Gender Identity Terms To Know and Understand

As a parent follows their child's lead, one of the first steps a caregiver can take is to educate themselves on some of the common terms related to gender identity.

yellow background with several stickers with the words cisgender, transition, assigned gender at birth, and gender creative written on them
Photo: Alex Sandoval

For as long as language has existed, younger generations have pioneered it and often left parents scratching their heads. Sometimes, the divide is not just generational, but because the child is a member of a group that the parent may not understand.

This can be the case when a child starts to explore and question their gender identity. A parent's support of that journey can be the difference between life or death. But it can also be scary and confusing when your child comes to you because they don't align with the gender they were assigned at birth. What will that mean for your child's safety? Where will you go for support? What does it mean to be transgender? What is nonbinary?

As a parent follows their child's lead, one of the first steps a caregiver can take is to educate themselves on some of the common terms related to gender identity. Something as simple as learning the language your child—or any child—uses to communicate their identity and experiences can help you to be a lighthouse for your child or ally for trans youth in this stormy sea trans folks are all traversing right now.

As your child is discovering their true self, it's important for you to learn and understand a new language; it will be crucial in fostering strong and supportive connections that can be a lifeline for a trans child living in a transphobic world.

"Trans and nonbinary children and teens who are well-supported by parents and schools flourish exactly as well as any other group of children," says Hershel T. Russell, MA, M.Ed., a registered psychotherapist, activist, and nonbinary trans man. "Those who are not supported too often struggle to cope. Depression, anxiety, inability to make friends, eating disorders, cutting, and high levels of suicidality are frequent sequelae that could have been avoided."

Please do your part and use these definitions as a starting point for your learning and not the be-all and end-all to the meaning of these terms. But the more you know, the more you can learn about yourself and your child. You can also pass knowledge on to other allies who want to protect transgender and gender expansive youth.

Assigned Gender at Birth

For most parents, the moment their child is born is one they will never forget. Fewer parents think about the significance of the single "F" or "M" printed on their baby's birth certificate to indicate their child's male or female gender assignment. This assignment is typically based on a child's sex and genitalia. However, sex is different from gender, and gender identity may vary from that first label. In other words, sex assigned at birth refers to a baby's biology, while gender involves someone's personal identity; parents can assign their child a gender by treating them a certain way, but the child might not identify with that gender.

For many trans and intersex people, this marks the first time our body will be scrutinized without our consent and given a gender we did not ask for based on its appearance. For that reason, instead of saying a trans person was "born a boy or girl," we refer to a person as having been assigned male at birth (AMAB) or assigned female at birth (AFAB.) And while most folks will continue to label their children with gender, the hope is that more parents will be open to the possibility that it may end up being the wrong one.


Cisgender (cis) is an adjective to describe someone who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth. There has been some misinformation spread by transphobic groups and media figureheads that "cis" or "cisgender" is a slur, but this couldn't be further from the truth! So if you hear your kids describe you or folks around you in this way, don't worry. The term is completely neutral and holds no derogatory connotations.


Transgender, often shortened to trans, is an adjective used to describe someone whose gender identity does not align with the gender they were assigned at birth.


A person who is nonbinary is someone whose gender identity is not either male or female. It falls under the transgender umbrella, and likewise, a wide variety of gender identities fall under the nonbinary umbrella. Some nonbinary people may feel more aligned with masculinity or femininity, while others may feel more comfortable with androgyny, or something else entirely. A common set of pronouns used by nonbinary folks is they/them, however, any pronoun can be a nonbinary pronoun, including traditional gendered pronouns like he/him and she/her, or even more than one set of pronouns, such as she/they.


Some nonbinary folks may use neoprouns. As trans folks—especially nonbinary ones—become freer than ever to come out and be ourselves, many have taken incredible strides toward embracing a variety of pronouns, called neopronouns to express the diversity of gender identities.

There are countless neopronouns, but some popular ones include xe/xer, xe/xem, ze/zim, fae/faer, and ney/nem. Some people may also use no pronouns at all, opting to be referred to only by name, instead. Learning a new neopronoun can be especially challenging for many people, so don't feel bad if it takes some practice to get them right!


Transition for trans children has been the subject of a great deal of fear-mongering and devastating human rights attacks over the past several years. There are several types of transition, including social, legal, and medical.

Social transition

Despite transphobic fear-mongering, most transition in minors is social, not medical. Social transition is often the first step of transition. It involves taking steps toward living as one's true gender in day-to-day life. This can include changes in name, pronouns, clothing, haircuts, and using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.

Some transgender folks will use gender affirming clothing, such as binders (a compressive garment worn by some transmasculine folks on their chests to flatten breasts), packers (prosthetic penises which can alleviate genital dysphoria for some transmasculine people), and gaffes (special undergarments worn by some transfeminine folks to minimize the appearance of the penis and alleviate bottom dysphoria).

Legal transition

Legally, though the rules vary by state, trans folks may choose to change their name and gender marker on passports, birth certificates, and driver licenses. This is a lengthy and sometimes expensive process and requires a team of support.

Medical transition

Under the age of 16, the only medical intervention typically performed on children is the administration of safe and reversible puberty blockers, given no sooner than the second Tanner stage, when the initial visible changes of puberty begin to emerge. Children are assessed extensively to make sure they are a good candidate for puberty blockers before they are administered.

Trans kids in their mid to late teens may have the opportunity to begin cross-sex hormone-replacement therapy (HRT). On HRT, a trans person will gain most of the secondary-sex characteristics typically gained during puberty. Surgeries may be a part of medical transition for trans folks, but that is a decision made with a team of doctors and support.

Gender Fluid

A gender fluid person is somebody who experiences more than one gender, usually at different points in time. There are many ways to experience gender fluidity, and several even more specific identities within the gender fluid spectrum. Some gender fluid folks' pronouns and name may even change on a fairly regular basis, which may take some practice to get used to! You can empower them to communicate with you by encouraging regular pronoun check-ins, and providing them with tools like removable and moveable pronoun pins to easily communicate changes. A great way to check in would be to ask, "What pronouns are you comfortable with me using today?"


TERF is an acronym standing for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. TERFS are self-proclaimed "feminists" who see trans people—especially trans women—as a threat to women and womanhood. TERFs are extremely dangerous to trans people, for both the institutional power they wield, and the harmful misinformation they spread, which many well-meaning parents fall prey to. TERFs often call themselves "gender critical" and believe that sex assigned at birth determines one's true identity and where they are allowed to be when in gendered spaces.

Gender Creative

Also known as gender-expansive, someone who is gender creative is someone who expresses themself in a way that breaks traditional gender roles and stereotypes. A gender creative kid may question their gender or relationship to it but are not necessarily transgender. A boy who loves to wear dresses and makeup may feel very much like a boy but because society has often limited a boy's ability to be "feminine," he may be considered gender creative or gender nonconforming.

The Bottom Line

Raising a trans child—especially in a hostile world—is no easy task, but doesn't need to be any harder than raising a cisgender child! By reading articles like this, you're already taking a huge step in being the source of safety and comfort every trans child needs and deserves.

Remember: Every trans person is unique and so is the language we use to describe ourselves and our experiences. I hope this article and others like it can provide you with the language you need to empower the child in your home so they can use the language that feels best for them.

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