Gender Expression Versus Gender Identification

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After my son came out with his name and pronouns, I had someone come up to me and say, “If she’s a boy, why does she wear earrings and paint her nails?” (Don’t get me started on the pronouns there, just know that was also addressed in our conversation.)

Then a few months later someone asked me, “what do you think that sometimes he still dresses like a girl?”

I’ll tell you what I think and what I know.

I think a person can dress and adorn themself in any way they please. And how they do it is not my business.

And what I know is gender expression and gender identification are not the same thing.

Gender expression is defined as the outward presentation of gender, expressed through such things as names, pronouns, clothing, haircuts, behavior, voice, body characteristics, and more.  It tells us nothing about a person’s actual gender and is very influenced by societal norms.

Gender identification is one’s internal sense of gender. Some people completely identify with the gender they were assigned at birth while others do not. It’s not something that can be identified externally and can be very individual to each person.

And neither of these has anything to do with sexuality or sexual orientation.

As a society, we place great emphasis on gender roles and norms. One of my favorite celebrities, Billy Porter, caused a huge stir when he showed up to the Met Gala wearing the most stunning tuxedo gown and has been pushing fashion boundaries ever since. When interviewed by Vogue Magazine, he said, “People are going to be really uncomfortable with my black ass in a ball gown—but it’s not anybody’s business but mine.”

Yet in other cultures, men in skirts is normal. Think of the Scottish kilt. And interesting, it wasn’t until the evolution of tailoring that occurred in the 14th century that men wore anything other than what we would now label a dress. Although there are famous portraits of many individuals including Ernest Hemingway and Franklin D. Roosevelt in dresses in the 20th century. So why is it that we associate a dress/skirt and female? It’s just the current societal normal.

The binary system of male or female with no room for anything else is harmful to young people. It doesn’t allow for individuals to be who they truly are and express themselves with the creativity they were born with. It places expectations on people to be one way or another, asking them to dishonor who they may be and limit themselves to the thoughts of others. Opening minds to new and creative ways of expression and being only serves to expand society and the beauty of individuals within in.

I’ve worked with many clients who are upset and confused by their children’s gender expression. They will say, “I don’t understand. They say they are a girl but still dress like a boy.” Or, “But they always played with dolls and loved princesses. How is it possible that they are a boy? They often tell me something is wrong, want to know if their child is going through a phase and ask what they should do.

We are socialized about gender from birth. Our brains are programmed to associate pink with baby girls and blue with baby boys when in fact it was the opposite just 100 years ago. We give baby girls outfits with ballerinas and baby boys outfits with footballs. We are presented with gender specific toys, rules, and roles before we can even speak. It’s no wonder that our brains are confused we when see a child doing something contrary to what we are taught.

Yet this is nothing inherently feminine about ballet or pink, nothing inherently masculine about a football or blue. It’s what we have assigned based on society, traditions and teachings that someone decided and passed down. When we realize that our children who they say they are, their gender expression can be seen as creativity and just that- expression of themselves in that moment. Nothing is “wrong” and the only thing needing to be done is to look at our own minds.

The work of deprogramming our brains from categorizing everything in life by the binary of gender takes significant effort. When we are triggered by a makeup ad that features a man or a woman coaching a football team, we need to ask ourselves, “What am I thinking about this?” “Where did this belief come from?” And, “Is this something I want to continue to believe?”

This is our work. Not our children’s work. It is our job to improve awareness of our thoughts and choose differently. It is not their job to change anything. We are in charge of our thoughts and feelings including the ones we have around gender expression.

As I encounter my own thoughts, I am amazed how I will work through one thing only to find 5 others right behind it. The assumptions I have made based on gender identification have spanned every aspect of my life and my children’s lives. It has been befuddling at times to recognize it is only my thoughts that create the belief that something should be labeled as belonging to a girl or to a boy.

So I return to the first question I was asked, “If she’s a boy, why does she wear earrings and paint her nails?” The answer is because HE likes to some days. And “what do you think that sometimes he still dresses like a girl?” I answered, “I think that I like pants most days in the fall, winter and spring but I prefer dresses in summer. He must like what he’s wearing those days too.”

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