Gender 101 Sex Guides and Tips
by Sinclair Sexsmith

What the heck is all this gender stuff about?

Men and women, right? Boys and girls, males and females? But is there more to it than that? How does it work? If we talk about gender, are we talking about "The Gays," like men who are effeminate, women who are masculine?

Why yes, there is that … oh, but there's so much more. I'm here to give you a brief tutorial on what gender is, and provide an introduction to the studies of gender.

What is gender?

According to an encyclopedia, gender is "an individual's self-conception of being male or female, as distinguished from ... biological sex." That's a good place to start – "a self conception" – but it goes beyond the two categories of male and female. There is a huge range of gender in us homo sapiens, all manifested in very different ways on different people.

Okay, let's back up. I'm sure you've come across this form, at some point or another:


Check one:        

Either you're M or F, a boy or a girl, male or female, man or woman, masculine or feminine, an innie or an outie.


But come on; certainly most of us have felt some time that this M or F is too simplistic, too limiting to the ways that we want to live in the world and define ourselves. There are more ways to operate than the strict one-or-the-other system of gender that we currently have in place. We tend to divide people on the basis of their reproductive capabilities, and in humans – as in many species – there are two distinctive roles that biology takes. However, this isn't always true. There are more variations in physicality than just two; take a look at intersexuality – which is the updated term for hermaphrodites. Biology isn't always as cut and dry as we'd like to think.

Why can't we have:

Check as many of the following as apply:

(write your own)

You've probably heard some of these terms before – perhaps they confuse you, or maybe you don't quite understand what they mean. Actually, they are difficult to pin down and explain, because these concepts and the studies of gender in general are incredibly new, and everything is still changing. Also, one of the greatest and most complex things about gender is the ways that it can invite people to self-define; what I call "masculine" and what you call "masculine" might be very different things.

Ultimately, the self-definition of gender could create an infinite amount of different words and identities to define one's own gender.

Wha-wha-what?" You say. "Won't that unravel the very fabric of society as we know it? What if I don't know if that person is a man or a woman! What if I don't know how to act or react around them!" Well, maybe you won't know. Maybe you'll start to treat people on the basis of their own humanity, and personalities, their interests, beliefs, values, and hobbies, rather than on your expectations of their sex and gender.

How'd all this gender stuff come about? Where were all the gender outlaws twenty, thirty years ago?

We were there. We were just not quite fully articulated yet – there was so much work to be done breaking down gender stereotypes, gender roles, gender expectations before we were able to get to the point that we're at now.

Isn't it great, that we can now express ourselves in so many varied ways? Isn't it great that women are not forced to wear skirts, as we have been in the past? Isn't it great that the "Help Wanted" section of the newspaper isn't divided by "male" and "female," but rather by different occupational categories? Isn't it great that we have Utilikilts and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and metrosexuals and house-husbands and women CEOs and – dare I even say it! – a serious female presidential candidate?

All this groundwork has been laid by feminist and queer rights activists, in which gender activists have firmly planted roots, but were not always forefront or even accepted. We were outcasts. There are many concepts that gender gained from the queer and feminist movements, but for the purposes of this article, we're going to skip the historical stuff and move on to the fun stuff. See the resource list if you'd like to know where to find more information about this.

Because we have more and more people being more and more articulate about the ways that the M or F choice excludes their own experience and expression, and confines us rather than celebrates us, we have more and more people choosing genders beyond strict M-or-F. Some of the most visible gender outlaws in this new gendered self-identification have been trans folks – transsexual, transgendered, male-to-female or female-to-male folks who often or occasionally take hormones and have surgeries to change their body to reflect a different gender. There are many, many questions and things to write about trans experience, politics, science. What do hormones do? How does gender identity work? What's the surgery like? Why would you choose or not choose to have surgery or take hormones? I'm not going into all this here – again, look at the resource list at the end.

