Learn about key definitions we use to understand the differences between things like sex and gender, gender identity and expression, trans identity and sexual orientation.
While many people use the words sex and gender interchangeably, these words have different meanings.
We define sex as biological and legal characteristics used to classify humans into the categories of male, female, intersex or another, with the categories being primarily associated with physical and physiological features including chromosomes, hormones and reproductive and sexual anatomy. People are usually assigned male or female at birth and this marker goes on legal documents such as birth certificates.
Gender refers to socially and culturally constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and trans people. One example of a gender role is that boys may be expected to play with trucks and girls with dolls. The ways people think about gender change over time and are different across cultures.
Often people’s sex and gender match up, but many people identify as a gender that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Gender identity and gender expression are terms that can also be confused with one another. While a person’s gender identity and gender expression are often similar, they do not always match. A person may express gender in a way that differs from how they feel on the inside.
Gender identity is the internal and psychological sense of oneself as a female, male, both, in between, or neither. Only you can determine your gender identity.
Gender expression is how one outwardly shows gender, including through name and pronoun choice, style of dress, voice or hairstyle. Gender expression may be referred to as masculine, feminine or androgynous. A person may change how they express themselves depending on the situation they are in (at a business meeting, home alone, out with friends).
Explore gender diversity, identity and expression using this diagram and worksheet.
We use the word trans as an umbrella term, to describe a wide range of people whose gender identity or gender expression differ from their assigned sex or the societal and cultural expectations of their assigned sex. We do this to be as inclusive as possible to all people who are trans and gender diverse.
(Video from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Centre (New York, NY); linked to with permission.)
The term trans includes, but is not limited to, people who are:
This list does not capture everyone who identifies as trans and we apologize if you identify as trans and do not see yourself reflected above. We are committed to using inclusive language and invite you to contact us with your suggestions for how we can make our language and resources as inclusive as possible.
Many people mistakenly believe that being trans is a sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is fundamentally different from gender identity.
Sexual orientation includes patterns of emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to groups of people (e.g. men, women, trans people). A person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, their behaviours and their membership in a community of others who share those attractions is also part of sexual orientation.
Everyone has both a gender identity and a sexual orientation. Like anybody, trans people are asexual, straight, heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian, pansexual, omnisexual, queer, gay (or something else).
It is generally recommended to use the same terms with each individual that they use when describing their body parts. If you believe it is relevant to know what terms someone uses, then ask respectfully in a place where the person's privacy is maintained.
People use a range of words to talk about their body parts.
For example, some people use the word penis to talk about their genitalia and others find this word does not fit for them. We use the term 'erectile tissue (penis)' for this body part. Instead of the word vagina, we use the term 'internal genitals (vagina)' for this body part in relation to people who identify as transmasculine or non-binary who were assigned female at birth (AFAB). And, we use the terms 'vagina' and 'vagina with vaginoplasty' for this body part in relation to people who identify as transfeminine or non-binary who were assigned male at birth (AMAB).
We use the terms feminizing hormones rather than female hormones and masculinizing hormones rather than male hormones. This helps to acknowledge that not everyone who accesses hormone therapy identifies as either male-to-female or female-to-male.
We also acknowledge that these terms are imperfect, because many people who access hormone therapy are striving to appear as something beyond or between masculine and feminine.
We are also exploring language to talk about surgery in inclusive ways. Historically, health care professionals have used the term sex-reassignment surgery to refer to the range of surgeries trans people access to feel more comfortable in their bodies.
We use the term gender-affirming surgeries to acknowledge that surgery does not determine gender, and that people should be treated according to their gender, rather than their sex.
We use feminizing surgeries (rather than male-to-female surgeries) to talk about procedures such as breast augmentation and vaginoplasty, and to acknowledge that many people whose gender is outside the “female” construct access these procedures.
We use masculinizing surgeries (rather than female-to-male surgeries) to talk about procedures such as chest surgery, clitoral release, metoidioplasty, and phalloplasty, and to acknowledge that many people whose gender is outside the “male” construct access these procedures
We also acknowledge that these terms are imperfect, because many people who access these surgeries are striving to appear as something beyond or between masculine and feminine. We use them because we have not found words that are both clear and more inclusive.
Language is constantly evolving to be more inclusive. Learn more:
If you have feedback about how to make the language and understandings on this website more inclusive, please share your thoughts with us. Please check out our glossary for more definitions.