Gender Identity

The term “gender identity” refers to an individual’s sense of their own gender, or the gender they feel is most in keeping with how they see themselves.

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TheGenderbreadPerson is a model that depicts the ways society constructs gender, and the different components that go into that.

(courtesy Sam Killermann, www.genderbread.org)

To understand gender identity, it is important to understand the difference between biological sex and gender. Both are systems of classification, but they work in very different ways. For the most part, babies are assigned a category before or at birth based on a specific set of biological characteristics, including but not limited to chromosomes, hormones and genitals. In general, the categories for biological sex are male, female and intersex. (For an explanation of "intersex," please see note at the end of the article.)

Unlike biological sex, gender is a system of classification based on behaviours, roles and attributes. These categories include but are not limited to women, men, non-binary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, third gender and Two-Spirit. Gender is considered to be socially constructed because societies and cultures decide which behaviours, roles and attributes correspond to which gender. Therefore, a person’s gender identity reflects the gender category to which they feel they belong.

Biological sex is assigned to babies at or near birth, but children begin to express their gender identity at around two years old. Sometimes gender identity remains the same throughout a person’s life, sometimes it changes, and sometimes individuals switch back and forth between two or more gender identities.

Some people think that gender is universal and unchanging, which is why gender is often said to be defined by gender norms or rules. However, in reality, the meaning of gender changes in different times and places. What may seem womanly to us in one time and place may seem manly to others in another time and place. For example, in 19th-century Montreal, women were only allowed to wear skirts because pants were reserved for men. But in modern-day Montreal, women can wear whatever they like.

Gender identity is often linked to the concept of “gender expression,” or how an individual presents or performs their gender in public. Presentation can be through makeup, clothing, names or pronouns. However, a person’s gender identity may or may not be linked to their gender expression. It is also important to recognize that there is no right or wrong way to express a person’s gender identity, and any preferences are valid and should be respected.

Finally, while the concept of gender identity is often seen as being related to a person’s sexual orientation, there is no relationship between how a person identifies their gender and who they find romantically or sexually attractive.


Rainbow graffiti Montreal
This rainbow mosaic is painted on a brick wall in the gay quarter of Montreal and signifies gay pride.
46878716 © Rixie | Dreamstime.com | 46878716 © Rixie | Dreamstime.com

Note: The term “intersex” has only recently come into common use and is used to describe the biological sex of a child that is born with indeterminate, ambiguous or atypical genitalia. For example, though we often think that there is a clear differentiation between a clitoris and a penis, the difference can be very subjective. For many years, children who were born with indeterminate, ambiguous or atypical genitalia were often assigned a biological sex at birth and their bodies were surgically altered so that their genitals conformed to this gender, which may or may not actually reflect the gender identity of the child. While this practice is now recognized as harmful and many doctors advise against it, between 30 and 80 percent of intersex children undergo non-consensual gender reassignment surgeries.


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