Gender Expression Is Not Gender Identity
March 21, 2012 at 9:00 am by Natalie Reed
This is sort of turning into a bit of a “covering the basics” sort of
week here- mixed with a little “dealing with stuff I’ve been meaning
to address for awhile”. So it seems appropriate that I should also
take a moment to handle one of my biggest personal pet peeves
regarding how people talk about gender, and transgenderism in
Honestly, I think I could feel pretty satisfied with my entire
“career” (I know) if I could just manage put this one thing to rest.
Gender expression and gender identity are two different things.
One of the chief confusions about transsexuality and the decision we
make to transition is how, from an outside perspective, with limited
or superficial understanding, it can seem that the reason we
transition is because we’ve determined ourselves to be female or male
on the basis of our personalities fitting better into a female or male
identity than into the gender that we’d been assigned, and that
therefore we “ought” to be the sex that matches out personality.
That is not how it works, how we came to realize our gender identity,
or why we transition.
From this basic misunderstanding a whole host of common confusions and
misconceptions arise. This what motivates people to say that we ought
to simply learn to accept ourselves instead, or that if we lived in
some kind of post-gender utopia without rigid binaries there would
cease to be any need for transition, or that trans people are buying
into or enforcing gender binaries and stereotypes, or that trans women
are “appropriating” female stereotypes and trans men are simply
experiencing “internalized misogyny”, or that we ought to learn to
simply be happy with being feminine men or masculine women.
But in actuality, all of those concepts are based on a faulty premise,
that is easily undercut by looking at the actual complex (and diverse)
realities of lived trans experience. All too often, people will
discuss transgenderism as an abstract, thinking that having some basic
grasp of the concept (often hastily, lazily or shoddily assembled from
clunky and simplistic metaphors like “women trapped in men’s bodies”
) is a sufficient basis on which to work through the theoretical
implications and develop firm opinions or political positions on us
(as though we’re an “issue”, not people), and totally neglect to
acquaint themselves with the actual living, breathing reality of trans
people, and our community.
Doing so -bothering to learn about who we are- is completely essential
to not glossing over certain key details. One of these is the fact
that not all trans women are feminine; many identify, or express
themselves, as butch, tomboy, masculine, androgynous, or otherwise not
strictly femme (and it is a relatively small minority for whom their
femininity couldn’t have been safely expressed within a male identity
if they were male). Likewise, not all trans men are masculine. Many
identify, express or present within a femme spectrum. This reality
collapses the abstracted, simplified concept of what transgenderism is
and means that most cis people carry around. It is only by discussing
the abstraction as divorced from the realities that one is able to
maintain the faulty premises required for the misconceptions I
mentioned above. It’s sort of like physicists who think that with the
right models they could understand or solve everyone else’s fields.
The basic concepts aren’t enough, and lead only to misunderstandings.
You need to consider the nuances and complexities of the actual
reality in order to get anything even resembling an accurate idea of
what’s actually going on, and you need to know what’s actually going
on before you can start throwing out theories about it.
The abstract concept of The Transsexual™ is someone who is wholly
normative within the assumed role, sexuality, disposition and all
other culturally gendered whatevers of the identified sex but was
“trapped in the wrong body” of the assigned sex. This keeps things
simple. “She’s feminine, she’s attracted to men, she’s passive, she
likes wearing dresses… yep, give her the surgery and she’s a woman!”.
But in reality a trans person is no more likely to be the perfect
normative model of her identified sex than is a cis person. All the
normal variations are in play. Sexual orientation can be androphilic,
gynophilic, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, demisexual, kinky, vanilla,
whatever. “Masculinity” and “femininity”, cobbled together as they are
from innumerable individual traits, can be as diverse and complex as
By recognizing the existence of such diversity within trans
identities, the theory that we concluded our gender identity after the
fact by buying into binaries and stereotypes just doesn’t make sense.
It’s logically inconsistent with the observed reality. Like saying
“the earth is flat” while observing a ship’s mast rise above the ocean
horizon before her hull. If transsexuality were simply the result of
thinking “I’m feminine, therefore I’m female” or “I’m masculine,
therefore I’m male” there would be butch trans women or femme trans
men. If transsexuality were simply an exaggerated form of
homosexuality, we’d see no trans lesbians or gay trans men.
Gender identity is not something that is concluded. It does not have
reasons. There is never a “my gender identity is female, because X, Y
and Z”. There is only the identification, that precedes the reasoning.
There is only “my gender identity is female”.
THERE IS NEVER A “WHY” SOMEONE TRANSITIONS.
(other than a conflict between assigned sex and gender identity, and
wanting to feel comfortable and happy, anyway)
Cis readers, how did you determine your gender identity? Did it take
until you were old enough to ask what the difference was between boys
and girls? And then when your parents said, “boys have a penis, girls
have a vagina”, you checked your genitals, and arrived at the
conclusion of your identity? Or did your sense of yourself as male or
female precede anything even resembling a precise understanding of
what those terms really mean? Didn’t you know which you were before
even knowing there were anatomical differences between the sexes? How
did you know not to object to your gender assignment?
You didn’t object, and felt comfortable with the assignment, for the
same reasons we did object (or wanted to), and felt uncomfortable.
Something deep, that precedes its articulation, precedes the
understanding of the social mores of “masculine”/”feminine”, and long
precedes any received or theorized definition of what constitutes
gender or sex.
