The Basics of Gender

Here’s a radical statement: there are as many forms of gender expression as there are people. You might be wondering what gender expression is. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, then you’ve come to the right post. Today I’m breaking down the basics of gender expression. You can find a list definitions for the terms discussed at the bottom of this post.

Gender expression is a function of gender identity. Here is the Merriam-Webster definition for gender identity:  “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female”

Here is Merriam-Webster’s definition of gender expression: “the physical and behavioral manifestations of one’s gender identity”.

It has historically been assumed in Western culture that there are two genders: male and female. It was also assumed that a person’s gender is determined by their primary sex characteristics, or their genitals. This is sometimes true. The experience of identifying as the gender you are assigned at birth is called cisgender. We are learning as time goes on, that this is not always the case.

As gender expressions that differ from plain old binary male/masculine or female/feminine become normalized, it is becoming increasingly common to know someone who identifies differently than what they were assigned at birth. Also, as these different gender expressions become more accepted in the mainstream, more people feel safe coming out and living as their authentic selves. The word for people who identify as something other than what they were assigned at birth is transgender.

You might be wondering, how can someone feel differently than what they are assigned at birth? Isn’t gender a person’s gender expression based on their sex which is determined by what their genitals look like? The short answer is no. The long answer is multifaceted and complicated. There are people much smarter who can and have explained this phenomenon much better than I can. I encourage you to consult with Google. Karissa Sanbonmatsu gave a fascinating TED talk about how epigenetics plays a role.

Transgender is something of an umbrella term. Usually when people hear the word transgender, what comes to mind is someone who identifies as the opposite gender from what they were asigned at birth. Yes, this experience does fall under the umbrella of being transgender. These people are referred to as a transgender man or a transgender woman.

But did you know that it can also refer to people who identify as non-binary? You might be wondering, what even is non-binary? To understand the concept of non-binary, you’ve got to conceptualize gender as being a spectrum. It’s not just black and white. Yes, the poles are black and white (male and female), but there is a lot of gray in between those two poles. Non-binary, some times called “enby” (like N-B) is another umbrella term. It simply means that the person does not identify as male/masculine or female/feminine.

Some people have the experience of being more than one gender. This experience can be fixed, meaning their gender identity does not fluctuate. This experience is what we call bi-gender.

This experience can also not be fixed, meaning the person might feel more masculine some days and more feminine on other days, and we call this experience gender-fluid.

Some people have the experience of having no gender at all, and we call this agender.

Genderqueer is an experience which people don’t identify solely male or female.

All of this is to say that the world is fascinating and vibrant and full of all kinds of people. There is a history of other cultures throughout the world and history that have accepted the trans experience as a normal part of their culture! I encourage you to reach out with any questions you might have about what I’ve said, and to do your own reading on the subject.

As promised, here are Merriam-Webster’s definitions of the words I’ve discussed in this post.

Gender: “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex”
Sex: “either of the two major forms of individuals that occur in many species and that are distinguished respectively as female or male especially on the basis of their reproductive organs and structures”
Gender Expression: “the physical and behavioral manifestations of one’s gender identity”
Sexual Orientation: “a person’s sexual identity or self-identification as bisexual, heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, etc. : the state of being bisexual, heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, etc.”
Gender Identity: “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female”
Cisgender: “a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth”
Transgender: “a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth”
Nonbinary: “a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female”
Agender: “a person who has an internal sense of being neither male nor female nor some combination of male and female”
Bigender: “ a person whose gender identity is a combination of male and female or is sometimes male and sometimes female”
Gender-fluid: “a person whose gender identity is not fixed”
Genderqueer: “a person whose gender identity cannot be categorized as solely male or female”

Written by: April Moritz, LPC