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Understanding gender identity

By The Health News Team | March 28, 2024
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Even before an infant is born, there’s often much discussion about their gender. Parents and others may want to know if the baby will be a boy or girl. “Gender reveal” parties are hosted. Room and wardrobe colors are chosen.

However, we now understand a person’s gender identity is not restricted to just two possibilities.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), gender is a social construct — an idea or belief that’s been created and generally accepted by the people in a society — related to assumed characteristics, such as masculine or feminine, of the biological sexes (male and female). These norms, behaviors and roles are associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy.

Gender, the WHO reports, is different from sex, which refers to the biological and physiological characteristics of females, males and intersex persons. (Approximately 1% to 2% of people are intersex, a general term used to refer to people born with a combination of male and female biological traits.) These characteristics include chromosomes, hormones and reproductive organs.

Gender and sex — as well as sexual identity, or orientation, which is an attraction to other people — are different from gender identity. Gender identity refers to a person’s deeply felt, internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond to their physiology or sex assigned at birth.

Devin Dihenia, a clinical psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista, says being transgender or nonbinary — having a gender expression that doesn’t align with binary male and female gender norms — is highly individual, where each experience is unique. And it's vital that people in this population are supported.

Important terms related to gender

It's important to understand the terms used to express being transgender or nonbinary. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation offers the following glossary:

  • Genderqueer. Genderqueer people typically reject notions of static categories of gender and embrace a fluidity of gender identity and often, though not always, sexual orientation. People who identify as genderqueer may see themselves as being both male and female, neither male nor female, or as falling completely outside these categories.

  • Gender-expansive. A gender-expansive person has a wider, more flexible range of gender identity or expression than typically associated with the binary gender social construct. This is often used as an umbrella term when referring to young people still exploring the possibilities of their gender expression or gender identity.

  • Gender-fluid. A gender-fluid person does not identify with a single fixed gender or have a fluid or unfixed gender identity.

  • Nonbinary. A nonbinary person does not identify exclusively as a man or a woman. Nonbinary people may identify as being both a man and a woman, somewhere in between, or as falling completely outside these categories.

  • Transgender. An umbrella term for people whose gender identity or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Therefore, transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or another orientation.

Awareness creates understanding

Individuals’ awareness that they might be transgender or nonbinary is varied. Many know from a very young age that what they were assigned at birth — male or female — is not accurate to how they identify. Others may tend to recognize this in adolescence, especially as they enter puberty.

And while it may seem we are hearing more about transgender or nonbinary people than we have in the past, it's not likely there are now more people who identify as such.

Responding to a gender-nonconforming identity

While not all transgender people transition ­— which is the process that some people undergo to live more fully as their true gender — many find it's an important step to decrease discomfort and increase well-being. Transitioning can include a combination of social, physical, medical and legal changes.

Medical providers and family members can be affirming by using a person’s chosen name and pronouns — such as he, she, they, it, zer — the person identifies with. Research indicates such support and gender-affirming medical care offers overall benefits of improved well-being and mental health.

“There is no risk to practicing gender-affirming care, which, on a basic level, is affirming a person's gender identity and accepting people for who they are,” Dr. Dihenia says. “On the other hand, transgender and nonbinary individuals have some of the highest risk for suicide. Love, support, acceptance, and access to appropriate care is vital to ensure they thrive.

Bri DuBose, a registered nurse and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt who has worked at Sharp since 2011, has three sons, one who transitioned. Her best advice for people with a loved one who is nonbinary or transgender is to strive to create moments of “gender euphoria.” This is defined by some as enjoyment or satisfaction caused by a correlation between a person’s gender identity and physical characteristics, or the joy felt in positive social experiences, such as when one is gendered, or identified, correctly.

“These moments can be sparked by calling someone by the correct pronoun or name without prompting or by introducing yourself by your pronouns to create safety,” DuBose says. “If you aren’t sure what their correct name or pronoun is, ask. Simply acknowledging their uniqueness creates an environment built on inclusion and diversity and goes a long way.”

Learn about LGBTQ+ Friendly Care at Sharp; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.


Dr. Devin Dihenia


Dr. Devin Dihenia is a clinical psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital.


Bri DuBose


Bri DuBose is a registered nurse and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt at Sharp HealthCare.

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