Exploring Gender Identity

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content Warning: If you're an LGBTQ+ youth or young adult in crisis, contact The Trevor Project hotline by calling 1-866-488-7386 or texting "START" to 678-678. You can also use their online chat. 

Deciding to explore your gender identity can be a personal process that may prompt several questions. While it may not be a simple, straightforward path, encourage yourself to discover who you are. You're not alone, and there are many ways to identify with gender.

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What is gender identity?

Gender identity refers to a person's internal sense of self related to gender. People might identify in hundreds of ways. However, some common gender identities include man, woman, or non-binary. Unlike gender expression, gender identity is not outwardly visible. There are numerous gender identities, and all are valid. Some people's gender expressions might match their gender identity, while others may not. 

Your assigned sex at birth may be based on factors like reproductive organs, genes, and hormones. Gender, however, is a social construct that can vary across cultures. When someone's assigned sex and gender identity don't align, they might identify as transgender—one of the many identities a person can have. 

What gender identities are there? 

Examples of gender identities people might identify as include but are not limited to the following:

  • Male
  • Female
  • Transgender
  • Non-binary 
  • Two-spirit (an Indigenous gender identity) 
  • Third gender
  • Pangender
  • Agender
  • Androgyne 
  • Demiboy 
  • Demigirl 
  • Neutrois

Some identities are umbrella terms. A transgender person might identify as a man or a woman and consider themselves non-binary or genderfluid. In addition, some people might not identify with any gender label. 

Gender identity vs. gender expression

Gender identity and expression are related terms that have different meanings. Gender expression (or identity expression) is how a person outwardly displays gender. Gender identity, on the other hand, is internal. A few examples of gender expression might be someone's clothing, hairstyle, and makeup. More outward signifiers can include chosen names, speech, mannerisms, and body features.

Someone's gender identity may not match their assigned sex at birth. However, just because someone identifies as a particular gender doesn't mean they may express it to the world or present themselves that way. For some, it can take time for gender expression to align with their gender identity. Others might be content identifying as but not externally expressing their gender. Some may not have the resources, safety, or support to express their gender but may still identify a certain way. 

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Helping someone explore their gender identity

If you'd like to help someone explore their gender identity or you're interested in doing so for yourself, consider the following tips.

Do research

Consider learning about gender and identity. You can educate yourself and research any questions before asking someone else who may not have consented to giving advice. 

Listen

You may not fully understand what someone is experiencing. However, try to actively listen to their experiences regardless. Being non-judgmental and open-minded can help you accept yourself and the people you interact with. If you're not exploring your gender identity but know someone who is, let them know you're there for them to talk to if they need to vent to someone.  

Seek support

If you or someone you know is gender-questioning or experiencing gender dysphoria, seeking support from a mental health professional can be beneficial. A licensed therapist can be better equipped to help individuals learn more about gender and mental health. 

Be an advocate

Becoming an ally to the LGBTQ+ community can be one way to create positive change. Even if you don't understand your own gender identity, it can be beneficial to have a safe space to explore. If you are part of the LGB+ community but don't identify as trans, find ways to ally with the trans community within your LGB+ spaces. For example, don't exclude transgender individuals from events, and advocate for trans people at LGBTQ+ events. 

Factors affecting gender identity

Many factors can affect a person's gender identity. These could include life experiences, assigned sex at birth, societal expectations, personality traits, stereotypes, and peer interactions. It could also include biological factors like hormones and temperament and environmental factors like language and social reinforcement. 

In some cases, multiple factors can come into play. Conversely, some may believe that one prominent factor has the most influence. Focusing on why someone identifies a certain way may be less critical than accepting that they are who they are. Identity is unique to each person, and being trans is as natural and normal as being cisgender (identifying with your assigned sex at birth). 

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Finding mental health support 

When someone's gender identity doesn't match their assigned sex, they may experience mental health conditions as a result. A mental health condition may be related to an inner struggle but can also be affected by discrimination. People in the LGBTQ+ community experience an increased risk of mental health disparities as well as disparities in the availability of healthcare, especially for those in rural areas. 

Despite these disparities, recent advances in mental healthcare have opened new avenues to allow individuals to receive mental health support more safely. Research has proven that telehealth options are as effective as in-person treatment and could be a more flexible way for gender-questioning people to explore their identity. 

Platforms like BetterHelp allow clients to connect with a therapist from home. When you sign up, you can indicate whether you'd like to work with an LGBTQ+ therapist or affirming provider. In addition, you can set your goals before your session and choose an appointment time that works for you. Being able to attend therapy from home or a space with an internet connection may be more convenient for some people questioning their gender identity. 

Takeaway

There are many possible gender identities and possible reasons for questioning one's assigned sex at birth. Gender can be a nuanced social construct and internal experience. It can also be clear-cut and unambiguous. Either way, when you begin exploring your identity, having a trusted professional to talk to may be helpful. Given the increased mental health risks faced by the LGBTQ+ community, talk therapy—whether in-person or online—can be one way to navigate forward.

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The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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