January 2021

Gender 101

By Charles Williams
The first step in beginning to understand gender is to get rid of the box. We have been taught that things are either black or white, boy or girl, masculine or feminine. Now we know that there is gray between the black and white, and the gray terms students – and adults – use to describe gender are ever changing and evolving.


“Sex assigned at birth” is the child’s sex as identified by a medical professional, and this assignment is based on the sexual organs that have developed. Common terms are male and female. Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. This is more common than we think – 1.7 percent of people are born intersex, while just 0.3 percent of people have a twin. In these cases, parents usually choose the gender of the child based on the sex organs that are more pronounced.

Gender Identity

Gender identity, by definition, is an individual's personal sense of having a particular gender. In simple terms, it is the gender they see when they look in the mirror. Gender identity is determined by each person, not by science, culture or their parents. Students may see themselves as more masculine or feminine, or may even see themselves having characteristics that would be considered both male and female. Cisgender male/female means a person’s gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. Transgender male/female means a person’s gender identity is different than their sex assigned at birth. Gender nonconforming, nonbinary, genderqueer, and gender fluid are some terms used for people whose gender identity goes between both male and female, and it may or may not match their sex assigned at birth. The definition of the terms used by a gender nonconforming individual is set by that person. A person who identifies as genderqueer may have a different definition from another person who identifies using the same term. Assume the person is the expert in their own identity and seek to understand what they see and not what society tells you.

Gender Expression

Gender expression the way in which a person outwardly expresses their gender identity, typically through their appearance, dress and behavior. This is where students tend to get into trouble and it may cause issues at school. Students may use terms such as masculine, feminine, androgynous, butch, queen or many others to describe their style and sometimes behavior. Fashion and social media are influencing what is appropriate for certain expressions; some of our students follow those trends and some do not. Consider a girl with a short haircut who could be labeled as a tomboy or some other masculine descriptor. She may very well identify as female and just like wearing her hair short. Her expression of gender is up to her and not dependent on others’ expectations. The same applies to boys with long hair. For example, the man bun is now popular, but had a completely different meaning 20 years ago.

Another major aspect of expression is preferred name and pronouns. A person’s name and pronouns hold significant meaning and value to the individual. As school counselors, it is important for us to ensure all students are called by their preferred name/pronouns. If we allow student to choose their preferred nickname (such as Zachary going by Zack), any other student should be allowed that same right, and we should respect the choices students make about how they wish to be addressed. Here are typical pronouns:
  • Masculine: he, him, his
  • Feminine: she, her, hers
  • Gender nonconforming: they, them, theirs
As school counselors, it is important for us to make sure that all expressions of identity are accepted in our buildings. Stereotypes and biases are due to individuals holding on to the certain ideas of male vs. female, especially regarding outward appearance and behaviors. Take a moment to think about some of the common stereotypes our society imposes on gender roles. These generalizations cause anxiety for the average student, so you can imagine the struggle for a student who does not fit the box of gender stereotypes, or chooses not to fit in a box. I urge you to challenge those stereotypes and microaggressions in your building by remembering that all students deserve to be respected and feel safe while expressing who they are.

Charles Williams presented on this topic at the 2020 ASCA conference. He is an elementary school counselor at Solar Preparatory School for Boys in Dallas, Texas. Contact him at chwilliamsjr@dallasisd.org.