5 Real-Life People Explain Gender Identity Vs. Gender Expression & How Gender Changes Over Time

Photo: Brian Kyed on Unsplash
5 Real-Life People Explain Gender Identity Vs. Gender Expression & How Gender Changes Over Time
Self, Sex

You don't have to understand it to respect someone's gender identity.

As society moves forward, there are still things people refuse to acknowledge. One of the first things that comes to mind when I think about this is the reality that there are more than two genders and multiple forms of gender expression. For some reason, these concepts are still tough for people.

Now more than ever, people are able to be their authentic selves more openly and access information as well as form community in person or online.

But, even with all the information floating in the digital world, there are still people (even some within the LGBTQ community) who are ignorant. Many of them don’t fully grasp the difference between gender identity and gender expression, and that causes some fundamental challenges.

On a technical level, it's helpful to understand some basics about gender. Here are some insights on what gender means from The Trevor Project:

"Gender is actually a social construct, which is an idea created by people to help categorize and explain the world around them. You may not notice it all the time, but each gender comes with a set of expectations, like how to act, talk, dress, feel emotion, and interact with other people...

It’s important to remember that these gender roles aren’t set in stone. Even though our society expects certain things when we identify as a man or a woman, we don’t have to follow them if they don’t fit who we are. In fact, gender and sex exist on a spectrum, meaning that there are a lot of different ways that people can express their gender identity or sex."

RELATED: How Many Genders Are There? And Why Talking About The Spectrum Of Gender & Sexuality Matters So Much

Here are simple definitions of gender identity and gender expression terms to get us started:

Gender identity: The personal sense of one's own gender. Gender identity can correlate with assigned sex at birth or can differ from it.

Gender expression (or presentation): The way in which a person expresses their gender identity, typically through their appearance, dress and behavior.

Cisgender: ;Used to describe people whose gender identity corresponds with their assigned gender at birth

Transgender: An umbrella term used to describe people whose gender identity doesn’t correspond with their assigned gender at birth

Agender: A term used to typically describe people who are genderless and or have very little connection the concepts of gender

Genderfluid: Used to describe someone whose gender identity fluctuates

Femme: A term to describe someone who identifies as feminine (physically, emotionally & or mentally) and is often used to describe feminine-presenting queer women

Butch: Most often describes someone who identifies as masculine (physically, emotionally & or mentally) and is commonly used by lesbians

Stud: A term used to describe black masculine-presenting women

RELATED: Being Non-Binary Complicates My Dating Life ;— But I'll Never Be Ashamed of Who I Am

On a personal level, I’m still unlearning problematic ideas about gender and will always be on a journey. How I currently identify may not always be the case, but I do know that the world’s definition of a woman (cis or trans) isn’t one I care for or relate to.

Actively rejecting conformity (unless it’s safer not to) is my course of action in my everyday life.

According to some people's beliefs, there’s no straddling the line between feminine and masculime — you’re either one or the other. Same as the idea that you’re either female or male and anything that doesn’t fold neatly into the binary is contrived.

In reality, science has come a long way in terms of addressing gender identity and sexual orientation. Even if science wasn’t addressing the reality/complexities of gender and expression, it wouldn’t erase people's lived experiences. Nor would it erase the history of gender identity and expression within communities all over the world.

The majority of the ignorant homophobic and/or transphobic behavior people display seems to stem from religious beliefs or overall misinformation about gender identity and expression altogether.

In my personal opinion, changing everyone’s minds and living in collective harmony isn’t something that’ll happen in this world. Not everyone is subject to change their mind or become open to the fact that gender is a social construct. But, for those who are willing, there are endless opportunities to learn or unlearn.

To gain a better understanding of how people experience and live their different gender identities and orientations, I took to Twitter and asked people to let me know their own personal insights and experiences in regards to gender identity and gender expression (or presentation). This is a great opportunity for all of us to understand the different perspectives out there.

RELATED: I Finally Figured Out I'm Demisexual & This Is Why Demisexuality Matters So Much In The Gender & Sexuality Spectrum

This is what real people had to say about what gender identity and the gender spectrum means to them:

”In my life, I have noticed that my gender identity is very different from my gender expression.

