and stereotypes society holds about the thoughts, characteristics and behaviours you'll have based on your assigned sex. Each culture has different expectations about gender that affect a person’s social, work and legal privileges
  • By a very young age, most children know what their core gender identity is, and find it extremely difficult to think about themselves in any other way. People who feel pressure to follow the gender binary can experience an extreme form of distress called ‘gender dysphoria’
  • Gender identity is about how you personally experience your own gender, regardless of what society expects. Your gender can be shown through your identity (eg labels, pronouns), body (eg appearance) and expression (eg how you act, how you dress)
  • Gender identity exists on a spectrum and people may identify as one of the binary genders; as moving between genders; as no gender; or as another gender category entirely

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. 
For example, when someone’s gender expression is different to what people expect, they're often thought to be gay. Like males who like to play with dolls or girls who buy ‘male’ clothing

Confusing gender identity and sexual identity often results in people making inaccurate assumptions about other people, which can affect how well we understand and communicate with others. 
For example, an assigned male who is attracted to females might have previously labelled themselves as ‘straight’. After transitioning to a female, they'd likely still be attracted to females, but might label their sexual identity ‘lesbian’ to match their gender identity

Gender identity and sexual identity may also be confused when thinking about Trans and gender diverse people

Confusion about gender identity and sexual identity can also make it harder for people to understand themselves

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

Understanding yourself takes time, so it’s normal to have uncertain or conflicting thoughts and feelings about your gender identity. But keep in mind:

  • It’s not “just a phase” and you’re not “just confused”. From very early on, children are able to articulate their core gender identity and find it extremely 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 a box. Remember, gender is about much more than the gender binary
  • You can change your mind! Understanding yourself takes time and it's 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 does not fit the cultural expectations people have of your assigned sex can be confusing, and sometimes distressing, when you’re not able to be your true self
  • Sadly, these feelings are usually about the negative stereotypes people have about expected gender expression based on one’s assigned sex. Because of fears and concerns related to this, many people feel pressured or scared about expressing their gender identity and may choose to keep this a secret to fit in
  • Even for those who express their gender identity openly, there can be continued challenges with medical vs. social transitioning; others invalidating one’s gender when it does not fit stereotypes; or expressing oneself safely
  • 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

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
Talk to people you know and trust in the Trans and gender diverse community
Build a support network of people that validate your gender identity
Consider taking some small steps like dressing differently
Participate in some activism for Trans and gender diverse people
Research events held by the Trans and gender diverse community
Contact or visit a specialised support service

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