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Fact Sheet

Exploring gender identity

If you or someone you know is questioning or exploring your gender identity, you’re not alone. This fact sheet will help you to better understand what it means to be trans (transgender or any identity on the gender spectrum), some of the challenges trans people face, and some helpful resources to learn more about gender and to get support if you or someone you care about has questions or concerns about gender identity and gender expression.

Gender Diversity

People are becoming more aware that gender is more complicated and involves more than just the two categories of either male or female.  Also, there is greater understanding that someone’s gender may or may not match biological sex.  If those first two sentences were confusing, let’s step back a bit and look at some definitions.

Sex: Sex is generally assigned to a person at birth, usually based on external and internal reproductive organs (whether you have a penis or vagina), hormones and the genetic makeup (known as sex chromosomes) inherited from your parents. Sex is more complicated than male and female and falls onto a spectrum with many possible combinations.

Gender Identity: This refers to the internal sense of being male, female, both, or neither.

Gender Expression: This refers to the way people outwardly express to others their gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, and other behavior.  Many of the behaviors and other types  of gender expression vary across cultures and change over time (for example, length of hair, wearing pants, makeup, etc.).

Transgender: This refers to a person whose internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. The terms, transgender or trans, may also refer to someone whose gender identity or behavior falls outside of stereotypical gender norms.

Cisgender (a.k.a. Gender Normative):  Cis means same and cisgender refers to someone whose gender and sex are the same (for example, someone whose sex is female and whose gender identity is also female).

Gender Fluid: This refers to someone who expresses gender identity in a wider and more flexible manner, sometimes changing from day to day. Someone who identifies as gender fluid may at times feel male and at other times feel female, or may not feel either.

Sexual Orientation: This refers to someone being romantically and sexually attracted to other people. Sexual orientation, like gender, exists on a spectrum that includes but is not limited to identifying as straight, gay or bisexual. Some people know their sexual orientation at an early age, some people do not know until they are older. Identifying as trans does not necessarily mean you also identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

For more comprehensive definitions of terms associated with gender, please refer to A Word About Words, from Gender Spectrum.

Expressing your Gender Identity 

Internal vs. External Gender Expression

You may be in the process of learning/discovering or questioning how you want to express your gender. This is always a personal process of coming to know your own feelings and thoughts about your gender identity. At some point, the process may also include letting others know by having conversations with people you trust and/or through behavior expressing the gender identity that feels comfortable for you. 

Although gender identity and gender expression are distinct and separate from sexual orientation, letting people know your gender identity (or that you are questioning your gender identity) is similar in some ways with coming out (about one’s sexual orientation).  Like coming out, sharing that you are transgender or questioning is an intimate and vulnerable thing to share with someone.

Emotional concerns around gender nonconformity

Feeling different or confused: Many cultures and families have fairly limited ideas about gender identity. They have ideas that gender is equal to biological sex and that there are only two possibilities: male or female.  However, if you or someone you know feels they don’t fit these rigid positions, it can feel isolating, confusing, and scary to be “different.”  Knowing that you are not alone and that there are supportive resources can help you lessen the stress (see “Where to get support” section below).

Feeling isolated and/or hiding a secret:  If you or someone you know identifies as transgender or questioning but have not yet shared this with others, you may feel like you are hiding a big secret. Maybe this is because you're worried about how family members, friends, peers, community, or your community might react.  These may be real concerns, as some people face emotional rejection, verbal abuse, being kicked out of the house, even physical or sexual assault after they share that they are transgender (or questioning or gender fluid, etc.).  While there is absolutely no reason to feel ashamed or bad about yourself, it is important to make decisions that help keep you safe.  Having a safety plan of where you can go or who you can contact for help if you need support may be an important thing to consider. 

In addition to the other resources in the “Where to get support section” (below), the following might be a helpful resource to help you decide if, when, and how to start telling people how you feel:

Safety Concerns

As you start to explore and express your gender identity externally, it is possible that you will face challenges from others. Of course, reactions will be different depending on the environment you’re in and some may not cause any concern at all, but it’s good to be aware of situations that others have found difficult. In the following section, you will find suggestions for coping and overcoming these obstacles.  

Public bathroom use: If a transgender person wants to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with, they may face push back or even harassment. This is especially true in school setting, where peers sometimes name call.

Attire: When transgender people dress in line with their gender identity, certain physical features can reveal their biological sex. This makes them much more publicly visible, which can lead to judgment and hostility from others.

Pronouns: Often transgender people want to be addressed with the gender pronoun that appropriately reflects their gender identity. Sometimes people fail to respect this preference and use an undesired pronoun.  This can cause discomfort for a transgender person.

ID Information: Many transgender people struggle with the fact that their ID states a sex that does not fit their gender identity. When they are asked to show ID, they often have to explain and defend themselves. This embarrassing revelation can lead to the refusal of rights or services. Legally changing one’s sex is a long process.

Coping with challenges

Get support. The first step is to get informed, and learn that you are not different, strange, or alone. It can be helpful to find a community, either at your school, in your town, or online, and meet other similar people. 

Be aware that transgender people, especially youth, are at high risk for mental health issues. This has to do with the challenges and negative attitudes they face, and the unique struggles they have to overcome. We encourage you to seek help if you are trans and facing challenges. Talking to others and having a support system can make all the difference.  There are more resources below, but a good place to start is The Trevor Project: (866.488.7386).

Learn about your rights. In addition to seeking out support and resources to help with your emotional well-being, it can also be helpful to get informed about your legal rights as a transgender young person. Laws that protect your rights based on gender identity vary by state and jurisdiction and, along with attitudes, are in the process of getting better.  To get the most up-to -date information about protective laws and lawsuits that are challenging unfair laws and policies, check out:

What to do if you are being harassed

If you are transgender and are being harassed or bullied, it is very important that you seek help.  No one deserves to be judged based on their personal identity and how they were born. When someone puts you down, it is often that person's insecurities fueling his or her actions. Try to ignore the cruel and untrue words the bullies are saying, and seek help from a teacher or administrator, especially if you sense any possible threat to your safety.

If you are being bullied at school, try talking to the administration or a trusted faculty member. Please seek support if you are feeling hopeless or alone by calling the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ crisis line at 1-866-488-7386.

Remember that you are never alone. There are tons of supportive groups and services available for transgender people.

Embracing your inner self is a brave step on the journey to self discovery.

More Information

Gender Spectrum
Trans Mental Health
National Center for Transgender Equality
Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) Transgender Network (TNET)
Human Rights Campaign Transgender Resources
Transgender law center
Bending the Mold: An action kit for transgender students
Trans Youth Equality Foundation
Transgender Law Center
ACLU Transgender People and the Law
Youth Pride, Inc.
The Trevor Project
Institute for Welcoming Resources
Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network
The Task Force Transgender Issues

This fact sheet was produced in collaboration with GSA Network with support from California voter-approved Proposition 63 funds, as an initiative to develop mental health resources for LGBTQ youth in California. See the funding statement below for details.

This program is funded by counties through the voter-approved Mental Health Services Act (Prop 63). It is one of several Prevention and Early Intervention Initiatives implemented by the California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA), an organization of California counties working to improve mental health outcomes for individuals, families and communities. CalMHSA encourages the use of materials contained herein, as they are explained in our licensing agreements. To view the agreements, please visit:


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