Gender Expression: Explained

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The Gender Spectrum Collection

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Kayla Heisler1.16k

There are many factors that help comprise gender, and the way individuals interact with gender vary. The ways in which people interpret, identify with, and express their gender are multifaceted. 

Dimensions of gender

The three separate but related features that make up gender are one’s body, identity, and expression. The way an individual experiences their body and the way others relate to an individual based on their body inform gender. 

When babies are born, they are assigned a sex at birth by a doctor based on their genitalia and other reproductive organs, and though that assignment alone does not determine a person’s gender, the way a person experiences their body makes up one component of gender. Gender is a societal construction that is influenced by various facets.

The label (or lack of label) that a person uses to indicate their gender internally is their identity. Sometimes this label is the same as the sex they are assigned at birth; sometimes it differs. The way a person identifies is private.

The way in which a person conveys their gender is publicly conveyed is the expression. This includes the way a person chooses to dress, the way in which they carry themselves, and the activities in which they choose to engage.

What is gender expression?

Overall, the key concept to keep in mind regarding gender expression is that it is an external representation. Gender expression is based on how society as a whole interacts with people based on their perceived gender. This includes more than how a person dresses and styles themselves physically, but also how a person behaves. The label a person uses for their gender is a part of their gender expression. Woman, man, non-binary, or genderqueer are a few examples of genders a person may use, and he, she, or they are examples of pronouns that are often used. Using a person’s correct pronouns is an important part of respecting a person’s gender expression, so if you have a question about which pronoun a person you know prefers, ask them.

Social constructs impact gender. Behaviors are labeled as masculine or feminine early on. Most behaviors and objects from the toys children play with to the mannerisms carried out by adults are gendered by society. Clothing, hairstyles, and body language are all examples of things that are typically considered to be gendered as being masculine or feminine. For instance, having long hair is typically considered to be a feminine expression of gender while having a shaved head is typically considered to be masculine gender expression. 

Gender expression vs. gender identity

The way a person expresses their gender may be prompted based on their gender identity, but the two are not necessarily the same. Gender identity refers to a person’s deeply held sense of being masculine or feminine. Some people more heavily identify with one identity than another while some may feel neutral or heavily identify with both or neither. Gender identity is intrapersonal, so the way a person perceives their gender does not have to be outwardly conveyed. For example, a person assigned male at birth may deeply feel feminine but choose to express their gender through masculine traits.

There are many reasons why a person may choose not express the gender  with which they most strongly identify. One of those reasons is that they may fear rejection or being treated unsafely if they were to wear certain clothing or behave in a certain way that isn’t typically associated with their assigned gender. Gender identity is about how a person thinks about themselves, and they don’t necessarily express it in one singular way. 

Gender expression vs. sexual identity

While gender expression refers to the way a person conveys their own gender, sexual identity refers to the preference people have for certain genders. Gender expression is individual while sexual attraction is about how a person feels about others emotionally, physically, or romantically. 

A person’s gender expression does not determine who they are attracted to, nor does a to whom a person is attracted determine the way in which they express their gender. There are many terms that a person many use to describe their sexual identity, such as straight, gay, queer, lesbian, bisexual: there are a number of different options, and some choose not to label their sexual identity altogether. 

For instance, a woman who expresses her gender in ways typically associated with masculinity such as shaving her hair and never wearing make-up may be sexually attracted to any gender, and women who love expressing their gender in feminine ways such as often wearing dresses and wearing their hair long may be attracted to any gender. As is the case with gender identity and expression, a person’s sexual identity may shift multiple times throughout their life.

Gender congruence

Gender congruence occurs when a person finds harmony between their gender identity, body and expression. The sex an individual is assigned at birth does not always correlate with their deeply held sense of gender. Some people believe that their assigned sex at birth does fall in line with their gender, while others may take other measures to achieve gender congruence. People who feel that their assigned sex does align with their gender identity and expression are considered cisgender while those who do not are considered 

Though not required, some people choose to use hormones or surgical procedures to better align their body with their identity. Other measures that people may choose to take include changing their legal name and/or pronoun to be in alignment with their gender.

People may make shifts throughout their life to the better establish gender congruence as their gender identity shifts. Working to achieve gender congruence can be an arduous process. Though gender is a very personal matter, having a strong support system can make the process of working toward gender congruence more comfortable. 

Things to Keep in Mind 

  • Address people by the name they ask to be called by. If you call them the name they no longer use by mistake, apologize, correct yourself, and move on without dwelling on your slip-up.

  • In life, people go through many different changes. People rarely have the same favorite band or television show for their whole lives. As our interests and life experiences change, sometimes gender identity, gender expression, or sexual identity can shift as well.

  • Speak up. If you hear someone treating someone unfairly or cruelly because of the way they express their gender, be an advocate and confront them. If the incident occurs at work, report them to the proper department.

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Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, and her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.