Understanding Gender Identity

By Felice SOO PsyD, Clinical Psychologist at Jiahui Health

Author J.K. Rowling, best known for the “Harry Potter” series, recently found herself in hot water after a tweet led many to accuse her of “transphobia”. The backlash from Rowling’s tweet has been widespread and has led many to ask questions about the topics of gender and gender identity. At Jiahui Health, we believe that education is the first step in creating an inclusive healthcare environment, so we endeavored to create a brief introduction to this sensitive and important topic.

Assigned Sex vs. Gender

To understand the concept of gender identity, we must establish two other important concepts, assigned sex and gender. Assigned sex, also called “biological sex”, is a label that you are given at birth based on medical factors, like genitals, hormones, and chromosomes. The term “assigned sex”, as in “assigned female at birth” or “assigned male at birth”, is preferred by some people to “biological sex” because it acknowledges that someone was making a decision for someone else. This assigned sex may not align with what is happening inside that person’s body, how they feel, or how they identify.

Gender, on the other hand, is far more complicated than assigned sex. Gender is determined, not by biological factors, but by societal expectations about the behaviors, thoughts, and characteristics that go along with someone’s assigned sex. This can include ideas about how women and men are expected to dress, behave, and communicate.

Gender Identity

Gender identity is all about how a person feels and perceives in their own mind, and how they express that feeling and perception to the outside world.

According to Dr. Soo, a clinical psychologist at the Jiahui Mental Health Department with extensive experience working with the LGBTQ community, “Gender identity is how you, in your head, think about yourself. It’s the chemistry that composes you (e.g. hormone levels) and how you interpret what that means.”

One can express their gender identity in many forms, be it clothing, appearance, or behavior. Most children begin to develop a stable sense of their gender identity between the ages of 3 and 5, and it’s also at this age that they begin to perceive the gender expectations expressed by their family, their teachers, and their community.

For some people, their gender identity and their assigned gender are the same. These people are called cisgender. Those whose assigned gender does not align with their gender identity are called transgender, like someone whose assigned sex is female, but their gender identity is male. This differs in a meaningful way from the term “transsexual”, which refers specifically to someone who has undergone a physical change to their body.

What’s the “gender binary”?

The gender binary is the idea that there are only two genders: female and male. However, as society’s understanding and perception of gender has changed over time, many have come to think of gender as a spectrum, rather than a choice between only two options. Individuals who do not identify strictly as a boy or a girl are often referred to as nonbinary, and those who choose not to identify as a gender at all are called agender.

Talking about your own gender identity

Dr. Soo cautions that the process of coming out about your own gender identity can be a long one, but if you are seeking acceptance of your gender identity from those around you, you should first start by yourself. “After you’ve accepted who you are, you can begin to approach a place where you are ready to present yourself that way to others.”

Once you begin presenting yourself as your identified gender identity, some people will approach you to ask you about this change, giving you a chance to discuss the subject. Start by expressing your gender identity around those that you feel you can trust, as keeping your gender identity within this circle will allow you to come out at a pace that is comfortable for you.

Dr. Soo advises that the safest group with which to discuss these issues is usually the LGBTQ community, where you can find others who may be more willing to accept you for who you are and give you the chance to grow comfortable in your own identity before discussing it with others. It is necessary to develop the confidence to talk about yourself as who you are, because if you have spent a majority of your life talking about and thinking of yourself in a certain way, then it will take time to transition to your new identity.
“Feel confident about who you are first, before you come out. Accepting yourself first means that you aren’t putting control of your own identity in the hands of others,” says Dr. Soo.

Talking to others about their gender identity

Approaching someone to discuss their gender identity, whether they are a family member, a friend or just a coworker can be fraught with challenges. Regardless, Dr. Soo suggests you first wait for them to establish a consistent behavior before making any efforts to discuss the subject. If their behavior or expression is consistent, then it’s time to examine your own motivations for asking in the first place, “Why do you want to ask, do you want to offer support, or are you just nosy? Is there some way you can help? If the answer is no, then don’t ask,” says Dr. Soo.

If someone chooses to confide in you about their gender identity, you should start by acknowledging the trust that they have put in you. Let them know that you will return the trust by keeping it confidential if that’s what they want from you. This way you can be in a position to support them later.
“People don’t come out for no reason, they are looking for something, be it simple acceptance or more active support,” says Dr. Soo. “Recognize how much courage it takes to speak with you about something so personal.”

Gender and gender identity are complex topics that cannot be fully explored in a single article. But we hope that this content has offered some insights and perspectives that will enrich your interactions with others, regardless of their gender identity. If you or someone you know is dealing with mental health issues of any kind, please consider making an appointment with a doctor from the Jiahui Health Mental Health Department by scanning the QR code below and adding the Jiahui Health WeChat mini-program, or calling call 400-868-3000.

Dr. Felice SOO is a clinical psychologist at Jiahui Health. Dr. Soo obtained her Master and Doctor of Psychology degrees in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) at Alliant International University (AIU). She received her license of clinical psychologist from New Zealand Psychologist Board and a practitioner certificate from Association of Psychotherapist and Counsellors Singapore (APACS). She is also a registered member of American Psychological Association (APA), registered clinical psychologist of Hong Kong Association of Doctors in Clinical Psychology (HKADCP) and a Clinical Member of Shanghai International Mental Health Association (SIMHA).