Understanding the terminology of gender identity

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TRANSforming Gynecology is a column about the ways in which ob.gyns. can become leaders in addressing the needs of the transgender/gender-nonconforming population. We hope to provide readers with some basic tools to help open the door to this marginalized population. We will lay the groundwork with an article on terminology and the importance of language before moving onto more focused discussions of topics that intersect with medical care of gender-nonconforming individuals. Transgender individuals experience among the worst health care outcomes of any demographic, and we hope that this column can be a starting point for providers to continue affirming the needs of marginalized populations in their everyday practice.



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We live in a society in which most people’s gender identities are congruent with the sex they were assigned at birth based on physical characteristics. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people – often referred to as trans people, broadly – feel that their gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth. This gender nonconformity, or the extent to which someone’s gender identity or expression differs from the cultural norm assigned to people with certain sexual organs, is in fact a matter of diversity, not pathology.

To truly provide sensitive care to trans patients, medical providers must first gain familiarity with the terminology used when discussing gender diversity. Gender identity, for starters, refers to an individual’s own personal and internal experience of themselves as a man, woman, some of both, or neither gender.1 It is only possible to learn a person’s gender identity through direct communication because gender identity is not always signaled by a certain gender expression. Gender expression is an external display usually through clothing, attitudes, or body language, that may or may not fit into socially recognized masculine or feminine categories.1 A separate aspect of the human experience is sexuality, such as gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian, etc. Sexuality should not be confused with sexual practices, which can sometimes deviate from a person’s sexuality. Gender identity is distinct from sexuality and sexual practices because people of any gender identity can hold any sexuality and engage in any sexual practices. Tied up in all of these categories is sex assigned at birth, which is a process by which health care providers categorize babies into two buckets based on the appearance of the external genitalia at the time of birth. It bears mentioning that the assignment of sex based on the appearance of external genitalia at the time of birth is a biologically inconsistent method that can lead to the exclusion of and nonconsensual mutilation of intersex people, who are individuals born with ambiguous genitalia and/or discrepancies between sex chromosome genotype and phenotype (stay tuned for more on people who are intersex in a future article).

Dr. Andrea B. Joyner

Dr. Andrea B. Joyner

A simplified way of remembering the distinctions between these concepts is that gender identity is who you go to bed as; gender expression is what you were wearing before you went to bed; sexuality is whom you tell others/yourself you go to bed with; sexual practice is whom you actually go to bed with; and sex assigned at birth is what you have between your legs when you are born (generally in a bed).

While cisgender persons feel that their experience of gender – their gender identity – agrees with the cultural norms surrounding their sex assigned at birth, transgender/gender-nonconforming (GNC) persons feel that their experience of gender is incongruent with their sex assigned at birth.1 Specifically, a transgender man is a person born with a vagina and therefore assigned female at birth who experiences himself as a man. A transgender woman is a person born with a penis and therefore assigned male at birth who experiences herself as a woman. A gender nonbinary person is someone with any sexual assignment at birth whose gender experience cannot be described using a binary that includes only male and female concepts, and a gender fluid person is someone whose internal experience of gender can oscillate.1 While these examples represent only a few of the many facets of gender diversity, the general terms trans and gender nonconforming (GNC) are widely accepted as inclusive, umbrella terms to describe all persons whose experience of gender is not congruent with their sex assigned at birth.

Dr. Joey Bahng

Dr. Joey Bahng

It is pivotal that medical providers understand that a person’s sex assigned at birth, gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, sexual practice, and romantic attraction can vary widely along a spectrum in each distinct category.2 For example, the current social norm dictates that someone born with a penis and assigned male at birth (AMAB) will feel that he is male, dress in a masculine fashion, and be both sexually and romantically attracted to someone born with a vagina who was assigned female at birth (AFAB), feels that she is female, dresses femininely, and likewise is sexually and romantically attracted to him. One possible alternative reality is a person who was born with a vagina that was therefore AFAB that experiences a masculine gender identity while engaging in a feminine gender expression in order to conform to social norms. In addition, they may be sexually attracted to people whom they perceive to be feminine while engaging in sexual activity with people who were AMAB. Informed medical care for trans persons starts with the basic understanding that an individual’s gender identity may not necessarily align with their gender expression, sex assigned at birth, sexual attraction, or romantic attraction.

As obstetrician-gynecologists, we are tasked by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to provide nondiscriminatory care to all patients, regardless of gender identity.3 We must be careful not to assume that all of our patients are cisgender women who use “she/hers/her” pronouns. By simply asking patients what names or pronouns they would like us to use before initiating care, we become more sensitive to variations in gender identity. Many providers may feel uncertain about how to initiate or respond to this line of questioning. One way that health care practices can begin to respectfully access information around gender identity is to create intake forms that include more than two options for gender or to alter their office visit note templates to include a section that prompts the provider to include a discussion surrounding gender identity. By offering these opportunities for inclusion, we become more welcoming of gender minorities like transgender men seeking cervical cancer screening.

There are a number of reasons that trans persons have limited access to the health care system, but the greatest barrier reported by transgender patients is the paucity of knowledgeable providers.4Learning the common terminology used by the trans population is a logical first step for physicians seeking to provide more affirming care to an already marginalized patient population. Familiarity with this terminology normalizes the idea of gender diversity and subsequently reduces the risk of providers making assumptions about patients that contributes to suboptimal care.

Dr. Joyner is an assistant professor at Emory University, Atlanta, and is the director of gynecologic services in the Gender Center at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Dr. Joyner identifies as a cisgender female and uses she/hers/her as her personal pronouns. Dr. Joey Bahng is a PGY-1 resident physician in Emory University’s gynecology & obstetrics residency program. Dr. Bahng identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them/their as their personal pronouns. Dr. Joyner and Dr. Bahng reported no financial disclosures.

1. Lancet. 2016 Jul 23;388(10042):390-400.

2. www.genderbread.org/resource/genderbread-person-v4-0.

3. Obstet Gynecol. 2011 Dec;118(6):1454-8.

4. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2016 Apr 1;23(2):168-71.

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