I consider myself to be nonbinary but I do think that most people assume that means that I would express neutrally or in a masculine way. I consider myself to be a feminine person despite what others might expect of me due to my using they/them pronouns and not identifying as a woman.

I think that although we as a society are making great strides in terms of gender identity and expression acceptance, we still limit folks into presenting one way based on their gender identity and that is not something that should not be tolerated."- Venus, 20

”I identify as a nonbinary woman, which to many still seems like an oxymoron.

I like to think of being a woman as the default avatar on a video game. Sometimes I’ll dress the avatar in a skirt and makeup, other times its full blown androgynous. I like to think of those add-ons or accessories as affirming what I feel like expressing myself as today. Sometimes it's woman, nonbinary, or both.

For me these lie on a spectrum of both how I feel inside and how I portray myself outside. But while my nonbinary is expressed in androgyny or masculinity as a sort of balancing act, I acknowledge nonbinary can look like a million different things to different people, as does being a woman or a man or anything/everything in between. That’s true beauty.” - Jenna , 20

“During my junior year of college, I mentioned to a friend of mine that I had a crush on another young woman. It wasn’t the first time I’d said or implied that I wasn’t straight, but my friend was incredibly shocked. S

he (who was also queer) said that I had come off as privileged and straight. I was only partially surprised to hear that from her. At that time, I wore my hair long, dressed in mostly pink, and my aesthetic was very traditionally “feminine”. Because of this, I was read as being straight throughout most of my time at college, even though I often spoke about the fact that I was not.

A year after graduating from college, I ended up cutting my hair. Although mostly everything else about me stayed the same, I felt like I suddenly had queer visibility. Other women started to approach me, which had never happened before. Although I’m the same person regardless of my hair length, it was striking to me how much that one change could hold so much validation for my identity.” - Louisa, 23

“I spent a long time doubting my gender identity because I loved expressing myself through fashion so much. Throughout high school, I’d switch between identifying as male and leaning into the genderqueer label, trying to figure out which one I ‘really’ was.

It didn’t help that a lot of the people around me kept doubting whether or not I was a man because I loved dresses so much. Now, I just wear what I want, and when I’m challenged on it I cite Kurt Hummel, David Bowie and Elton John as my fashion icons. Dresses are fun, and besides, I don’t have to say I’m not a man to think that a lot of men’s fashion is boring!

There are still ways I find are more comfortable to express my feelings about gender. I’ve never been comfortable in low-cut shirts, for example, or mini-skirts — I prefer feeling like it’s a costume, or a deliberate act.“ -Elliott, 24

”I’ve been thinking about this for days, my gender identity vs. my gender presentation and how they match/don’t match.

Very rarely does my gender presentation 100% match my gender identity, though some days I get closer than others. I’m non-binary and genderfluid, which for me means sometimes I feel like a girl/woman, sometimes like a boy/man, sometimes both, sometimes neither. Lately I’ve been feeling more boy than anything else, but I still present some level of ‘femininity’ (i.e., I wear things stereotypically associated with femininity) most days, because I find dresses and skirts more physically comfortable than pants and I love makeup.

In my mind, I’m a very fancy boy, but I know the world at large mostly reads me as a cis woman, even when I’m wearing masculine clothes and no makeup. Sometimes this bothers me, but then there have been other times in my life when I saw myself as a very tomboyish girl, and people read me as a dude.

Generally, I just feel like I have too much style to conform to the norms of any gender, and if people don’t get that, it’s their problem, not mine.* (*Obviously not including instances where their mis/gendering is a threat to my safety.)" - Jessie, 37

Everyone within the LGTBQ community has different ways of expressing themselves, and sometimes it may not correlate with their gender identity. Does that mean they need to be dismissed or invalidated? No. \What it means is people within the community or outside of it need to be open to understanding/learning.

There’s no one way of being, regardless of gender identity. Just like there’s no particular way of expressing in regards to gender expression. And language is always evolving just like we are.

RELATED: My Wife Came Out As Transgender — Here Are 7 Common Questions We Face

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Vanessa Maki is a writer, visual artist & blk feminist. Her work has appeared in or will appear in places such as Black Youth Project, Chaos+Comrades, The Beat & many others. For more, follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @theblackbuffy.

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