Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Biological Sex

The Gender Unicorn, graphic by Landyn Pan

The Gender Unicorn, graphic by Landyn Pan

Virginia Prince popularized the phrase “Sex is what is in-between your legs, and gender is what is in-between your ears.” She separated sex and gender into two social constructs: one biological and one psychological. This concept is also used in The Gender Unicorn infographic, which adds gender expression, and romantic/sexual attractions into the mix. The unicorn allows for infinite possibilities, including a continuum titled Other.  How do you measure otherness?

My gender identity has been clear to me since I had the vocabulary for boy and girl, and the concept of self (I am). I am a boy. I also got the social construct of gender expression pretty quickly because I kept trying to do it my way instead of their way. I never understood biological sex, and it still perplexes me.

The pre-puberty loop used to run something like this: I am a boy, I don’t feel like a girl, I don’t want to do girl stuff, I want to wear boy’s clothes and look like a boy. It goes from straight from gender identity to gender expression, and avoids the issue of biological sex. I don’t remember thinking that I wanted a boy’s penis. I don’t know if that is because I knew I didn’t have it and couldn’t get one, or because it seemed besides the point. Who needs that stuff to be a boy?

ostrichSex (biological or assigned at birth) is a confusing mess of gonadal hormones, the endocrine system, chromosomes, gametes, internal reproductive organs, and genitalia. It courses through my veins. Legal sex is stamped on all my documents. I did not understand why people kept telling me “because you’re a girl” when it was clear to me that I wasn’t really a girl. I knew that I was the only child who felt they were on the wrong line every morning in the school yard.

Puberty complicated things. The rush of hormones created more visual cues and they were hard to camouflage. I didn’t want hips, body fat, breasts, or body hair. All that estrogen did not change the loop. It was harder to look like a boy, but I gave it my best shot. In addition to not thinking about my body, I didn’t think about the crushes I had on women, or about sex.

I am both butch and transgender, and my gender expression is a mix of clothing, hair, shoes, comportment, speech, posture, tone, and affect. It is a mixed up version based on thousands of messages and cues I have rejected, intercepted, and partially digested for presenting as white, middle-class, Jewish, female, male, queer, or a pacifist. It is intentional, unconscious, ridiculous, and authentic.

Taz-as-testosteroneTop surgery boosted my gender expression. I’m not sure where testosterone fits into this, which is the reason I’m still prevaricating. I don’t want to change how I feel inside. I’m not sure I want it pumping through my brain and rewiring my nervous system, the medical equivalent of Taz on a mission. I’m not ready to poke and prod the primeval beast.

Notes: I started thinking about gender identity versus gender expression when I was reading an article (which I can’t find) on why it is OK to not match your gender identity with your gender expression (e.g. non-binary identity with masculine gender expression). While searching for that article, I found these two instead: Gender Expression Is Not Gender Identity and Body Dysphoria and Gender-LEGOs.

12 thoughts on “Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Biological Sex

  1. PK

    hmmm, gender presentation. I once had to ask myself an impossible-to-answer question. If I was born without a limb, would I miss it? if I was born with 7 toes would I ‘feel’ that they were wrong? Or would I simply naturally live with it, as others do with 5, I feel the only reason I would insist on removing the extra toes or adding the hypothetical limb would be for the others to be more accepting of me.

    Perhaps I have no understanding of dysphoria, but I have always thought that gender has very little little to do with what is between someone’s legs, I can’t imagine that an appendage would make me wake up one morning thinking, yes, yes, I am more ‘male’ today. Am I crazy? I mean do the breasts make a woman? I don’t know, so many unanswered questions. Let me head over and read some of those articles.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Most cisgender people do not distinguish between gender identity and sex – because they were identified female at birth and they “feel” female (or conversely they were identified as male at birth and never questioned it because they “feel” male). Plus, their gender expression matches both their gender identity and their sex.
      They just think of it as “presentation” because the gender is a given, and they are doing their best to fit within the bounds. Granted there are an infinite number of ways to present as a woman, with varying degrees of femininity, but most women aim to express themselves is a way that is unambiguously associated with women.
      My dysphoria was all about not wanting to present on that clearly female spectrum. It was mostly about clothes, haircut, shoes etc., but even after that I wanted to streamline my body into a more androgynous or masculine shape (hence top surgery). I have only a fraction of the dysphoria I used to have, and it mostly flares up when things are somehow divided into male and female and I have to “get on the wrong line” again.
      Most of the MAAB men I’ve talked to feel very attached to their gentials; FAAB women a little less so.

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    2. SashaQ

      I think dysphoria is more the opposite of your example, where you would be happy with the 7 toes you had, but other people just assumed you had 5 toes so put your foot in a small shoe that was uncomfortable – you could make your foot conform to what other people thought it was, or you could get a shoe that fits what your foot is!

      I have a bit of dysphoria because my internal map of my body doesn’t match what other people see, but mostly I am ok as I am able to wear clothes that make me more comfortable in myself even if other people don’t see that.

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      1. The Pencil Hoarder

        I completely get that, I think in the end it should come down to that, wearing clothes, or doing things that you are comfortable with or that make you feel more comfortable, more aligned with how you feel and how you are. My greatest concern was always a fear of getting caught up trying as much as possible to look like any one particular thing, rather, than instead working to get closer to my true self.

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  2. Kris

    Seems like T is off the charts for me – B said T will be the end of the road for us. I’m trying to resign myself to it, but I will be silently chipping away at her ice berg. Love the unicorn graphic. Me? I’ve always wanted to be a unicorn with a horn. Take care, Jamie.

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  3. Jamie Ray Post author

    There have been some criticisms of the unicorn’s horn being too masculine (A large clitoris coming out of your forehead? No thank you). The unicorn is a riff on the Genderbread Person graphic from itspronouncedmetrosexual.com but there has been criticism from Trans youth of the Genderbread Person because Sam Killermann (the “creator” of it) is accused of plagiarizing it from another source on Tumblr, and he does not identify as Trans. Both versions allow you to label yourself based on where you place the dots, rather than the type of (imaginary) tests where if you score 0-20 you are cis, 20-30 you are genderqueer, and 30-40 you are transsexual.
    Hopefully global warming will do something useful and help you melt the ice berg. Otherwise you might have to identify as a Polar Bear.

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  4. thatlesbianteacher

    I love sharing posts like this with my after school LGBTQ Club “Oz”! We’re done for the year now but I’ll be bookmarking this for a meeting in the Fall. 🙂

    Even though I am cis, I try and educate the world around me as much as I can about gender identity, gender expression, and the differences between sex and gender. Throughout my pregnancy, I have been asked dozens of times if I know “the baby’s gender.” My answer is always the same: “Well, we won’t know the gender for years, perhaps, but the sex is male.” It at least opens up for an educational convo!

    One of our male friends brought a giant bag to our baby shower that read in huge blue letters “It’s a Boy!” He was proud to present the bag to us with his revisions…he had taken a marker and edited it to read , “It has a penis and is being call a Boy!” We loved it! 🙂

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks, feel free to share the post. Your baby shower sounded fabulous, and I hope your kid enjoys playing with and wearing everything of all genders. Personally, I think gender non-conforming cis people are left out of a lot of the discussions around gender – but they have the same issues (bathrooms, finding appropriate clothing that they like, and feeling socially isolated).

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  5. December Bliss

    I really enjoyed reading this post and am now getting stuck into the articles you linked to at the end. As a genderqueer and femme(ish…tomboy femme, I guess?)-presenting person, the difference between gender identity and gender expression is a big thing for me right now, so it’s great to be able to read about other people’s experiences 🙂

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