Understanding gender diversity

When you are born, you are assigned a sex – male, female or indeterminate – depending on the appearance of your external genitalia. You may feel that the sex you were assigned is correct. This is called being 'cisgender'. You may feel that the sex you were assigned is incorrect. This is called being 'transgender'.

Key points 

  1. Gender identity refers to an innate sense of who you are. This may be the same as or different from the sex that was assigned to you at birth. How you choose to express your gender identity varies from person to person.
  2. Gender dysphoria is a term used to describe uncomfortable or distressing feelings that some people experience because the sex they were assigned at birth does not match their gender. Read more about gender dysphoria.
  3. If you are transgender, or experience gender dysphoria, you may want to take steps to be recognised as your gender, rather than the sex you were assigned at birth. These steps may include changing your name, wearing clothes that affirm your gender, taking hormones or having surgeries.
  4. Sexual orientation is different to gender. It refers to who you are attracted to and may be described as heterosexual/straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, takataapui or using other terms. 
  5. Gender diversity is a term to cover the range of possible gender identities, such as female, male, transgender, intersex, non-binary and takatāapui.
  6. If you are unsure about your gender, or your child is unsure about theirs, there is support available to help you.

What is gender identity?

When you are born, you are assigned a sex – male, female, or indeterminate – depending on the appearance of your external genitalia. You may feel that the sex you were assigned is correct. This is called being 'cisgender'. You may feel that the sex you were assigned is incorrect. This is called being 'transgender'.

A transgender person may identify as a binary gender such as a transgender woman (who was assigned 'male' at birth) or a transgender man (who was assigned 'female' at birth). Or a transgender person may identify as a non-binary gender – this includes any gender that is not male or female. 

'Intersex' is an umbrella term that refers to people born with one or more of a range of variations in sex characteristics that fall outside of traditional conceptions of male or female bodies. For example, intersex people may have variations in their chromosomes, genitals or internal organs like testes or ovaries. If a person has an intersex condition, they may be cisgender (agreeing with the sex they were assigned at birth) or transgender (not agreeing with the sex they were assigned at birth), or they may simply identify both their sex and gender as intersex. It is important to not make assumptions about this, but instead to let people define their own experiences.
(Villainesse, NZ, 2018)

What is gender diversity?

Gender diversity refers to a diversity of genders in addition to cisgender people.

Some people think of gender as a spectrum that includes female and male at either end and other genders in between. However, other people may think of male and female as two letters in an alphabet of other genders. Defining non-binary genders is like defining all the other letters of the alphabet, in every language. Genders are so many and varied across different cultures and throughout history. 

Some people have a consistent gender throughout their life, and for other people their gender changes. Some of the words that people might use to define or describe their gender, include aikāne, akava’ine, fa’afafine, faa’atama, fakafifine, fakaleiti, genderqueer, intersex, māhū, non-binary, palopa, takatāpui, tangata ira tāne, trans, transgender, transsexual, and whakawahine.

Takatāpui – part of the whānau

Takatāpui is a traditional Māori term meaning ‘intimate companion of the same sex’. It has been reclaimed to embrace all Māori who identify with diverse genders and sexualities, such as whakawahine, tangata ira tane, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer.

This video is part of a resource for takatāpui, their whānau and communities, sharing stories and information about identity, wellbeing and suicide prevention.

(Gender Minorities Aotearoa and Mental Health Foundation, NZ, 2015)

What are some of the issues faced by people who are gender diverse? 

As a population or demographic, trans people experience significantly higher rates of mental health issues compared with the general population, such as depression and suicidality.

Research shows that the disparity in mental health outcomes is a result of experiencing elevated levels of minority stress, due to discrimination in education, housing, healthcare, employment, access to goods and services, participation in public social life and input into policy and legislative decisions which affect their lives. These factors also create significant barriers to healthcare in general.


(Human Rights Campaign, US, 2017)

How can I support transgender people?

It depends on your relationship to them. For example, an employer has legal obligations to provide a safe workplace, a clinician has a legal obligation to provide safe and appropriate healthcare, and for whānau, support is more about accepting, respecting, learning and caring. If this is the beginning of your journey to support transgender people, there are many resources available to assist you in learning. 

The first step in any case, is to use the name and pronoun (eg, she/her, he/him, they/them) that the transgender person is comfortable with, and to respect their privacy by not telling others unless they give consent. Find out more about use of personal pronouns. A printable card is available to help transgender people with communicating preferred names and pronouns. These could be made available in workplaces and health centres.

How can I support the partners of transgender people?

The discrimination and marginalisation experienced by trans people often extends to their partners as well. While the transitioning process presents challenges to the people going through the change, their partners have challenges of their own to face. Research in Aotearoa New Zealand found that partners of transgender people often feel unsupported and talked about ways in which whānau and friends could support them better through listening, learning, being respectful and using preferred pronouns. 

What support is available for gender diverse people?

Gender Minorities Aotearoa Gender Minorities Aotearoa is a cross-cultural, transgender-led organisation that operates on a kaupapa Māori public health framework. Its activities include research, providing information and resources, advocacy, education and training, operating services for gender minorities and providing support for takataapui, transgender and intersex people, and referrals to other services. They keep an up-to-date list of community support organisations. 

NZ Parents and Guardians of Transgender and Gender Diverse Children (NZPOTC) is a parent-led group where you can find the information, guidance, advice and companionship to help you and your family/whānau safely and happily navigate your journey, knowing you are never alone. 

For more national and local support groups, see gender diversity support organisations.

Learn more 

The following links provide further information about gender diversity. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.   

Gender identity Common Ground, NZ
Families of gender diverse children and young people Families Like Mine, BeyondBlue, Australia
Let's talk – a resource guide for parents Outline, NZ
Breaking through the binary – gender explained using continuums itspronouncedmetersexual.com
Find information and services Gender Minorities Aotearoa
Healthcare for transgender New Zealanders Ministry of Health, NZ
Hormone replacement therapy Transgender NZ Issue 1, Gender Minorities Aotearoa
Oliphant J, Veale J, Macdonald J, Carroll R, Johnson R, Harte M, Stephenson C, Bullock J. Guidelines for gender affirming healthcare for gender diverse and transgender children, young people and adults in Aotearoa NZ Transgender Health Research Lab, University of Waikato, NZ
Counting ourselves community report Counting Ourselves, NZ 
Trans and non-binary inclusive workplaces – a guide for employers and employees Outline, NZ
Trans 101 – glossary of trans words and how to use them Gender Minorities Aotearoa


  1. Trans and gender diverse people Better Health, Australia, 2018
  2. Transgender New Zealanders Ministry of Health, NZ, 2017
  3. Gender dysphoria NHS Choices, UK, 2016
  4. Gender dysphoria Mental Health Foundation, NZ, 2015
  5. Health care for transgender New Zealanders Ministry of Health, NZ, 2018
  6. Gender dysphoria Patient Info, UK, 2018
  7. Supporting partners of transgender people Critical Health and Social Psychology, Massey University, NZ, 2017 
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team . Reviewed By: Sex and Gender Diverse Health and Outcomes Working Group, Capital and Coast DHB Last reviewed: 06 Nov 2019