Here's the thing – trans experiences, politics, and identities are pushing gender into new frontiers, into really exciting and celebratory places where people feel more whole, more comfortable, better able to move through the world, more loving and able to love. How cool is that! Just like anybody else, transgendered people have a wide variety of genders. And because of the ways that gender is adopted so intentionally on trans folks, those of us who are not trans can learn a great deal about the ways to articulate all sorts of varieties of gender, no matter who you are, straight or gay or bi or , masculine or feminine or androgynous or .

The English language actually lacks words for most gender identities. We've got those few main words – androgynous, feminine, masculine – but there are so many more differences in the concept of gender that have yet to be articulated, named, labeled, categorized. You might ask, "why do we have to categorize it? Can't I just be me?" Well yes, of course! Please be you! These categories and concepts are only ever meant to celebrate and enhance our own personal expressions, and should never make us feel like we aren't able to express parts of ourselves that we want to express. That's the whole point of dismantling this binary M or F gender system in the first place!

Reject it, embrace it, do things that seem totally contradictory, do one thing one day and another thing the next; perhaps you'll settle into a place that feels the most like you, or perhaps you'll love the variation and change that comes with multiple modes of expression. Maybe you'll finally use all of your different voices.

Because we lack language for all these different gender identities, and there are infinite possibilities, these concepts of gender beyond M or F are very new. They are just starting to be articulated by various radical communities who are doing this work. There is so much new language used around gender.

Here are some examples:

There are some fairly obvious ones, which probably make sense to most of us:

  • Feminine woman
  • Masculine woman
  • Androgynous woman
  • Feminine man
  • Masculine man
  • Androgynous man

These identities don't necessarily have specific terms to differentiate them, so they are more like adjectives used to generally describe people.

In queer communities, identity descriptors are more widely used. The identities of butch (masculine), femme (feminine), and androgynous are most common. Many people add words to make a compound descriptor, which they feel are more accurate, such as:

  • Sweet butch
  • Soft butch
  • Old-school butch
  • Service butch
  • Faggy butch
  • Chivalrous femme
  • Studly femme
  • High femme
  • Drag femme
  • Sporty femme

Some folks identify as all sorts of other things – below is a list of terms people might choose to use to identify. While of course each individual will interpret them differently, here are some very loose, very approximate definitions of how I have seen them used:

  • Trans, Tranny, Trannyboy , Trannygirl, Transsexual, Transman, Transwoman, Transgender, MTF, FTM – all different terms used by folks who consider themselves to have generally moved outside of compulsory femininity or masculinity. The self-definition within trans communities is hugely varied and often as simple as "man" or "woman," or as self-defined as a string of adjectives, for example, "faggy trans drag-king dyke." MTF usually means a male-bodied person who has transitioned to be female; FTM is a female-bodied person who has transitioned to be male
  • Boi – a softening of "boy," used by some queer women who identify with masculinity
  • Grrl – a tougher version of "girl," implies a sort of punkness, or rejection of the sugar & spice version of femininity
  • Tomboy– A girl who is more aligned with traditionally masculine hobbies, such as sports. Often used in adolescence and childhood, some adult women still identify as such
  • Boy-girl – someone who likes both terms and sees themselves occupying both
  • Girl-boy-girl – someone female-bodied who identifies with a feminine version of masculinity
  • Papi – Spanish for ‘father,' but occasionally used to describe a sexy masculinity in both males and masculine women. A character on the TV show The L Word was named Papi
  • Stud – often used to describe a masculine and somewhat aggressive female-bodied person
  • Cowboy – someone identified with traditionally western styles; often implies boots and chivalry, and a strong masculinity. I've known both biological males and trans men who have identified as such
  • Dapper dandy – fairly flamboyant style of masculine dress, including colors and accessories
  • Phag – version of "fag," spelled differently to portray reclamation and intentional use of the word
  • Rapscallion – the term means "a rascal; rogue; scamp," defined in the 18th century as "a rude, awkward, boisterous, untaught girl."
  • Aggressive – often used to describe a masculine and somewhat aggressive female-bodied person, generally who dates women
  • Houseboi –female-bodied but male-identified and service-oriented, and enjoys domestic duties
  • Shinjuku boy – a reference to the 1995 film that examined cross-dressing and queer life in Tokyo, Japan, following female-born folks who live as male
  • Third gender – someone who believes there are more than two genders
  • No gender – someone who has rejected a gender role for themselves
  • Bi-spirit, Two-spirit, Tri-spirit – in some Native American cultures, there were believed to be many genders, not just men and women. Those who were not singularly "men" or "women" were often referred to as having more than one spirit
  • Dyke-fag – a faggy dyke or a dykey fag, someone who identifies with queer expression of both gay men and lesbians
  • Elf girl, Elf boy, Fairy – either male or female, someone who identifies with the fantasy elements of gender
  • Radicalfaery – the name of a traditionally gay male organization for social gatherings; often adopted by pagan-identified men
  • Fey – often male-bodied folks who identify as feminine
  • Glitterboy – a boy who identifies with very feminine aspects of accessorizing and costuming such as glitter, sequins, and nail polish
  • Drag queen, drag king – usually used by someone who does not spend the majority of their life dressing as another gender, but who occasionally enjoys dressing up (and sometimes professional performing) as a gender other than their own
  • Tryke – trans dyke, usually a male-to-female trans woman who is dyke-identified
  • Sissy – someone feminine and usually fairly submissive, used by both female- and male-bodied folks, though most common with male
  • Genderqueer – someone who rejects gender binaries and is not aligned with traditional masculine or feminine genders.

