While I’ve talked about spectrums, gender identity, and swimsuits, I’ve never specifically written about gender expression. So here it is. I’m going to define gender expression, explain how it can relate or not relate to gender identity, and then talk about transnormativity in relation to gender expression.
In simple terms, gender expression is an individual’s physical characteristics, behaviors and presentation that are linked traditionally, to either masculinity or femininity, such as: appearance, dress, mannerisms, speech patterns and social interactions.
Ash Hardell’s book explains it really in their book The ABC’s of LGBT+ by further explaining that it can be private, like the way someone thinks of their voice or wearing certain undies no one can see or public like one’s name, clothes, or hair. They go on to explain that it’s important for some folks for reasons like feeling affirmed, natural, liberated, and/or alleviating dysphoria.
Gender Identity vs. Gender Identity
This is always a tough one, and it took me a long, long time for me to really understand surrounding my own identity. This article does a really great job at explaining the difference.
As I’ve probably defined on here before, gender identity is how you perceive yourself. I think the two are confused a lot because I think how people perceive you and your gender has a lot to do with how you express it. For example, as the weather gets warmer, I have a lot of decision making around re-building my summer waredrobe as a nonbinary person and navigating what I what clothes I feel comfortable in. I see the same thing with hair styles and shaving.
At the end of the day though, your gender identity is how you feel and there’s no right or wrong way to express it, as long as you feel comfortable.
In a society where so many things are separate in a strict binary of girl and boy, man and women, feminine and masculine, gender expression is also often seen that way. It is really something many folks are socialized into doing as a child. For example, girls are often told to grow their hair long, shave their legs, and wear. Boys are told they can’t dress femininely and they have to “be tough.”
However, there are plenty of different expressions that may combine all these things. For example, I wear those sexy thongs but don’t shave or wear makeup, and don’t wear skirts and dresses. Some folks go back and forth, where one day they dress femme and sometimes they’re more masculine or androgynous. In other words, some people conform to the binary and some don’t, or do so sometimes. It’s all an individual decision of what feels best person to person.
I also wanted to bring up hair as a huge part of gender expression. I think little girls are socialized to have long hair in order to conform to femininity. Lucky for me, I was not socialized into that and have had short hair most of my life and was not pressured to grow it as a child. I think that shaved heads on women or more feminine-presenting folks is seen as queer, while short hair is now becoming a more feminine hairstyle.
Recently I read Anne Helen Peterson’s book Too Fat, Too Skinny, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, which looks at different women in popular culture and how society sees them as too queer, or too naked or too gross, etc. I highly recommend it. I’m bringing it up here because she looks at Caitlyn Jenner as too queer and taught me the term transnormativity. She explains,
“Transnormativity can be loosely defined as the notion that a ‘successful’ trans person is a person who does not appear to be trans. A transnormative person can ‘pass’ in larger society as their preferred gender identity–and is able to do so because he or she so successfully embodies the norms of masculinity or femininity” (165).
She goes on to explain that this uphold the gender binary and leaves “no room for the gender fluidity” (169). However, this is also said with the realization that, “By making people forget that someone is trans, it also means they don’t have to confront the anxiety, fear, or anger that arises when someone destabilizes the binary understanding of gender” (167).
Finally, connecting back to queerness like with the haircut piece, she says, “The less a queer person challenges the gender binary, the more assimilated they are into straight behaviors and lifestyles, the more acceptable and palatable they become” (168).
The Last Words
Gender expression is stereotyped in our society and often folks make assumptions of your gender vs. on how you express it. However, it doesn’t have to line up, but there’s also not problem if it doesn’t or does sometimes.
Sources and Additional Resources
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Women by Anne Helen Peterson