Gender expression

Take a look at any teenager’s closet (if you dare). Chances are, it’s a total mess. But what you find there says a lot about that teenager. Do they have a cherished collection of athletic shoes? Concert t-shirts? Flowing skirts or jeans with holes? Maybe last year they were in a “Goth” phase—there’s a pile of once-loved black pants and shirts stuffed into a back corner. But now they’re into being preppy, so there’s a lot of pink and green. And plaid!

Expression is how we choose to show up in the world. It’s not just teenagers who are into self-expression. We all show our identities through things like the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, even the food we eat. We express ourselves in other, subtler ways, too. Like the tone of voice we use, how we sit and stand, and the way we enter a room.

Gender has always been a major part of how we show up. And, like the contents of our closets, gender expression changes over time. Did you know that pink used to be considered a boy’s color, and blue was for girls?

There is a broad spectrum of gender expressions. In fact, there’s an almost infinite range of choices for individuals wishing to express their identities as masculine, feminine, or some other gender identity. Think Lady Gaga vs. Alicia Keys, or LeBron James vs. Johnny Depp.

A person who is gender non-conforming is someone who does not conform to the traditional expectations for their gender, or whose gender expression does not fit neatly into a category.

For instance, a person who identifies as a woman but prefers to wear clothing, such as a suit and tie, typically worn by men, would be non-conforming in their gender expression. The sexual identity of gender non-conforming people may be anywhere on the spectrum—straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or some other orientation—and they may or may not be transgender (a person whose gender identity is different from their sex assigned at birth).

Other forms of gender expression include cross dressers and drag queens/kings. Cross dressers are people who occasionally wear clothing traditionally associated with people of a different gender. Cross-dressing is a form of gender expression and is not indicative of sexual identity. Cross-dressers can be anywhere on the spectrum of sexual orientations—gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, or some other orientation.

Drag refers to the performance of one or multiple genders theatrically by dressing in the clothing of the opposite gender, or in a manner different form how one will usually dress. Drag Queens perform in highly feminine attire. Drag Kings perform in highly masculine attire. Drag often presents a stereotyped image.

Individuals who dress in “drag” may or may not consider themselves to be transgender. They may also identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or some other orientation.

There is more freedom for people today to express themselves than there was in the past. Still, not everyone can be “out” about who they are. Many people hide their true identity or express themselves in ways that aren’t authentic in order to feel safe or to conform to social norms.

Featured Content

Have a good laugh watching SNL’s parody of the many ways we use our clothes as a form of gender expression: "Introducing Wokes - sizeless, style-neutral, gender non-conforming denim for a generation that defies labels."

Introducing Wokes

YouTube video


Saturday Night Live. (2017, September 30). Levi’s wokes [Video]. YouTube.

Gender Identity Gender identity icon Our core sense of who we are as a man, a woman, a mixture of both, or neither.

Gender Expression Gender expression icon How we show up in the world through choices like clothing, hair style, mannerisms or tone of voice.

Attraction attraction icon How we feel toward others sexually, romantically and/or emotionally.

Biological Sex Biological sex icon Physical attributes such as reproductive organs and genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormone levels.

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