There are hundreds of ways to personally identify one's own gender - some of us see ourselves as combining aspects of female and male, some of us fall between female and male. Some of us consider that we fall completely outside of this gender binary. Some people who don't identify as strictly anything identify as genderqueer.

Gender identity and expression at this level of detail can possibly give us more ways to express ourselves, not less. It can validate more modes of expression, more range, more experience than we've ever been able to articulate before.

Try it out! Play with different terms, see what you come up with. Take the time to define yourself. You never know what you might discover, lurking in the shadows, partying in the basement, ready to come out and play.

Sinclair Sexsmith, a self-defined kinky queer butch top, has a B.A. in gender studies and writes about sex, gender, and relationships at Sugarbutch Chronicles.


Butch is a Noun by S. Bear Bergman (Suspect Thoughts Press). Fantastic personal essays about what it means to be female bodied and identified with masculinity. Self-defined butches will adore it, those who love butches will find it useful, those who don't have any idea about gender will enjoy it.

Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us and My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely by Kate Bornstein. Genius books

Gender Trouble, and Undoing Gender by Judith Butler. One of the most famous postmodern gender theorists, whose theories on performativity have significantly changed the theory discourse. Unfortunately, she's very difficult to read; I would suggest a primer on Butler rather than her actual texts.

Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman

by Leslie Feinberg

The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, edited by Joan Nestle. Published in 1992, still one of the best (and only) anthologies about butch and femme genders.

GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary, edited by Joan Nestle, Riki Wilchins, and Clare Howell. Published in 2002, this anthology includes all sorts of writings from a wide variety of perspectives.

Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender by Matt Bernstein Sycamore

"Expanding Gender And Expanding The Law: Toward A Social And Legal: Conceptualization Of Gender That Is More Inclusive Of Transgender People" by Dylan Vade. University of Michigan Journal of Gender and Law, July 2005. Vade's article introduced the concept of the "gender galaxy," which I find to be particularly brilliant.

He's a Stud, She's a Slut, and 49 other Double Standards Everyone Should Know by Jessica Valenti, editor of More about the double standards of gender roles (primarily heterosexual).

Queer Theory, Gender Theory by Riki Wilchins. A fantastic theory primer. Very easy to read, concise, and covers everything important. Pretty much summarizes everything important that I learned in my gender studies courses. Wilchins runs the organization Gender PAC,