What Is Gender Expression?

Gender expression refers to the ways that people present their gender identity to the world. This may be through clothing, haircuts, behaviors, and other choices. Many people choose to express themselves in a way that matches societal expectations for their gender identity (for example, buzz cuts are traditionally considered masculine, while dresses are associated with being feminine).

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.

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The Meaning of Gender Expression

Gender is a multi-faceted 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. Gender expression is something different.

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 there are higher rates of discrimination against transgender and gender-nonconforming people compared to discrimination against those who are LGBT.

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 (i.e., referred to by a gender or pronoun that does not match their gender identity).

Gender Expression and Health Care

Gender expression does not always need to be addressed by medical personnel. However, it can affect access to and quality of health care. 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 Health Care

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 what name they prefer to be called and what pronouns they use.

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.

In 2020, Lambda Legal produced a report about discrimination in health care 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.

In addition to this, healthcare providers do need to know a person's sex that was assigned at birth in order to be able to maintain proper screening tests, such as screening for prostate cancer or cervical cancer.

Discrimination

Minority stress has been shown to play an important role in health disparities. Research suggests that gender expression plays a significant role in the minority stress expressed by cisgender sexual minorities and 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 their sex, gender identity, and the setting they are in. For example, some communities may accept a 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. If a person's gender expression is what would be expected for their gender identity and/or recorded sex, it would be unusual for the person's gender expression to be commented on. 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.

Gender expression is not always static. It can change 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.

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Article Sources
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  3. Human Rights Watch. "You Don't Want Second Best"—Anti-LGBT Discrimination in US Health Care. July 23, 2018.

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

  5. 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

  6. Greene DW. A multidimensional analysis of what not to wear in the workplace: Hijabs and natural hair. FIU Law Review. 2012;8,333.

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