All About Spectrums is a three-part blog series, so if you are just now tuning in, there are two previous parts that are full of helpful tips for having challenging conversations, educational information, and terminology that will be helpful when reading this installment. All three parts follow the storyline of a conversation I had with my mom about gender and sexuality, and what that looks like for different people. In Part 3: Gender Expression, I will be tackling how we all make decisions about expressing ourselves, and how physical appearance is a window into which others can begin to know who we are and, also misjudge us.
After sitting in the small hotel café for over an hour and a half, our cups and plates long empty, our minds were spinning with all the layers of conversation about gender spectrums, sexuality spectrums, how transgender people know they are transgender (the short answer, they just know!), pronouns, and the importance of being seen and acknowledged as a whole person, including all of the various aspects of identity. There was an element that I felt was missing from what we had discussed so far. We touched on it here and there but had mostly avoided or made assumptions about it. Breaking the #1 rule about not defining a term with the term, gender expression is simply how someone expresses their internal gender experience outwardly. Despite the first impression seeming simple, gender expression is something that is very complex, wrought by history, culture, location, society, gender roles, and many other contextual factors. When I first learned about Queer Theory in college, I became fascinated with the concept of a set of ideals and meanings being constructed by and within a social group. Even though my mom did not directly ask about gender expression, I could not resist exploring the topic.
What is Gender Expression?
When you think of what a woman or a man looks like, images probably come to mind, features are highlighted as seemingly belonging to each. Where do you think that you learned these from? Maybe you learned them from your care givers and how they presented themselves. These care givers may have provided certain clothes for you and had your hair cut a certain way when you were a young child, and the embarrassing photos of the awkward years may still be immortalized in frames on the walls. Maybe you learned what people of different professions, cultures, and genders looked like in school. Eventually, you began to make more decisions for yourself about the colors, the designs, the brands, and the types of items you wore. You may have had some say about the length of your hair, the color, how it was styled. I would imagine, however, that many of these choices were limited to a range of options decided by, or at least influenced by, what caregivers, friends, teachers, commercials, social media, celebrities, authority figures, leaders in your religious or spiritual community, or people within your culture deemed appropriate for a person of a certain age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Without saying a word, how we appear tells a story, from likes and dislikes, to our membership to certain groups, to how we are or hope to be perceived. Though gender expression is linked to gender identity, it is separate because how we appear is an external manifestation of an internal experience. Additionally, gender expression may be limited by others, as discussed above, or a need for safety. It may also be something we experiment with because it does impact and reflect how each of us feels on a given day and how each of us is perceived by others.
Gender expression is not limited to just our physical appearance, which is a personal choice of how a person presents themself to others. It also includes the social and cultural norms that we learn are associated with particular genders and how a person of a certain gender presents. Simultaneously, gender expression includes an additional set of socially constructed rules about gender roles, or cultural ideals, about how a person of a particular gender acts, including behaviors, mannerisms, what their voice sounds like, how they communicate and express their emotions, and how they move (Brill & Kenney, 2016). The complete interwoven makeup of culture and gender expression shows us how malleable and often superficial our assumptions about gender are, because these social ideals of what is associated with a particular gender continue to shift and change from one location to the next, from one time period to the next, from one culture to the next. Gender expression is a conversation between an individual and those around them because it is a personal statement communicated about us, that is perceived by others, as intended or not.
What we look like and how we act often leads to others making assumptions about us from a distance. These messages we give may be intentional, communicating that we are a member of a group, a certain profession, going to the gym, or simply confident and proud of being ourselves. Assumptions can also be incredibly harmful when they violate what we know about ourselves, and we are mislabeled, misgendered, called names, or shut out. Confusion, intolerance, lack of language, or inability to categorize, resulting from inaccurate assumptions can limit our ability to remain open to connection and mutual understanding. As discussed in Part 1: Tips for Collaborative Conversation, leaving assumptions and expectations at the door leaves room for opening the door to access each other.
