Someone I Love is Trans or Non-Binary: A Primer on Terminology

An image of people on the gender spectrum used on the blog of a trans affirming therapist.

So you’ve recently discovered that someone you love and care about it trans or non-binary. As a trans affirming therapist I work with a lot of teens and adults discovering their gender identity. For the person doing the discovering, this can be a time mixed with emotions like excitement, fear, anxiety, hope, relief, and happiness. Something I see a lot in therapy are parents, friends, or lovers being supportive of their loved ones, but not being sure what all of this means. Over the next month or two I would like to take the time to help you understand more about what it means to be trans or non-binary, some terminology, what you can do to help and be supportive, and what might come next. In this segment:

Some Terms You’ll Likely Hear When Talking About Trans and Non-Binary Issues.

This blog post is purely terminology….it took a lot of work not to expand on some of these concepts :-p. I have also indicated the parts of speech for each word so that you can use them properly….its offensive for example to call someone “a transgender”. Transgender is an adjective. It would be better to say “transgender person” or “person who is transgender”. Rather than sorting these alphabetically, I’ve chosen to go from the words you’re most to least likely to encounter. There are lots of terms that you might encounter in discussing gender with your loved one, but these are some of the most common ones I hear as a trans affirming therapist. If you would like to see a more complete list of terms, check out my recent blog post: ABCs of Gender.

Gender vs. Sex

Everything involved in discussing trans/non-binary issues starts with the understanding of gender and sex. Sex (n.) refers to a person’s primary and secondary physical sex characteristics that make them male, female, or intersex (which we’ll discuss later). Gender (n.) on the other hand refers to behaviors, expressions, interests, personality traits, and other norms culturally associated with one’s sex. It is often said that gender is whats in your head and sex is what’s between your legs. Traditionally gender is seen as a binary between masculine and feminine. So for example men are thought to be assertive, aggressive, dominant, rough, and like football, while women are seen as being gentle, soft, emotional, and like makeup.

Gender and sex are completely different from sexuality/sexual identity/sexual orientation, which indicates the types of people a person is romantically and sexually attracted to. This is one of the biggest confusions for cis people. Being trans, non-binary, or any particular gender identity says nothing about the type of person you’re sexually attracted to.


When a person’s gender identity cannot be characterized as either masculine or feminine. A person who is non-binary may consider themselves to be somewhere on a spectrum between masculine and feminine. two examples are people who identify as either demiboy or demigirl (or the less frequently used demiman or demiwoman). Demiboy and demigirl are gender identities in which a person identifies as predominantly masculine or feminine respectively.

Demiboy pride flag
Demigirl pride flag

People who are non-binary may altogether disavow the idea of feminine and masculine and simply say they are who they are. In therapy I generally say that being non-binary means you don’t buy into the idea that there should be set rules and expectations for what it means to be a man or a woman and you simply are what you are, rather than having to decide which box you fit into or should fit into.


This is the term used to describe anyone who’s gender identity aligns with their sex at birth. You will often hear people abbreviate this to simply “cis”.


LGBTQIA stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual.
Sometimes you’ll see this abbreviated to LGBT or even LGB, but when talking about trans and non-binary issues, the T, Q, and I, are mostly what we’re talking about.


The word “trans” is shorthand for either transgender or transsexual, but usually is meant to indicate a person who does not identify with the gender ascribed to their sex at birth and/or does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.

transgender pride flag
Trans pride flag


A person who is transgender identifies as being a gender other than that which would be culturally ascribed to their sex at birth.


adj. or noun
A person who is transsexual is one who has a deep, longstanding feeling that they are emotionally and physically of a sex other than the one they were born into. Many people who are transsexual choose to take steps to physically change their primary and secondary sex characteristics to reflect their identity. Note, this is an outdated term that isn’t used very often.


The word “queer” broadly refers to anybody who is gay, lesbian, bi, non-binary, trans, or who does not fit into stereotypical gender norms. Its a catch all word for non-cis, non-traditional, and/or non-conforming in regards to sex and/or gender. The word queer used to be a derogatory term, and some people may still receive it that way, but the community has been making efforts to reclaim it for several years.

Sometimes you will specifically hear people refer to themselves as “genderqueer”. This is essentially the same as being non-binary, but many people identify as genderqueer to express more individuality and the feeling of being different. In my experience, those who use the term genderqueer use it more to basically say “I am what I am and you can’t fit it in a box.” as opposed to the term non-binary which more simply says “I don’t fit into either “male” or “female””.


People who are intersex are born with reproductive and/or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit into what would be typically described as male or female.

Gender fluid

Being gender fluid means that you fluctuate in your gender identity. It basically means that you don’t buy into the idea that gender is a static constant and you are what you are on any given day. A person who is gender fluid might identify as more masculine for a time and then identify as female for another. The central concept of being gender fluid is the idea that you don’t need to decide and define your gender. You are what you are, and that can fluctuate. Sometimes the term gender fluid is used the same as the term non-binary, but it is really intended to capture the idea of gender as fluctuating.


Pronouns are a part of speech that identify who you’re talking about without using a person’s name. Within the trans/non-binary community you will hear people talk about their pronouns. It is important to ask your loved one(s) what their pronouns are and respect them as best you can. Generally people who identify as more feminine use the pronouns she, hers, and her, while those who identify as more masculine use him, his, and he. Many people who are non-binary prefer the pronouns they, them, and theirs.

Gender Dysphoria

Gender dysphoria is a diagnosis that is given when a person experiences significant, prolonged distress resulting from an incongruity between their gender identity and their sex at birth.

Top surgery

This is the term generally used to describe both breast reduction and breast augmentation surgery.

Bottom surgery

Any surgery that is done with the purpose of reshaping a person’s genitals to be that of a sex other than the one they were born into. Also known as sex reassignment surgery.

Hormone Therapy

-Sometimes called cross-sex hormone therapy or hormone replacement therapy-
People who choose to change their physical characteristics to be more in alignment with their identity often choose to receive hormone therapy. There are many different forms of hormone therapy and a Dr. will talk with your loved one about which fits them best. Often times when people talk about masculinizing hormones they will simply say “T” for testosterone.


Binders are things people wear to constrict their breasts for the purpose of appearing more masculine, androgynous, or less female. Some gender fluid and non-binary people who were born female will choose to wear binders so that people won’t put them in a box as female right away.

Pansexual or Omnisexual

Pansexual is a term used to describe a person who can feel romantic and sexual attraction to people of any gender or sex. Sometimes people ask “why not just bisexual?” The term bisexual doesn’t take gender into account. Because many people don’t understand the difference between sex and gender, the word bisexual promotes the idea of gender as a binary. Also, it fails to account for people who are intersex.

pansexual flag
Pansexual pride flag

In Summary

There are numerous terms you may need to know, but these are some you’re most likely to encounter. Facebook for example, recently made 71 genders available for users to choose from. The important thing to know about gender and sexuality is that they exist on a spectrum and everyone is different. Talk with your loved one(s) about how they identify. If you sit down, have a good talk, and really listen to them, the specific term is often not as important as knowing their own experience and what that means to them.

If you have any questions about anything you have read here, or want to talk with me about therapy / counseling for you or your loved one, give me a call sometime. I am a trans affirming therapist with offices in Sacramento and Roseville. You can also click the following link to read more about LGBT counseling with me.

Joe Borders, MFT
LGBT Counseling in Roseville and Sacramento
(530) 448-6602

1722 Professional Drive,
Sacramento, CA 95825
775 Sunrise Ave., suite 110
Roseville, Ca 95661

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