Gender expression isn’t gender identity, and vice versaBottom Highlights, Trans Progressive Tuesday, May 17th, 2011
Commentary: Trans Progressive
Within the trans community, there is a misconception that antidiscrimination protections based on gender identity are about transsexual people, while antidiscrimination protections based on gender expression are about cross-dressers. The oversimplifying and boiling down of the term gender expression to apply to a narrow subset of trans people strips out the broad concept of what the term gender expression actually is.
The terms gender identity and gender expression are fully two separate concepts. From a legal perspective for transsexual people, as well as for transgender people who don’t identify as transsexual people, these are very related terms. These terms are really two peas in a pod, but definitely aren’t a single pea in a pod.
For pretty much everyone else in broad society, those whose gender identity matches their assigned sex at birth, gender expression still applies. Expression of gender for most in broad society matches societal sex and gender norms for their sex assigned at birth.
So what do the terms gender identity and gender expression mean? Well, per the GLAAD Media Reference Guide:
Gender Identity: One’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or a boy or a girl). For transgender people, their birth-assigned sex and their own internal sense of gender identity do not match.
Gender Expression: External manifestation of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through “masculine, feminine or gender-variant behavior, clothing, haircut, voice or body characteristics.
The GLAAD Media Reference Guide then adds regarding transgender people: Typically, transgender people seek to make their gender expression match their gender identity, rather than their birth-assigned sex.
And that second line isn’t entirely accurate. This is how the GLAAD Media Reference Guide defines transgender:
Transgender: An umbrella term (adj.) for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender-variant people. Transgender people may identify as female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF). Use the descriptive term (transgender, transsexual, cross-dresser, FTM or MTF) preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.
With transsexual and genderqueer people, 24/7/365 people who live as a gender that doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth, seek to make their gender expression match their gender identity. Cross-dressers and drag performers are part-time expressers of a gender that doesn’t match their birth-assigned sex. These folk aren’t seeking to make their gender expression match their gender identity, but are only sometimes expressing gender that doesn’t match their gender identity.
But for the majority of society members who don’t identify as transgender, gender expression still applies. Pretty much everyone who functions within society expresses gender. For the majority of societal members, gender expression conforms within the range of gender norms for the sex they were assigned as birth.
Even genderqueer-identified people are expressing gender; they’re just expressing gender in a gender-neutral manner.
And males who express gender with what are perceived in our culture as more feminine expression, and females who express gender with what are perceived in our culture as more masculine expression are perceived to be gay or lesbian, whether or not these folk actually are gay or lesbian.
There is a reason why male-to-female trans women who are victims of hate violence aren’t usually referred to by the anti-transgender pejorative “she-male” by their attackers, but instead are usually referred to by the anti-gay f-word. And, that reason is that people who are perceived to be male who have what are perceived to be feminine gender expression are perceived to be gay.
In fact, housing, employment and especially public accommodation antidiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity are really protections for people whose gender expression is perceived to be non-conforming to societal sex and gender norms.
Gender expression isn’t just a transgender term that specifically involves cross-dressers. One important concept to remember regarding gender identity and gender expression is that gender is expressed on some level by pretty much all of us in our broad society. When gender expression doesn’t conform to societal sex and gender norms antidiscrimination protections for LGBT community become legally important.
The other, key concept regarding gender identity and gender expression is that gender expression is the glue, the commonality that should bind the trans community together. It’s also a glue that should bind lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community members together. Significant numbers of LGBT community members are indirectly perceived by people outside of the LGBT community as gender nonconformists and therefore LGBT, and that perception of gender nonconformity has civil rights implications.
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