What's the difference between gender identity, gender expression and gender roles?

Hello #MomentumLovers! 

Our understanding of gender – and the language we use to talk about it – changes all the time. As a cisgender person (someone whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth) it can be difficult to keep up with what are the ‘right’ words to use. Even transgender and non-binary people don’t always agree on how we should define ‘gender’ – let alone on all the terminology we use to talk about it!



Let’s look at some of that terminology today, and break down the differences between gender identity, gender expression, and gender roles.


1. Gender identity

A person’s gender identity is someone’s internal, innate sense of their gender. Cisgender, transgender, non-binary, agender and genderfluid are all gender identities that someone might have.  ‘Gender’ itself is complex and hard to define, but broadly it’s a social and legal status. It’s based on gender roles and whether our behaviours, characteristics and thoughts fall into society’s categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’.

Gender is not the same as sex, and it is a mistake to equate them. While lots of people assume that your sex is purely based on their chromosomes or genitals, but even biological sex is a much broader spectrum than this. It is made up of five factors: chromosomes, hormones, expression of hormones, internal genitalia, and external genitalia.

As a baby, you will be assigned a gender based on what genitals a doctor sees. If you are cisgender, your gender identity matches the gender you were assigned at birth. If you are trans or non-binary, your gender identity doesn’t match the gender you were assigned at birth. Non-binary is an umbrella term for any gender identity that doesn’t fit neatly within the gender binary. People who don’t identify as a man or a woman usually fit somewhere within the non-binary umbrella.


2. Gender expression

Gender expression is how a person chooses to express or perform their gender identity. It can include the pronouns they use, the clothes they wear, their haircut, mannerisms, and so much more. Gender expression is a way to tell the world around you about your gender, or to explore your gender identity and mess with gender roles. 

Someone’s gender expression doesn’t have to match their gender identity. A butch lesbian might dress in very ‘masculine’ clothing, but she is still a woman. A non-binary person might use he/him pronouns, but that doesn’t make him any less non-binary. A trans man might wear a skirt, but that doesn’t mean he’s a woman.

Having a gender expression that doesn’t match up with their gender identity also doesn’t mean that someone is trans, however trans people do often challenge ideas of what someone’s gender expression ‘should’ look like. For example, the idea that non-binary people have to dress in an androgynous way to ‘prove’ that they are non-binary is very harmful and is a way to control their gender expression. 

Remember, you cannot know from looking at someone what their gender is. While someone’s gender identity might give you clues as to their gender identity, it’s important to normalise the idea that gender expression isn’t the same as gender identity. Until you know what pronouns someone uses, you should default to using they/them pronouns – and it’s totally ok to ask someone what their pronouns are!


3. Gender roles

Gender roles are society’s expectations of how we should act, speak, dress, etc. based on our gender. They are often something put on us, rather than something we actively choose, and they can be limiting. For example, a trans woman might feel like she has to perform femininity (to wear make-up, be nurturing and polite – all things we associate with being a woman) because otherwise she will not be seen as a ‘real’ woman and will be misgendered.   

In sex, this often looks like the cisheteronormative script that sex is something a man ‘takes’ from a woman. There are so many more ways to have sex than a straight, cis man putting his penis in a straight, cis woman’s vagina, but the idea that masculinity is synonymous with penetration and active dominance while femininity is synonymous with being penetrated and passive submission persists.

These gender roles sex and intimacy can be incredibly restrictive. They include stereotypes around women being ‘clingy’ and falling in love with anyone they have sex with, and men always being up for sex and not interested in relationships. Subverting these gender roles and cisheteronormative sexual scripts – perhaps with women exploring their dominance and tying their partner up or penetrating them – can be both hot and powerful for everyone involved.

Thank you for reading this #MomentumLovers! 

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