Facebook’s message was clear when the social media network added new gender options for users on Thursday: the company is sensitive to a wide spectrum of gender identity and wants users to feel accommodated no matter where they see themselves on that spectrum. What might be less clear to many people is exactly what the approximately 50 new custom options for gender—like trans*, pangender and cis—actually mean.
Sam Killermann, a self-described “social justice comedian,” is very serious about how far the complexities of identity go beyond the traditional binary of male or female. In September, he released The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender, a tour of gender “with less focus on overwhelming scholarship and more focus on enjoyable learning.” So TIME called him up to go over Facebook’s new additions.
The first step is a caveat, he says: no definition is absolute. Any description below might fit 6 out of 10 people who use the label, he says. But for readers who want to learn more about gender identity, this will be a fine starting point. Here are explanations along with notes from Killermann, who has spoken to tens of thousands of people about how they view their gender:
agender: One sense of prefix a- is “without.” Agender Facebook users don’t necessarily see themselves as lacking a gender but probably don’t see it as a central, defining part of their identity. Other aspects of who they are—whether their class, religion or sense of humor—are likely more important components of how they see themselves.
androgyne/androgynous: A popular conception of an androgynous person is someone who on first glance looks like they could be male or female, like those waify models in Calvin Klein ads. But an androgynous person is often someone who is both fiercely masculine and feminine at the same time, Killermannn says, like David Bowie in all his makeup-wearing, rocker glory.
What’s the difference between choosing androgyne (n.) and androgynous (adj.)? The former, Killermann says, is more of a gender identity—a label that someone uses to define their gender in relation to what they understand society’s rules to be—while androgynous is more a gender expression, a description of how someone portrays their gender, perhaps through clothing or speech. David Bowie can be an adrogynous man without seeing himself as an androgyne.
bigender: A person identifies with two distinct genders. Those two genders could be male and female but could also be male and androgyne or female and pangender (see below). A person might experience both of those genders at the same time, or might rotate between them, monthly or weekly or daily. Killermann gives the example of a 45-year-old he met who felt male at some times and female at others; he eventually had his hormones tested and found that he had severe changes in hormone levels in his blood, which corresponded to those feelings. A bigender person might alter their gender expression at different times and might not. Killermann says focusing on clothes is too reductive. “Gender is so much more than wearing a pretty dress one day and a suit the next,” he says.
cis/cisgender: Cis, Killermann says, is essentially a politically sensitive replacement for normal. A cis person was born one sex and also identifies with the gender associated with that sex—born female and identifying as a woman or born male and identifying as a man, just as society expects. If a person chooses this label, “it’s probably a way to cue that they’ve explored their gender or are at the least very cognizant of gender issues and advocacy,” he says.
cis female/male/man/woman: See previous entry. These are just ways to be more specific—a cis woman was born female and identifies as female. The difference between “cis woman” and “cis female” is essentially the difference between whether a lady prefers to describe herself as simply “woman” or “female.” The latter speaks a little more directly to sexual characteristics than the other.
cisgender female/male/man/woman: As discussed below in the transgender female entry, keeping the “gender” attached to “cis” sounds a little more clinical, like a scientific classification; some people are more comfortable lopping that part off, feeling that cis is more comfortable and familiar.
female to male/FTM: A “female to male” Facebook user is signaling that they were assigned the female sex at birth but is undergoing—or has undergone—a transition to being male. That transition could be entirely social or might entail hormone therapy, even surgery, from “top” procedures like breast augmentation to “bottom” procedures like having their genitalia altered. This label might be temporary, something a person uses during several years of transition, or might be a permanent label conveying that their sex at birth is “still part of their life,” though they don’t identify with the corresponding gender.
gender fluid: A person who “experiences gender in different ways at different times, who flows through gender identities.” Almost everyone is gender fluid to some degree, though most don’t identify that way, Killermann says: The average woman would adopt more feminine behaviors when surrounded by ladies and more masculine behaviors if she were in a group of guys. That, on a “very small scale,” he says, is what this label conveys. Unlike bigender, which suggests the experience of two distinct gender identities, this is more about feeling a spectrum of them.
gender nonconforming/genderqueer/non-binary: Killermann groups these three labels together because they are all a rejection of the idea that there are just two boxes to choose from—male or female. And they are a rejection more than an explanation of where a person sees themselves beyond those boxes. “The idea of another gender can seem impossible for people to communicate,” Killermann says. “If you don’t identify with woman-ness or man-ness, there may not be language available to describe what you’re experiencing or who you are.”
