Gender identity and gender expression
Understanding your gender identity can help you be more aware of yourself. While mainstream norms about gender teach us there are only two options - the gender binary of male or female, in reality, people experience and express their gender in much more varied and complex ways.
What is gender identity?
Gender identity is an internal feeling or awareness we all have about being a male, female, neither, or both.
There are many different gender identities, other than male and female. These include, but are not limited to:
- Agender: a person who doesn’t identify with any gender, or identifies as being genderless. Their gender identity may live outside of the gender binary. Agender people may or may not identify as transgender (Trans).
- Androgynous (androgyne): a person whose gender expression (e.g. clothing, hairstyle, etc.) doesn’t fall into the gender binary, or falls somewhere in between male and female.
- Cisgender: a person whose gender identity and gender expression match the sex they were assigned at birth.
- Gender fluid: a person whose gender identity and gender expression are not static, and can shift with time and/or circumstance.
- Genderqueer: a person who identifies as neither, both, or a mix of male and female. Individuals who identify as genderqueer may or may not also identify as trans.
- Non-binary: a person who doesn’t accept a society that only acknowledges the gender binary of male and female and defines their gender outside of those norms. People who are non-binary may identify as having no gender, feel in between genders or have a gender that is not always the same. Individuals who identify as non-binary may or may not also identify as trans.
- Transgender (trans): a person who identifies with a gender that’s different from the sex they were assigned at birth. People whose gender identity falls outside of the gender binary may also call themselves trans.
- Two-spirit (2 Spirit or 2S): a person with both a feminine and a masculine spirit living in the same body. It’s an important term within some Indigenous cultures and some Indigenous people use it to describe their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or spiritual identity.
These are just some of the many gender identities you may relate to — everyone is unique.
What is gender expression?
Everyone has a gender expression. This is how people outwardly express their gender to the world. It may mean expressing yourself as feminine, masculine, or somewhere in between or outside of the gender binary (i.e. male/female). Some of the different ways people express their gender include:
- How you dress and style yourself: this may mean wearing clothes or accessories you feel most accurately represent the gender you are inside. Sometimes, people who don’t feel ready to dress in a way that expresses their gender visibly may start by wearing undergarments that feel right for them.
- Hair (face, head, and/or body): this may mean removing hair in certain areas, letting hair grow out in specific places, or trying different haircuts or wigs.
- Padded bras or chest binding: this may mean wearing undergarments that either enhance or reduce the look/size of your chest. It’s important to do some research and/or talk to a knowledgeable person for information on how to safely bind your chest.
- Packing: this may involve stuffing your underwear to make a packer. A packer can help you feel like you have a penis and testes. You can make your own at home (with a sock, for example). If you’ve reached the age of majority, you can also explore buying a packer online or at an adult sex shop (stores that sell products related to sex and sexuality), particularly one that is geared toward the LGBTQ2S+ community.
- Exercise: this may mean tailoring your exercise routine to build bulk and/or enhance/tone specific muscle groups.
I’m questioning my gender identity. Is it normal?
Understanding yourself takes time, so it’s normal for some people to feel unsure about their gender identity. But keep in mind:
- It’s not “just a phase” and you’re not “just confused”. From a young age, children generally know their gender identity and find it really hard to think of themselves in any other way.
- Even if you start feeling comfortable expressing your gender identity, people may try to fit you into boxes. But remember, gender is about much more than the gender binary.
- Gender identity isn’t set in stone. Understanding yourself takes time and it’s normal to change your mind many times about how you define and express your gender identity before things ‘feel right’ for you.
Realizing that your gender identity doesn’t fit the roles, expectations, and stereotypes people have of your assigned sex and gender can be confusing and upsetting.
As a result, you may feel pressured or scared about expressing your gender identity.
People who feel pressured or scared to express their gender identity may choose to conceal this to feel safer. Unfortunately, this can sometimes be upsetting too.
Even if you express your gender identity openly, you might face challenges like stress about “not fitting in”, feeling invalidated when your gender doesn’t fit stereotypes, or discrimination.
In both cases, when people don’t feel free to express their gender identity it can increase their gender dysphoria (distress a person feels due to a mismatch between their gender identity and their sex assigned at birth) and increase the risk of mental and physical health problems.
On the positive side, feeling able to express your gender identity around supportive people who accept you for who you are can feel validating and freeing!
What can I DO to help me feel more comfortable expressing my gender identity?
If you want to start expressing your gender identity but are unsure what steps you can take, here are a few tips that may help:
- Learn more about Trans and gender-diverse people. Check out Internet articles, books, fiction, blogs, music, shows, and video games about their experiences.
- Talk to people you know and trust in the Trans and gender diverse community about their struggles and positive experiences with understanding their gender identity and expressing it.
- Build a support network of people that validate your gender identity, even if you’re not sure how to express it yet. If you don’t have people like this around you, consider joining an online support group.
- If you feel safe and ready to start expressing your gender identity, consider taking some small steps like making changes to the way you dress, how you wear your hair, or the gender pronouns you use.
- Participate in activism for Trans and gender-diverse people. This could involve liking a related social media page, posting or blogging about, or helping people understand the impact of misgendering.
- Research online and local community events being held by the Trans and gender diverse community for people your age and consider attending them to learn more.
- If you need more professional support, contact or visit a gender service or support service that works with people in the Trans and gender diverse community.
Remember: You are not alone
Whatever your orientation or gender identity, it's important to realize that there are lots of people like you. Many of them may have the same emotions and questions that you have.
It can be comforting and helpful to talk to people who know what you're going through. You can find these people through local or online groups. If you don't know where to find support, check with:
- Your doctor.
- Your school counselor or trusted teacher.
- A therapist or other counselor.
- LGBTQ clubs and organizations in your community.