Women's Center

Gender Identity and Expression

We are bombarded by gender expectations throughout our lives. The moment we are born, we are divided into one of two categories: we are pronounced to be male or female based on our biological sex. From then on, we are socialized and expected to conform to our assigned biological sex in our gender expression (the way we present ourselves, such as in dress and demeanor), identity (the way we understand ourselves) and sexual orentation (who we are attracted to) within the limited male/female binary. Failure to adhere to the strict demands of masculine identity/expression and feminine identity/expression standards operating in dominant U.S. culture often leads to gender policing, which includes violence, ridicule, shaming, oppression and other harmful attempts to “correct” behavior, expression and identity by enforcing the gender binary. Gender police come in many forms; gender expectations are enforced by our peers, our media, our families, our laws and the way we speak.

Biological sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation reflect diverse human experiences; they are varied and exist within spectrums, not as binaries or continuums. They are relative and fluid across lifespans, time and culture. They are all interrelated, but not interdependent. This means that one does not inform or cause the other. For example, being female bodied or biologically female does not necessitate that one identifies as female. Individuals whose gender expression and identity “matches” their biological sex are referred to as cisgender. Cisgender people experience privileges (http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2011/11/list-of-cisgender-privileges/) not enjoyed by trans* individuals, or people who do not fit within the cisgender archetype, and whose identities are incredibly diverse. For example, a cisgender individual can use a public restroom without fear of harassment or abuse, which is a common issue that arises when trans* (http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2012/05/what-does-the-asterisk-in-trans-stand-for/) people use any sort of gendered bathroom because of prejudices that other people hold against trans* individuals.

It is important to challenge the gender binary. We can do this in many ways, including recognizing and embracing the diversity of the gender spectrum, speaking out about gender policing, acknowledging the difference between and complexities of anatomy and gender, using inclusive language, and educating ourselves about the experiences of and supporting non-cisgender and gender non-conforming individuals.