In order to understand what gender identity is, we’d need to eliminate
everything it isn’t. If gender identity is not determined by relative
masculinity or femininity (as indicated by the fact that these traits
can exist in any combination with gender identity and assigned sex)
then those are separate variables. If a person of any gender identity
can have any sexual orientation, then that’s a separate variable. If
gender can be presented or expressed in any number of ways across
gender identities, then that’s a separate variable too. The only thing
that is consistent across all individuals with a given gender identity
(such as “man”, or “woman”, amongst others), is the deep-seated sense
of identification with that concept. The term rings true. It holds
meaning. Something inside of us says “yes, that’s right. That makes
sense. That feels like home. That is what I am.”
“I am a woman.”
That is what gender identity is. This can often be misunderstood by
cis people because they don’t need to ask the question, or consider
the dimensions and location of their gender identity. For someone
whose gender identity fits with what they’ve been assigned and told,
it can feel like simply a given, and in fact be confused with sex,
gender role, or gender assignment, or even sexual orientation. When
all those things line up tidily, it becomes very difficult to see
where one ends and another begins. Instead one has the sense that they
all form a continuous whole, the one flowing from the other. “I’m
attracted to women because I’m masculine because I’m a man because I
have a penis because I’m a man because I’m masculine because I’m
attracted to women”. It can all be taken at face value, and taken for
granted, which can even give cis people the impression that they don’t
even have a gender identity (or at least not a gender identity that’s
distinct from either their physiological sex or expressed role). It
also becomes profoundly difficult for a cis person to understand what,
exactly, gender identity is at all if it is distinct from gender
expression, gender role, physiological sex, or sexual orientation.
Adding to the confusion is how much gender expression is used as a
tool for comprehending or, well, expressing gender identity. Let’s say
your gender identity is female, and “girl” is what feels right, feels
like you. But people keep saying you’re a boy (and you’ve been
assigned as such, because that what’s your body looks like), and they
keep expecting you to behave as such. Meanwhile, though, they’re
sending the message that dolls are “for girls”. In the absence of any
other means to explore your sense of yourself as female, even if you
don’t yet have the words to describe that feeling, you may indeed
reach for the dolls, and play with them. This doesn’t mean you’re
“naturally” inclined to be “feminine” on account of your gender
identity, or that girls “naturally” play with dolls, or that playing
with the dolls is what “makes you” female or “proves it”, or that the
gender identity (sense of self as female) is definitively connected to
the gender expression (playing with the dolls) at all. It simply means
that you needed some kind of outlet for the gender identity, some way
of actualizing that for yourself, and within the cultural context you
were provided, and with what little tools you had, you found a way to
explore the concept of yourself as female.
This can happen in all kinds of ways. Sometimes women who at the
beginning of their transitions express as very femme may gradually
gravitate towards an increasingly tomboyish presentation as they
become more comfortable with themselves as female, and no longer
require any extraneous means of identifying, expressing or asserting
that femaleness. Likewise, many trans women had “cross dresser” phases
before coming out to themselves as trans, where they wore extremely
feminine, frilly clothing that they wouldn’t be caught dead in once
they actually began transition and presenting as female in real life.
Because once transition begins, the symbols of femininity (feminine,
as always, simply meaning “culturally related to femaleness”) no
longer have that same degree of power and appeal as a means of
asserting one’s gender identity. The exaggerated, symbolic totems of
womanhood stop being necessary once one’s actual womanhood begins to
be accepted and made real.
Gender identity is who we are. Gender expression is how we choose, or
how we need, to express that. An individual’s gender expression may
vary considerably from context to context (and is highly culturally
mediated), but the underlying gender identity is a solid constant.
Even a gender-fluid identity remains stable in its fluidity, constant
in its variability. That is an identity that is solid in its capacity
to feel at home in a variety of conceptual locations.
I did not come to the conclusion that I am a woman because I like men,
jewelry, make-up, dresses and My Little Pony. I was a woman first. The
jewelry, make-up, dresses and (to a lesser extent) My Little Pony are
simply the means through which I express my being a woman. Another
woman may express her womanhood through a spikey colourful pixie cut,
torn jeans, and a Smiths “Meat Is Murder” t-shirt. Another woman may
express her womanhood through a flannel shirt, blue jeans and a pair
of work-boots. We’re all women. How we choose to go about being women
And the men are just who I happen to like to fuck. That’s irrelevant
to being a woman too.
So please do bear this in mind. Although for a cis person,
particularly one who fits nice and comfy into the assumed role and
sexuality of their gender, gender identity may seem like some vague,
mysterious, incomprehensible and impossible-to-pin-down concept, it’s
important not to try pinning it down by forcing untenable associations
with unrelated things like our gender expression, our personalities,
how we present ourselves or dress, who we’re attracted to, or whether
we prefer chocolate to nachos.
I’ll give you a hand, though:
Sexual orientation is with whom, whether and how you like to have sex.
Gender expression is how you express yourself in relation to gendered
concepts (your relative “masculinity” and “femininity”, as well as
whether you dress “like a boy” or “like a girl”, that kind of thing)
Physiological sex is how your body is configured in relation to
gendered anatomy (like your chromosomes, your hormones, your breasts
or lack thereof, your body and facial hair or lack thereof, and
whether you have an innie or an outie).
Gender identity is the part of your gender that’s not any of that, and
would stay the same even if that stuff changed.
Well, at least it generally makes sense for us. Because our struggle,
our identity, our trans-ness itself, is defined by the conflicts along
the edges of these things.
Just trust us, I guess?
Or at least learn a bit about the diverse reality before forming
theories on the basis of an abstraction.