Gender 101 for confused cisgender folks (and a few legislators) | Sex in the Suburbs

Amy Johnson. Contributed photo

Let’s talk about gender.

Gender seems to confound many people—even when it’s neatly contained in two boxes: male and female.

Gender, though, is much more complicated.

If you are someone for whom being in one of two boxes — male or female — has worked for you your entire life, or if you’re someone for whom certain gender stereotypes have been helpful or useful, then you may disagree. However, for many people, these containers just don’t capture who they are.

There are numerous models available to help us understand more about the complexities of gender. One of my favorites was developed by Dr. Eli Green and is called the SIEO model.

“S” stands for biological sex or sex assigned at birth. Varieties of humans are actually much more complex than “XX” or “XY.” There are several combinations of chromosomes and hormones that are not immediately visible when a child is born and a health professional pronounces, “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!”

“I” stands for gender identity. This is one’s internal sense of what gender they are. Many times, this lines up in a typical fashion with chromosomal patterns, hormones and genital development, which is called being cisgender. Occasionally, gender identity and sex assigned at birth are not the same. In these cases, a person may identify as transgender, gender fluid, gender independent, or gender non-conforming, to name a few. The most important thing about what to call someone is to respect how they would like to be identified.

If you are skeptical about this idea, then please consider: how do you know what gender you are?

Most people answer that question with, “I just know.”

Now, how would you feel if someone told you that you were wrong?

Many people know what their gender is, deep down inside. Onlookers may get it right when they look at or even know someone — or they might not.

Once someone finds a place that’s a fit about their gender, which is easier for some than others, they may decide that’s a great place to hang out — knowing who they are. Or they may decide they want to wear different clothes. Or they may decide to research hormonal or other medication that could help them feel even better. Or they may decide to have something called gender affirmation surgery to help their body more clearly match who they know themself to be.

“E” is for gender expression, which refers to the ways people express gender to themselves and others. How does someone wear their hair? Do they wear suits or dresses or pants? Do they paint their nails? Wear jewelry? High heels? What mannerisms do they use? Are they the same all the time or different in different settings?

“O” is for orientation. This refers to how we are attracted to others. Is someone attracted to another gender (straight), the same gender (gay), more than one gender (bisexual or pansexual) or no one at all (asexual)? Those are just some of the more common terms used to define attraction.

Some of you may find this overly simplistic, and some may find it confusing. Either way, it’s important to respect people’s identities — who they know themselves to be. And, it’s important to let them use public facilities that line up with that identity. Your discomfort with a new way of doing things does not equate to actual danger. In fact, the fear around bathroom usage presents much more danger to folks who don’t fit neatly into a gender binary norm —from harassment to assault.

Take a moment. Learn some new things. And stay respectful.

Amy Johnson, MSW, is a trainer and educator in the Pacific Northwest. She is co-author of three books and facilitates classes and workshops in the Puget Sound area. Amy specializes in sexuality education and in promoting safe and healthy sexuality culture in faith communities. All opinions are her own. Amy can be reached at

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