What is Gender Identity?

What is Gender Identity?

What is Gender?

Written by Jen Bell

  |  Reviewed by Mason Dunn

Gender is an idea created by people, culture, and society to help categorize and explain the world around us. The two genders that most people know are boy and girl (or man and woman), At birth, most of us are assigned a sex based on how our bodies look, and that sex corresponds with a gender that society assumes for us. However, this assumption doesn’t always match how we feel inside.

Often people think there are only 2 genders, but in fact, there are many more! Throughout human history we know that many societies did — and still do — understand gender as a universe, something not limited to only two possibilities.

There have always been more than two genders

Since ancient times, there is evidence from around the world of many more genders than “man” and “woman.” The Pueblo of Zuni have lived in the area of New Mexico for the last 3000-4000 years.

In Zuni culture there are women, men, and a third gender called lhamana. Lhamana wear masculine and feminine clothing, and move between the rights and responsibilities of males and females. They act as an important bridge and balance in Zuni society. Some lhamana take part in the North American two-spirit community. Some other gender expansive identities include the burrnesha, hijra, waria, and more.

We’wha, a Zuni Native American from New Mexico (pictured above), was a famous lhamana weaver, potter, hunter, and spiritual leader.

Gender Identity & Gender Expression

Our gender identity is our internal sense of who we are and which gender we identify with. This could be girl, boy, or any other gender. Our gender expression is how we present our gender to the world, including things like clothes, hairstyle, name, and pronouns.

Gender expression is independent from a person’s gender identity. Just as cisgender girls can wear pants, transgender boys can wear dresses. While being nonbinary does not mean someone has to dress in a gender-neutral style.

Both our gender identity and the way we express it can shift over the course of our lives, or even moment to moment.

Cisgender & Transgender

At birth, most of us are assigned a sex based on how our bodies look, and that sex corresponds with a gender that society assumes for us. However, this assumption doesn’t always match how we feel inside.

Cisgender people feel comfortable with the gender corresponding with their sex assigned at birth. Transgender people may be assigned a gender that does not match who they are. GLAAD estimates that 3% of the U.S. population identify as transgender, that’s almost 10 million people!

Do people choose to be trans?

No, our gender identity is part of who we are, just like our eye color and height. People cannot choose to be transgender, just like we can’t choose what eye color we’re born with. Think of the people you know whose internal sense of gender matches their body. Did they “choose” to be that way?

Here are just a few of the trans and nonbinary celebrities you might know: Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, Jonathan Van Ness, Laverne Cox, Indya Moore, Carmen Carerra, Jazz Jennings, Sam Smith, Caitlyn Jenner, Kim Petras, Juliana Huxtable, Chaz Bono, Janet Mock, Cara Delevingne, Angel Haze, Amandla Stenberg, and Alok Vaid-Menon.

Gender Roles & Stereotypes

Do you believe that some activities are “only for girls,” and some “only for boys?” Where do you think these ideas come from?

Each culture has its own gender expectations. These include how to act, talk, dress, feel emotion, and interact with other people. In the U.S.A. there are traditionally very defined gender roles that describe what it means to be a boy or a girl, masculine or feminine. We learn what’s expected of us at a very early age from our caregivers, family, friends, culture, religion, television, and movies.

Masculinity and femininity are equated with certain physical attributes, labeling us as more or less of a “real” man or woman based on how our bodies look. This gendering of our bodies affects how we feel about ourselves, and how others perceive and interact with us.

Understandings of Gender are Always Changing

Norms relating to gender change across societies and over time. Did you know that before the 1950s, pink was thought of as a color for boys, and blue was for girls? A 2017 GLAAD Harris poll found that 12% of U.S. millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. That’s 1 out of 8 people! According to research by Wunderman Thompson, 56% of U.S. youth, aged 13-20, know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns (such as they/them).

Imagine how much our understanding of gender might change over your lifetime!

Explore More in Gender Identity & Sexual Orientation!


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