Femininity and Masculinity
Diving deeper into gender expression, the qualities that we learn from our cultural and social upbringing and associate with gender can also be understood in terms of spectrums! I am going to refer to the helpful diagram from the Trans Student Educational Resources, The Gender Unicorn, designed by Landyn Pan and Anna Moore (TSER, 2014). As discussed in the previous section, there are physical features, appearances, and actions that are associated with being male/man/boy and with being female/woman/girl. These can be understood as masculinity and femininity, respectively. Defining these qualities in terms of masculinity and femininity more accurately separates gender identity from gender expression. A person identifying as a man may in fact express himself as more feminine than masculine. Similarly, a woman may want to present as traditionally more masculine. Their decisions to present as more feminine or masculine do not say anything about their sexual orientations, despite what stereotypes portray. Or a person may want to mix and match masculine, feminine, and more neutral qualities day to day or in a single ensemble. A person who is gender non-conforming expresses their gender in a way that does not align with cultural or social expectations of gender (Brill & Kenney, 2016). Incorporating spectrums allows for a more accurate understanding of gender expression, by attempting to account for the variations in gender expression. Based on The Gender Unicorn, a person can have none or any level of masculine, feminine and/or other qualities making up their gender expression (TSER, 2014).
Raised in a culture and society that categorizes gender as binary, the automatic attempts to classify others is usually also within that binary (Brill & Kenney, 2016). This is something that will hopefully change with time, as more people expose themselves to the diversity of life, but this is still the unfortunate reality for most of us. When someone does not fit within this artificial image of man/masculine and woman/feminine in gender presentation, confusion can lead to anger and discrimination because someone’s gender expression does not fit within social expectations for their gender identity. Most discrimination about people who do not fit within social and cultural expectations comes out as homophobia even though the intolerance is about gender expression. Additionally, discrimination about gender identity, using gender identity language, also focuses primarily on gender expression, though there is still significant discrimination based on gender identity as well. The more a person presents themselves outside of cultural expectations, the more discrimination they are likely to face (Brill & Kenney, 2016). Even though gender expression is about reflecting our internal experience and showing that to the world, we are not always seen as intended. Most people do not fit 100% within these discrete markers of masculinity and femininity. As we begin to realize how much energy and effort we are putting into trying to conform, we can begin to be more authentic to ourselves and start accepting each other (Brill & Kenney, 2016).
Working towards congruence involves aligning the internal experience with the external experience and becoming closer to your authentic self. This is something that every person goes through when discovering all the different aspects of their unique identity, expressing this, and working towards authenticity. These aspects are not limited to the various spectrums of gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality, discussed in the three parts of the All About Spectrumsblog series. Being authentic impacts quality of life, the interactions we have with others, and our relationships. For a person who is transgender or non-binary, this journey can be demanding, challenging, freeing, and lifesaving. Gender is an innate part of who we are, and to bring into alignment all aspects of gender leads to feeling more complete and more whole (Brill & Kenney, 2016). This process looks different for every person, even though steps taken may resemble each other. The steps taken towards the alignment of gender identity, body, and gender expression is the process of taking congruence measures.
When a person reaches the point of acceptance of their gender identity and feeling like their gender expression is an adequate representation of who they are physically and socially, they reach gender congruence (Brill & Kenney, 2016). Gender transition is a general term for changing externally from one gender to another, but this does not automatically mean a medical transition! Gender transition can include one or more of the following subcategories: social transition, medical transition, surgical transition, and legal transition. Social transition is changing many of the factors of gender expression such as clothing, hair, gender roles, mannerisms, pronouns, name, and more. Medical transition involves medical interventions like hormone suppressants or cross hormones, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), that promote body changes towards one’s gender identity. Surgical transition involves surgical interventions that either add or remove traits that are associated with a certain sex and/or gender. And legal transition is the process of changing identification documents, including gender marker change and name change (Brill & Kenney, 2016). Every person’s journey towards personal harmony is unique to them. Finding ways to seek support or be supportive of a person in your life who may be working towards gender congruence is vital to helping every person be their whole and authentic self.
*This story was told with permission from my mom. Thanks, mom!
*Note: Language is constantly evolving and many of these terms may change in the future. Terms are, generally, ordered as they appeared in the text above. Additional terms were added to the list for clarity.
Brill, S., & Kenney, L. (2016). The transgender teen: A handbook for parents and professionals supporting transgender and non-binary teens. Jersey City, NJ: Cleis Press.
TSER: Trans Student Educational Resources (2014). The Gender Unicorn. Retrieved from https://www.transstudent.org/gender/