Gender Identity is not the same thing as Gender Expression…Some miseducate that they are two peas in a pod, which is delaying legislative change. We must counter the miseducation and make a distinction, or those with medical and legal needs urgently will be compromised.
~Ashley Love, May 5, 2011
Within trans community, there is a misconception by some that antidiscrimination protections based on gender identity are about transsexual people, while antidiscrimination protections based on gender expression are about crossdressers. The oversimplifying, 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, and its ramifications towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) civil rights.
Gender identity and gender expression are terms for two fully 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. And, these terms really can be two peas in a single pod, but at the same time these two terms are definitely not a single pea in a single pod.
For pretty much everyone else in broad society gender expression still applies — it’s just that their gender identities matches the societal sex and gender norms for their assigned birth sex of male or female.
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. Crossdressers and drag performers are part time expressers of 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, or is perceived as expressing 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, androgynous, and intergender identified people are expressing gender — they’re just expressing it in a gender neutral manner.
And males who express gender with what is perceived in our culture as more feminine expression, and females who express gender with what is perceived in our culture as more masculine expression — these folk are perceived to be gay or lesbian, whether or not these folk actually are actually 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 antitransgender pejorative “she-male” by their attackers, but instead — when called pejoratives — are usually referred to by the antigay f-word. And, that reason is that people who are perceived to be male who have what is perceived to feminine gender expression are perceived to be gay.
I would say that housing, employment, and especially public accommodation antidiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity are protections for people whose expression of gender is perceived to be non-conforming to societal sex and gender norms.
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 is when that 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 trans community together.
It’s also a glue that should bind LGBT community members together — significant numbers of LGBT community members are indirectly perceived by people outside of LGBT community as gender nonconformists, and that indirect perception of gender nonconformity is the why and how they are percieved to be LGBT.
And too, that perception by people outside of LGBT community that gender nonconformity is an identifier of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people has civil rights implications.
Gender expression isn’t gender identity, and vice versa — these two terms really do represent two separate concepts. And gender expression? It’s a broad concept: gender expression isn’t just a transgender term that functions as code wording for crossdressers.
* Why Transgender Activism