Gender identity is your sense of whether you are a man, woman, nonbinary, gender fluid or a combination of one or more of these identities. It’s part of your sense of self. It’s how you understand who you are and how you interact with others.
For many people their understanding of who they are, their gender identity, will match their sex. This is called being cisgender (pronounced sis-gender).
For some people, their gender identity might not match the sex they were assigned at birth and these individuals might choose to identify as transgender (e.g., being assigned female at birth, but identifying as a man).
It’s important to remember that there is more to gender than just being a ‘male’ or 'female’. Some people understand their gender as being a combination of both male or female, or neither. These people might choose identify as being gender diverse or non-binary. There are many words people choose to describe their gender identity.
The words people use to describe their gender identity are very personal. Some people choose to share their gender identity through the use of pronouns (like he/him, he/they, she/her, they/her, they/them; these are just some examples). Other ways of expressing gender identity (gender expression) refers to the way people publicly express their gender and may include how they behave, their appearance or what they choose to wear.
Gender identity, like sexuality, is fluid, meaning it can change over time. This is completely normal. You don’t have to label your gender identity. However, if you choose to label your sexuality or gender it’s your choice; it’s what feels best for you; and when you’re ready - embrace and celebrate it!
Download our fact sheet on understanding gender identity.
(PDF 435 kb)
Exploring your gender identity
You might be exploring your sense of gender identity (or you might know someone who identifies as gender diverse). The physical features you were born with (sex assigned at birth) don’t necessarily define your gender identity. Although gender has traditionally been divided into ‘male’ and ‘female’, it’s now widely recognised there are a diverse range of gender identities.
For example, you could identify with a gender that’s different from the sex you were assigned at birth, such as:
- being assigned female at birth, but you identify as a male
- being assigned male at birth, but identifying as a female
- you identify somewhere between male and female
- you recognise yourself as another gender identity.
Some people may not have a label for what they are experiencing and some might be exploring their gender identity. It is important to remember that how you feel about your gender is personal and you don’t have to fit a neat label. You can just be you.
Gender identity and mental health
Young people who are gender diverse or do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth can live exciting and fulfilling lives. But a lack of understanding and acceptance, as well as discrimination and transphobia can contribute to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, self harm and suicide.
It’s important to know that gender diversity itself does not cause mental health problems.
Some common experiences that can affect your wellbeing and increase vulnerability to developing mental health difficulties include:
- feeling ‘different’ from other people around you
- experiencing bullying about your gender identity, whether verbal, physical or online
- experiencing discrimination – being treated differently or excluded – because of your gender identity (note, this is against the law in Australia)
- feeling pressure to define or deny your feelings regarding your gender identity
- feeling unsupported or worried that your gender identity will not be accepted by friends and family members, along with the possibility of being rejected or isolated
- feeling stressed and anxious in relation to the pressure to conform with your sex assigned at birth.
Feeling these pressures can be stressful, especially in combination with other stresses you might be experiencing in your life, such as managing school, TAFE, or Uni, job hunting, forming relationships or making sense of who you are and your place in the world.
It can be hard to know if you’re experiencing early signs of a mental health problem. Things to look out for include:
- changes in mood – feeling sadder, more anxious or more irritable
- changes in behaviour – being less talkative, becoming withdrawn or being more aggressive
- changes in relationships – falling out with friends or your partner, or conflict with family
- changes in appetite – eating too much or too little, or losing or gaining weight without trying to
- changes in sleep patterns – not sleeping enough, or sleeping too much
- changes in coping – feeling overwhelmed or tired of life
- changes in thinking – more negative thoughts, or thoughts of self harm or suicide
If you have been struggling with any of these things for a long time, you might not see them as changes.
While it’s normal to occasionally experience some of these things, if you’re finding it hard to cope and your social, work or studies are being affected, then it’s time to ask for help.
Getting help when problems develop can reduce the effects of mental health problems and can help prevent more serious issues developing in the future.
Some transgender or gender diverse young people find it especially hard to ask for help.
This might be because of discrimination by health professionals in the past, worries about privacy, or difficulty talking to strangers about gender identity.
It’s important to find someone you can trust to support you throughout your journey. This might include family members or members of your chosen family. This might be your general practitioner (GP) and/or other health professionals experienced in working with gender diverse young people.
headspace can also help connect you with specialists for specific needs around gender transition if you decide to go down that path.
A trusted friend, teacher, Elder or family member might also be able to recommend someone to talk to. It can take time to find the health professional who is right for you, so don’t give up if you don’t find the right person straight away. Remember that you don’t have to discuss your gender identity if you don’t feel comfortable or safe.
You can find tips for a healthy headspace if you’re feeling stressed or having a hard time.
Remember that you’re not alone and there are many young people exploring and questioning their gender identity. If you want to talk through any questions or concerns about your gender identity, or if you’re having a tough time, there are people who can support you.
If you ever feel unable to cope because of intense emotions of if you have thoughts of harming yourself, then ask for help immediately.
For immediate help contact triple zero (000) if it is an emergency
National 24/7 crisis services:
Lifeline: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 or suicidecallbackservice.org.au
beyondblue: 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au
Additional youth support services:
qheadspace: Chat anonymously with other young people who identify as LGBTIQA+ and ask questions of our headspace queer peers
Qlife: Chat to a volunteer LGBTIQA+ counsellor over the phone or through web-chat every day from 3pm to midnight (all ages)
ReachOut (under 25 years). Find a gender diverse support services or social network in your state
Minus18: Have lots of resources about gender diversity for young people and their families
Black Rainbow: National volunteer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social enterprise supporting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQA+ community. Check out their webinars.
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (5-25 years). Provides free, confidential 24/7 online and phone counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25.
SANE Australia: 1800 187 263 (18+ years). Provides online forums, helplines and online face-to-face counselling for people with recurring, persistent or complex mental health issues and trauma, and for their families, friends and communities.
The headspace Content Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Transgender Victoria contributed to an earlier edition of this page.
Last reviewed 15 February 2023