Understanding Gender

Here at Arc, we recognise that a person’s gender is unique to their lived experience and not binary. UNSW students, staff and members of our community identify in diverse ways, and we celebrate this diversity. This web page will explain some of the many genders we might have at UNSW and give you some tips for navigating pronouns and supporting your friends and loved ones who may be gender diverse.

What is gender, and how is it different to sex? 

Unlike sex, gender is about how you feel, not what is between your legs. Sex refers to the physical characteristics that define male, female, and intersex individuals. These characteristics include reproductive organs, hormones, and chromosomes. Your sex and the appearance of your genitals at birth are what determine your sex. When it comes to gender, The Gender Centre puts it out best like this:

Gender on the other hand is far more complex and is widely understood to be the interrelationship between those physical attributes (sex), and one’s awareness of themselves as masculine, feminine, any combination of both, or neither.”

Essentially, gender refers to the societal and cultural expectations and roles that are associated with being male or female. This can include behaviours, attitudes, and expressions considered masculine or feminine.

What are some forms of gender, and how do they manifest? 


For many of us, our gender and our sex will align. If this is the case, you are cisgender. A cisgender person feels like they are the gender assigned at birth. This is the majority of people; as such, there is some privilege to being cisgender. You should use this privilege to learn more about gender diversity and be aware of some of the harmful stereotypes you may have internalised about gender diversity. 


A transgender person is someone whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, someone who was assigned male at birth but identifies as a woman is a transgender woman. Similarly, someone assigned female at birth but identifies as a man is a transgender man. Note that “transgender” is a descriptor rather than an identity. It should be used as an adjective. 


Non-binary is an umbrella term that describes people who do not identify as exclusively male or female. Non-binary people may identify as a combination of male and female, neither male nor female, or something else entirely. It is important to note that non-binary does not equate to an androgynous appearance or presentation. People can present their gender in any way that aligns with their feelings.

Gender Fluid

Gender fluid people experience shifts in their gender identity over time. They may feel more masculine, more feminine, or somewhere in between, depending on the day, week, or month. Some gender fluid people may also identify as non-binary or transgender.

Gender Non-conforming

Gender non-conforming is a term that describes individuals who do not conform to traditional gender norms or expectations. This can mean that their gender expression or behaviour falls outside of what is considered typical or appropriate for their assigned gender, or it can mean that they identify with a gender that is different from their assigned sex at birth.

Is gender diversity a new phenomenon? 

Not at all. History tells us that people with diverse genders have been a part of the world for a long time, particularly in non-Western cultures. For example, American First Nation peoples have long recognised Two Spirit people's existence, those identifying as having both a masculine and a feminine spirit. Native Hawaiian and Tatian cultures similarly recognise the Māhū, people of a third gender identity embodying masculine and feminine traits.  

First Nations Australians have also long recognised Brotherboys and Sistergirls. In a Punkee article, Brotherboy, Isaac Roberts explains:

Brotherboys are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were assigned female at birth, but live our lives through our boy spirit. We take on male roles in community and society and are accepted as such within our cultural world views. Therefore, Brotherboy encompasses both our gender identity and our cultural identity.”

It's important to remember that gender identity is personal and unique to each individual. While there are plenty of other genders that have not been included here and there will be many more that emerge with time, these terms can help us better understand and respect the diverse experiences of people who do not fit within traditional gender roles or norms. It's essential to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community and to listen and learn from their experiences.

What are pronouns? 

You may have noticed some tutors asking you to say or write your pronouns in your classes. This question might be confusing if you've never encountered this term. Pronouns are important and everyone has them. In addition to our name, it’s how we identify ourselves. It's also how someone refers to you in conversation. It’s also a really simple way to affirm someone’s identity when speaking to them.

Traditionally, people are referred to using binary pronouns that align with their assigned sex at birth: he/him for males, she/her for females. However, this binary approach to pronouns does not reflect the diversity of gender identities and expressions within the queer community. There are many trans and gender diverse people in our community who don’t feel that they fit entirely within the gender binary, so they might use they/them pronouns. 

The following table from The Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio might paint a clearer picture.

Gender BinarySheHerHersAs it looksShe is speaking
HeHimHisAs it looksHe is speaking
Gender NeutralThey (Sing.)ThemTheirsAs it looksThey are speaking
ZeHirHirsZhee, Here, HeresZe is speaking
ZeZirZirsZhee, Zhere, ZheresZe is peaking
XeXemXyrZhee, Zhym, ZhyreXe is speaking

Some people also have a combination of pronouns. The person you sit next to in class might use she/they pronouns, meaning that she is comfortable with you using either she or they/them to refer to them. Some people might use pronouns you may not be familiar with, like ze/zim or similar. Some people even prefer you to use their name rather than a pronoun. Others might even be uncomfortable sharing their pronouns in new situations with new people.

Just ask what someone’s pronouns are and try to get them right. People appreciate your effort, and using people's preferred pronouns is the right thing. It's really just about letting someone know that you accept their identity. It's as simple as that. 

If you do slip up and use the wrong term, it’s okay. Mistakes are bound to happen. Just offer an apology, correct yourself, and move on. It’s the same deal if someone corrects you. There’s no need to make it more complicated than that. Using the correct pronouns is a small but important way to show respect for individuals' gender identities and can help create a more affirming and supportive community.

So the next time your teacher asks you to say or write your pronouns, just let them know you use she/her, he/him, they/them or whatever variation you prefer.  

How do I, as a gender diverse person, find community at UNSW? 

As a gender diverse student at UNSW, the best place to seek community is the UNSW Queer Collective. The UNSW Queer Collective is a group of students who meet weekly in the Queer Room on campus and is a safe space to meet other queer students, learn about queer issues, and just chill out. 

Get involved with the Queer Collective 
Facebook: UNSW Queer Collective
Instagram: @unswqueercollective
Website: UNSW LGBT

How do I support my loved ones who might be gender diverse? 

If someone you know is gender diverse in some way, there are many ways you can support them. First and foremost, listen and behave how they want you to behave. Call them by their preferred pronouns, use their preferred name and, if you have any confusion, either ask them or do a Google search yourself. Secondly, you can get educated! Try visiting the Trans Hub or the Gender Centre to start reading a little more about gender diversity and the many ways it manifests.  

The Gender Centre

The Gender Centre Inc. is a leading organization that offers specialized services to support individuals in exploring their gender identity and getting help with gender dysphoria.

Learn about the gender spectrum


TransHub is a platform that provides clear and easy information about gender affirmation in NSW for all trans people in the state.

Find trans support in your area


Twenty10 supports LGBTQ+ people across NSW by providing free, accessible mental health and support programs along with creative and digital initiatives.

Find your community of young transpeople