There are different nuances to the terms. Non-binary may be used by someone who finds “the understanding of gender very suffocating and rejecting.” Gender nonconforming may be more of a beginner’s term, an “entry point” used by someone who is “just starting to explore their gender identity.” Genderqueer is more decisive—more “I’m here, and I’m genderqueer!”—than gender nonconforming, which can be seen as a non-threatening, delicate term that defers to traditional ways of thinking. (The even more in-your-face version of genderqueer, though not among Facebook’s new label options, is genderf*ck.)
genderqueer: See gender nonconforming.
gender questioning: Like gender nonconforming, this is a good term for someone who is still in search of a more specific label that fits how they feel, Killermann says. “Up until a certain point you have been identifying with a certain gender,” he says, “but you’ve experienced a frustration or discomfort with yourself … and you are trying to explore what that is.”
gender variant: This term is similar to gender nonconforming, Killermann says, describing someone “who by nature or by choice doesn’t conform to gender-based expectations of society.” This person might be a cross-dresser or might not. Some people in the LGBT community take issue with these vague terms, feeling that people who use them are failing to take a stand and letting other people who adopt more stigmatized labels do the fighting against the norm, Killermann says.
intersex: A person who is intersex was typically born that way, perhaps with “ambiguous genitalia” or a chromosomal abnormality that gives him or her some combination of both male and female sexual characteristics.
male to female/MTF: Someone who was assigned the male sex at birth and is undergoing—or has undergone—a transition to being female. See notes above on female to male/FTM.
neither/other: A “neither” user could be someone who isn’t well-versed in the terminology of gender identity, Killermann says, but knows male and female don’t fit. An “other” user might refuse to acknowledge the male/female choice that neither implies. In both cases, these labels can be used by people who don’t conform and don’t feel like being more specific with everyone they’re connected to on Facebook.
neutrois: Killerman says this French-esque term, pronounced noo-TWA, is relatively new. It’s used by people who see themselves as gender neutral, people who don’t feel any gender is a big component of their identity. This term is a little less adamant-sounding than agender (see above).
non-binary: See gender nonconforming.
pangender: A pangender Facebook user probably sees themselves as “a little bit of everything in the sexual catalog,” Killermann says. A lot of young people he’s encountered are attracted to the “pansexual” label, he says, meaning they’re attracted to all genders.
One way to think about gender, he says, is to consider what it means “to be a man,” for instance. Summon the long laundry-list of things society typically expects that person to be, whether it’s being a provider to not showing emotion or wearing pants. Inevitably, even guys who consider themselves to be the most standard-issue heterosexual men won’t identify with every item on that laundry list. And some people identify with so few of those items that they cross a threshold where they become uncomfortable with that label—and maybe all the common labels. A lot of pangender people, Killermann says, “have reached that threshold.”
trans: A trans person does not identify with the gender that corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth. A trans person typically still sees themselves in the traditional, two-box binary of male or female—rather than rejecting that binary through a term like gender variant (see above). Trans conveys that their body was born in one box and the gender identity they feel is in the other. Often they’ll describe it as feeling “trapped” in the wrong type of body.
trans*: Trans*, with an asterisk, is used more as an “umbrella label” than trans. It is a blanket ambiguity that is intentionally vague and includes a gambit of gender identities. This might be a term one would use when writing about a community of people, for example, to be more inclusive than what the traditional understanding of trans conveys. Some people don’t like this styling, Killermann says, because it seems overcomplicated.
trans female/trans* female: A person who was assigned the male sex at birth but identifies as female. A Facebook user who chooses this label is likely trying to convey that, for whatever reason, the female aspect of their identity is particularly important to them. Again, Killermann says, there are no absolutes, but a person who uses male to female or MTF rather than a label like trans female may be giving more of a cue that they are undergoing a medical transition. “If there is one blanket rule,” he says, “it’s that any time somebody uses a label for themselves, they’re trying to help you understand who they are.”
trans woman/trans* woman: A person who was assigned the male sex at birth but identifies as female. If there is a meaningful difference between choosing trans woman rather than trans female, Killerman says, it is that female more strongly connotes sexual characteristics. But most people would use them interchangeably.
transgender female/woman: A person who was assigned the male sex at birth but identifies as female. Choosing this label over the previous one might just be a stylistic choice, Killermann says, but there are those who would actively avoid this one. He’s been getting feedback from people who have grown wary of the word transgender, feeling that it sounds too clinical, that it carries some of that old stigma of non-conforming gender being a disease.
trans male/trans* male: A person who was assigned the female sex at birth but identifies as male. See notes on trans* female/ trans female.
trans man/trans* man: A person who was assigned the female sex at birth but identifies as male. See notes on trans woman/trans* woman.
transgender male/man: A person who was assigned the female sex at birth but identifies as male. See notes on transgender female/woman.
transmasculine/transfeminine: These labels also speak to the distinction between gender identity and gender expression (see androgyne/androgynous). They may act more like adjectives, describing a set of behaviors that don’t necessarily add up to a noun like man or woman. A transmasculine person, Killermann says, might be someone born female who identifies with a lot of aspects of masculinity but doesn’t feel he or she is a man.
trans person/trans* person/transgender person: This label might be used by someone who doesn’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth but also doesn’t conform with what it means to be a man or a woman. Many trans people, Killermann says, feel they were given the wrong body when they were born, “but for a lot of people trans means almost transcending gender altogether in the way we understand it as a society.”
transsexual/transsexual person/man/woman/female/male: A person opting for this label was likely born one sex and has medically transitioned to another sex—the label is more overtly a signal about sexual characteristics than behaviors.
two-spirit: This term, Killermann says, comes from Native American culture, describing someone who embodies both the spirits of a man and a woman. “People were celebrated as wise, cultural leaders, almost elders, because they could channel what people saw as the two ends of humanity,” he says. This term has also become popular for young people to adopt, he says, perhaps because it sounds so mystical and romantic—as far away from clinical as most of these terms get.