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Gender identity & expression
“Gender identity” is how a person sees themselves – their own internal sense and personal experience of gender. Only the individual can determine their own gender identity. Many people have a gender identity of a man or woman, but some people do not. People who do not identify as a man or a woman may identify as both genders, neither gender, between genders, or not gendered at all.
The mostly commonly known gender identities are man and woman, but these are not the only options. Gender binary is the assumption that there are only two genders, and that they are distinct and unchanging. We now know that there are more than two genders, that gender does not always match a person’s assigned sex at birth, and that gender can change over time.
For many people, their gender identity is the same as their biological sex. For others, their biological sex does not match their gender. Sometimes, people whose biological sex does not match their gender identity may make changes so that their social role and body is more consistent with their gender identity. This may involve social changes, such as using a different name, pronoun, clothing, hair or makeup style. It may also involve medical changes, such as taking hormones or getting gender-affirming surgery. This process is called transition.
Gender identity is different from sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is who a person is attracted to on the basis of gender. Words used to describe sexual orientation include gay, bisexual, lesbian, heterosexual or straight.
Gender identity is much more complex than being “man” or “woman”. Especially today, there is a lot more awareness of and support for the different ways that people express gender.
Gender expression is how a person outwardly shows their gender identity. It includes physical expressions such as person’s clothing, hairstyle, makeup, and social expressions such as name and pronoun choice. Some examples of gender expression are masculine, feminine, and androgynous.
Some people have the same gender expression all the time, while others may change their expression over time or based on circumstances. For example, someone might wear baggy jeans and t-shirts that look androgynous most of the time, but wear dresses and high heels at certain times when they want to look more feminine.
Gender expression does not always match gender identity. For example, someone who is assigned male at birth may identify as female, but not have a safe space to express their feminine gender identity. So, they may live in the social role as male and present themselves as male, despite feeling psychological distress at doing so.
Or, someone may play with gender expression for theatrical purposes, such as dressing in male drag for drag king show, but still identify as female. Another example is someone who is assigned female at birth, identifies as female, but is happiest and most comfortable in more stereotypical masculine clothing.
It can sometimes be hard to understand all the differences between gender, sex and sexual orientation. The online resource “It’s Pronounced Metrosexual” offers a great visual guide to the differences between gender, identity, expression and sex. Click on the below image to see a larger version. You can also use our gender glossary to help learn more about the different kinds of gender identity.
Our Bodies, Ourselves – Gender identity and sexual orientation
Canadian Federation for Sexual Health – Gender identity and sexual orientation
Trans Care BC – Gender
Qmunity – Resources related to gender and LGBT topics
Gender Spectrum – American website exploring issues related to gender for children and teens
Gender identity and discrimination – Frequently asked questions about gender identity and Canada's human rights system