What Is Gender Expression?

How You Present Yourself to the World

Cropped shot of two affectionate young friends having a discussion while walking in the city
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Gender expression refers to the ways that people present themselves to the world in gendered ways. For example, certain hairstyles (buzz cut) or clothing types (dresses) may be traditionally encoded as masculine or feminine. Many people choose to present themselves in a way such that their gender expression matches the expectations for their gender identity.

However, some people have a gender expression that is different than what would be expected for their gender identity. For example, a cisgender woman might have a very masculine gender expression but still identify as a woman.

The Meaning of Gender Expression

Gender is a multifaceted concept. When discussing whether people are cisgender or transgender, what is being described is whether their gender identity does or does not match their sex recorded at birth. However, there are other aspects of gender, including gender expression.

Gender expression refers to the ways in which people present themselves in gendered ways. For most people, gender expression affirms their gender identity. In other words, people with masculine identities generally cut their hair and dress in masculine ways, while people with feminine gender identities generally cut their hair and dress in feminine ways.

Gender expression is highly culturally constructed—a feminine style of hair or clothing in one setting may be perceived as masculine in another time or place.

Gay men and bisexual cisgender women may be more likely than their straight or lesbian cisgender counterparts to have a gender expression that is different than what would be expected to be associated with their gender identity.

Research suggests that prejudice against sexual minorities is often driven by thoughts about gender expression rather than sexual behavior.

Some transgender individuals use a highly feminine or masculine gender expression to address their gender dysphoria. Such a gender expression may also decrease the likelihood that they will be misgendered by others.

Misgendering is when a person is referred to by the wrong gender or pronouns, a gender or pronouns that do not match their gender identity.

Gender Expression and Healthcare

Gender expression does not need to be addressed by medical personnel. However, it can affect access to and quality of healthcare. Individuals whose gender expression is not that which is expected for their assigned sex at birth may experience greater levels of discrimination and harassment by providers.

This is true not just for transgender individuals, but also lesbian, gay, bisexual, and individuals whose gender expression is not what is expected by their providers.

Gender Expression, Pronouns, and Healthcare

Although gender expression is often what triggers a healthcare professional to ask for a patient's pronouns and/or affirmed name, that is not best practice. In an ideal world, professionals should ask everyone they speak to for the name they would prefer to use. They should also ask everyone for their pronouns.

Often considered even more affirming is the practice of having professionals introduce themselves using their pronouns, this provides an invitation to the person they are speaking to share their own, without putting anyone on the spot.

Unfortunately, too often, people are not asked about their pronouns or affirmed name unless they are perceived as gender diverse or as having a gender expression that people do not expect.

In 2020, Lambda Legal produced a report about discrimination in healthcare entitled, "When Healthcare Isn't Caring." A significant portion of that report addressed healthcare discrimination in the context of gender expression. It found that 30% of respondents were afraid that medical professionals would treat them differently based on their gender expression.

It also recommended that healthcare professionals undergo better training and that broad policies needed to be developed to prohibit discrimination not just based on sexual orientation and gender identity but also gender expression.

Discrimination

Minority stress has been shown to play an important role in health disparities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research suggests that gender expression plays a significant role in the minority stress expressed by cisgender sexual minorities as well as for gender minorities.

This may reflect both the expectation by individuals that they will experience discrimination as well as direct experiences of discrimination. The effects of gender expression are different for individuals depending on both their sex and their gender identity.

Society accepts a much broader range of gender expressions from people who are perceived as female than from those who are perceived as male.

The use of human rights legislation to protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of gender expression is a relatively new concept. However, in 2012, Ontario, Canada passed legislation explicitly forbidding discrimination on the grounds of both gender discrimination and expression.

A similar law was passed in New York in 2019, and other jurisdictions have also passed protections, but U.S. federal law does not explicitly protect individuals on the grounds of their gender expression.

A Word From Verywell

Everyone has a gender expression. It is just unusual for a person's gender expression to be commented on, explicitly, if it is what would be expected for their gender identity and/or recorded sex. However, every person presents themselves to the world in a certain way and, in most cases, society perceives those presentations as gendered.

Indeed, society will sometimes even police people's gender expressions by requiring women to wear certain types of clothing and men to wear other types of clothing in order to participate in school and/or professional activities. Regulations around hairstyle may also reflect beliefs about gender as well as race and religion.

Gender expression is not static. It changes with time. While some people's gender expression is consistently masculine, feminine, or androgynous, other peoples' expression varies with their mood. Some may present as highly masculine one day and highly feminine another. This may or may not have anything to do with their gender identity.

Gender expression does not determine who someone is or how they wish to be seen as a gendered person, although it can certainly affect the perceptions of others.

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Article Sources
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  3. Lambda Legal. When health care isn’t caring: Lambda Legal’s survey of discrimination against LGBT people and people with HIV. 2010.

  4. Puckett JA, Maroney MR, Levitt HM, Horne SG. Relations between gender expression, minority stress, and mental health in cisgender sexual minority women and men. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. 2016;3(4):489-498. doi:10.1037/sgd0000201

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