Gender Identity:Gender identity is one’s internal sense of being a woman, man, both, neither, or something else entirely. On the Gender Unicorn, gender identity is represented by the thought bubble. Because it is an internal sense of self, you cannot know someone’s gender identity just by looking at them.
Gender Expression/Presentation:Gender expression is how a person physically presents themselves as feminine, masculine, androgynous, or some combination thereof. This might involve the way a person dresses, how they style their hair, or their body language. Gender expression is not the same thing as gender identity. For example, someone might identify as a man and express themselves through a feminine appearance. In other words, to be feminine is not always synonymous with womanhood, even though we are often socialized to believe so in the United States. What is understood as feminine or masculine can also vary based on cultural and social context.
Sex Assigned at Birth:Sex assigned at birth (represented by the DNA on the Gender Unicorn) is the category of female, male, and/or intersex that a person is assigned by medical professionals after they are born based on their chromosomes, anatomy, and hormones. Sometimes, this is referred to as “biological sex”; however there has been a movement away from this language because it implies that a person’s assigned sex is more legitimate than the sex they identify with. This belief can be particularly marginalizing to transgender and intersex communities.
Sexually Attracted To: Sexual attraction is the types of identities, expressions, and sexes that a person is sexually oriented towards. Some people do not experience sexual attraction, or they only experience it under certain circumstances. These folks may call themselves asexual or gray-sexual.
Romantically/Emotionally Attracted To:Emotional attraction is the types of identities, expressions, and sexes that a person is romantically oriented towards. Some people do not experience romantic attraction, or they only experience it under certain circumstances. These folks may call themselves aromantic or gray-romantic.
Our gender identity is how we see ourselves. Some of us see ourselves as women, some as men, some as a combination of both, some as neither. Some of us have complex identities that may even be fluid and change over time. For instance, some of us see ourselves as female to male trans people who also identify as butch women and genderqueer and some days as drag queens.
Everyone has a gender identity. And, everyone expresses their gender identity. We all make choices about how to cut or not cut the hair on our head, the hair on our legs, what clothes to wear, whether or not and what type of make-up to wear, what body parts to accentuate or not, etc, etc. We all make hundreds of conscious decisions every day about how we are going to express our gender. We all have a gender.
[Transgender means having a gender identity that does not match one's sex assigned at birth. For example, if a person is assigned female at birth, but identify as a man, they are transgender. Another example would be a person who is assigned male at birth who does not identify as a woman or as a man but instead as non-binary. Someone who is cisgender identifies with the sex that they were assigned at birth. So a person who is assigned female at birth and identifies as a woman is cisgender, as is a person who is assigned male at birth and identifies as a man.]
Diversity within the Transgender Communities
Transgender people span all communities, are of all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, and abilities.
Transgender people have all sexual orientations. Gender identity is about who one is. Sexual orientation is about who one is attracted to. Some transgender people are straight, some are gay, some are bi, and some are queer.
Transgender people have an enormous and beautiful gender diversity. Among transgender as among non-transgender people, there are feminine women, masculine women, androgynous women, feminine men, androgynous men, masculine men, to name just a few. There are infinitely different ways to be male and infinitely different ways to be female.
And there are infinite ways to be neither. One term to describe those who do not identify as completely male or female is genderqueer. (But, not all people who do not identify as female or male self-identify as genderqueer – and some people who do identify as female or male do self-identify as genderqueer. Again, it is important to respect each person’s self-identification.)
Options other than female or male: There are transgender people who identify as trans, tranny, trannyboy, trannygirl, transsexual, transgender, shinjuku boy, boi, grrl, boy-girl, girl-boy-girl, papi, third gender, fourth gender, no gender, bi-spirit, butch, dyke-fag, fairy, elf girl, glitterboy, transman, transwoman – just to name a few. Some of us see ourselves as combining aspects of male and female. Some of us see ourselves as falling between male and female. Some of us fall completely outside of the binary gender system. Some of us have the same gender always and everywhere; some of us are fluid, and some of us change situationally or over time.
And, a little note on spectrums and lines. There are women and there are men. These are two options among a million. Female and male are not two endpoints on a line. There is no line, no spectrum. If there were a line, where would a sissy ftm fall compared to a butch dyke? Where would a butch mtf fall? Where would a fierce femme fall? Gender is much much bigger than a line. We cannot order people on a scale of masculinity/femininity. Gender is (at least!) a 3 dimensional space that allows motion. One way to picture gender is as a gender galaxy – a space with an infinite number of gender points that can move and that are not hierarchically ordered.
In addition to the enormous variety of identifications, there is an equally impressive variety of bodies. We all have bodies. We all alter our bodies in some way. Some women have wombs, some do not. Some men have facial hair, some do not. Some male to female transgender people identify as one-hundred percent female and never take hormones or have any surgeries. Transgender women define for themselves what it means to be female and to have a female body. Some female to male transgender people take male hormones and have mastectomies and yet do not identify as men. Some do. Some mix and match to best express their very own fabulous gender. Some take hormones but have no surgery or vice versa. Some take low-doses of hormones or go on and off. For some trans people, altering genitalia is important. For others, it it not. Some transsexual men identify as 100% male and choose to become pregnant and bear and raise children.
There is no prototypical transgender experience. There is an endless variety of transgender bodies, an endless variety of transgender identities, and an endless combination of the two. It is not necessarily those who take low doses of hormones who identify between male and female. It is not necessarily those who take hormones who identify as transsexual. It is not necessarily those who have genital surgery who identify as 100% male or 100% female.
Further, there are endless ways to arrive at being transgender and of being transgender. Some transgender people are assigned female at birth, know from day one they are male, describe their experience as being a man trapped in a woman’s body, and live their life as a heterosexual man. This narrative is perpetuated, reinforced, and rewarded by the medical and psychological establishment. Many transgender people share only some part or no part of this narrative. Many transgender people live happy lives prior to transition. Not all transgender people feel uncomfortable in their bodies and want to alter bodies. Not all transgender people have the same identification throughout their lives. Endless narratives exist.
And, a quick note on sex vs. gender: In our society, sex is usually seen as the more objective, natural backdrop to a more socially constructed gender. In the transgender communities, there are many different views about sex and gender, their definition and their interrelation. Some transgender people see themselves as having one sex and a different gender. Some transgender people do not see themselves in this way. I do not want to offer a definition here. But, I do want to remind us that BOTH sex and gender are socially constructed and that BOTH sex and gender are socially real.
And, the bottom line: There are many many different ways to be in this world. There are many many different ways to be transgender or gender non-conforming in this world. And, in the end, what counts is a person’s self-identification.