Understanding gender terms

profile picture of Sheila Pinion
Health Content Editor at Bupa UK
20 June 2023
Next review due June 2026

In 2021, the census in England and Wales included questions about gender identity and sexual orientation for the first time. Over a quarter of a million people said their gender was different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Of those people, 96,000 identified as transgender, 30,000 identified as nonbinary, and 18,000 had a different gender identity. But what do these terms mean?

As language continues to develop, it presents new opportunities for inclusivity and greater understanding of others. Read on to find out more about some of the commonly used words and phrases to describe gender.

person smiling at a pride parade

What’s the difference between sex and gender?

The terms sex and gender are often used interchangeably. But although sex and gender are linked, they describe different things.

Your sex is related to your physiology and biology, such as your reproductive organs and anatomy. Your sex is assigned at birth based on these characteristics, usually as male or female. Gender is a something we have created in society – it’s a way of associating certain attributes with the sex that someone is assigned at birth.

For example, women are often expected to dress, act, and behave differently to men. Some people believe that there are only two genders – men and women – but others believe that gender does not fit into this binary (two-part) model. Instead, they might picture gender as a spectrum, in which someone’s gender can be anywhere between these binary categories.

For most people, their sex and gender align. For example, someone who’s assigned female at birth may feel like a woman and want to express their gender in a way that’s considered feminine.

But others don’t feel a link between their sex and their gender identity. These differences between sex and gender are key to understanding the terms below, which are listed in alphabetical order.


A cisgender person is someone whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, someone who is assigned male at birth, and who identifies as a man, may be referred to as cisgender.

A person who does not have the same gender identity as the sex they were assigned at birth may be transgender or nonbinary. If you’d like to read more about what the terms gender identity, nonbinary, and transgender mean, these are described further down the page.

Gender-affirming treatment

Gender-affirming treatment describes care that can help to reduce gender dysphoria in transgender and non-binary people. This can include transitioning.

Transitioning is a process that some transgender and gender-diverse people go through to live in a way that aligns with their gender identity. Gender transition can be social, physical, or both.

For example, someone might use different pronouns (for example ‘him’ instead of ‘her’), dress differently, change their name, or have surgery. Not all people will follow the same steps to transition, and some people do not transition at all.


Someone who is gender-diverse has a gender identity that doesn’t match their assigned sex at birth. It’s a broad term that includes transgender and non-binary people.

Gender dysphoria

Sometimes, people feel like their gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth. When this happens, it can feel very uncomfortable or distressing. This is called gender dysphoria (also known as gender incongruence).

People with gender dysphoria can feel uncomfortable and unhappy because their body doesn’t match who they feel they are. Transitioning may help them feel more comfortable in their own body and express their gender identity.

Gender expression

Gender expression is how you show your gender identity to others, through things like your haircut and clothing. The way others see your gender expression is largely affected by society.

For example, based on your appearance, people might assume your gender is masculine or feminine. But someone’s gender expression is not necessarily the same as their gender identity.

Gender identity

The way you feel about your gender is known as your gender identity. Everyone has a gender identity, but not everybody thinks about it. Most people feel like the gender they were assigned at birth – which means they’re cisgender. But some people feel differently, including transgender and nonbinary people. Their gender identity does not align with their assigned sex at birth.

Your gender identity is personal to you. It’s not visible to others - it’s something that only you know and feel inside yourself. It might not change at all, but it may also change over time.


A nonbinary person has a gender identity that doesn’t fit into the gender binary. This means they don’t identify as strictly male or female. Instead, they may identify as partially a man and partially a woman, or sometimes a man and sometimes a woman. Or they may identify as neither a man or woman, or as having no gender.

Some nonbinary people use words like ‘transgender’, ‘genderqueer’, or ‘genderfluid’ to describe themselves, but not all do. They may also choose to use gender-neutral pronouns, such as they/them.


Everyone has pronouns – most commonly he/him and she/her, according to the binary model of gender. Pronouns are a way of identifying someone’s gender and are part of their gender expression. Some people use more than one set of pronouns – for example, she/they.

Nonbinary people might choose to use they/them pronouns because they are gender-neutral. Others may be happy to use any pronouns. If you’re unsure about someone’s pronouns, you could use a gender-neutral pronoun such as ‘they’ until you can ask them what pronouns they use.


Transgender people have a gender identity that does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.

For example, a transgender man is someone who was assigned female at birth but who now identifies as a man. And a transgender woman is someone who was assigned male at birth but who now identifies as a woman.

profile picture of Sheila Pinion
Sheila Pinion (she/her)
Health Content Editor at Bupa UK



Michelle Lopacki, Clinical Team Manager, RGN and Diana Podlewska Monteiro, Inclusion Partner at Bupa Global and UK People Team.

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