Exploring Gender Identity
Content Warning: If you're an LGBTQ+ youth or young adult in crisis, contact The Trevor Project hotline by calling 1-866-488-7386 or texting "START" to 678-678. You can also use their online chat.
Deciding to explore your gender identity can be a personal process that may prompt several questions. While it may not be a simple, straightforward path, encourage yourself to discover who you are. You're not alone, and there are many ways to identify with gender.
What is gender identity?
Gender identity refers to a person's internal sense of self related to gender. People might identify in hundreds of ways. However, some common gender identities include man, woman, or non-binary. Unlike gender expression, gender identity is not outwardly visible. There are numerous gender identities, and all are valid. Some people's gender expressions might match their gender identity, while others may not.
Your assigned sex at birth may be based on factors like reproductive organs, genes, and hormones. Gender, however, is a social construct that can vary across cultures. When someone's assigned sex and gender identity don't align, they might identify as transgender—one of the many identities a person can have.
What gender identities are there?
Examples of gender identities people might identify as include but are not limited to the following:
- Two-spirit (an Indigenous gender identity)
- Third gender
Some identities are umbrella terms. A transgender person might identify as a man or a woman and consider themselves non-binary or genderfluid. In addition, some people might not identify with any gender label.
Gender identity vs. gender expression
Gender identity and expression are related terms that have different meanings. Gender expression (or identity expression) is how a person outwardly displays gender. Gender identity, on the other hand, is internal. A few examples of gender expression might be someone's clothing, hairstyle, and makeup. More outward signifiers can include chosen names, speech, mannerisms, and body features.
Someone's gender identity may not match their assigned sex at birth. However, just because someone identifies as a particular gender doesn't mean they may express it to the world or present themselves that way. For some, it can take time for gender expression to align with their gender identity. Others might be content identifying as but not externally expressing their gender. Some may not have the resources, safety, or support to express their gender but may still identify a certain way.
Helping someone explore their gender identity
If you'd like to help someone explore their gender identity or you're interested in doing so for yourself, consider the following tips.
Consider learning about gender and identity. You can educate yourself and research any questions before asking someone else who may not have consented to giving advice.
You may not fully understand what someone is experiencing. However, try to actively listen to their experiences regardless. Being non-judgmental and open-minded can help you accept yourself and the people you interact with. If you're not exploring your gender identity but know someone who is, let them know you're there for them to talk to if they need to vent to someone.
If you or someone you know is gender-questioning or experiencing gender dysphoria, seeking support from a mental health professional can be beneficial. A licensed therapist can be better equipped to help individuals learn more about gender and mental health.
Be an advocate
Becoming an ally to the LGBTQ+ community can be one way to create positive change. Even if you don't understand your own gender identity, it can be beneficial to have a safe space to explore. If you are part of the LGB+ community but don't identify as trans, find ways to ally with the trans community within your LGB+ spaces. For example, don't exclude transgender individuals from events, and advocate for trans people at LGBTQ+ events.
Factors affecting gender identity
Many factors can affect a person's gender identity. These could include life experiences, assigned sex at birth, societal expectations, personality traits, stereotypes, and peer interactions. It could also include biological factors like hormones and temperament and environmental factors like language and social reinforcement.
In some cases, multiple factors can come into play. Conversely, some may believe that one prominent factor has the most influence. Focusing on why someone identifies a certain way may be less critical than accepting that they are who they are. Identity is unique to each person, and being trans is as natural and normal as being cisgender (identifying with your assigned sex at birth).
Finding mental health support
When someone's gender identity doesn't match their assigned sex, they may experience mental health conditions as a result. A mental health condition may be related to an inner struggle but can also be affected by discrimination. People in the LGBTQ+ community experience an increased risk of mental health disparities as well as disparities in the availability of healthcare, especially for those in rural areas.
Despite these disparities, recent advances in mental healthcare have opened new avenues to allow individuals to receive mental health support more safely. Research has proven that telehealth options are as effective as in-person treatment and could be a more flexible way for gender-questioning people to explore their identity.
Platforms like BetterHelp allow clients to connect with a therapist from home. When you sign up, you can indicate whether you'd like to work with an LGBTQ+ therapist or affirming provider. In addition, you can set your goals before your session and choose an appointment time that works for you. Being able to attend therapy from home or a space with an internet connection may be more convenient for some people questioning their gender identity.
How can you help someone explore their gender identity?
First and foremost, educate yourself on gender. Many people don’t understand much about gender identity, the difference between sex and gender, and how gender roles have shaped societal behavior over the years.
Next, listen to people’s experiences. It doesn’t matter whether you completely understand or relate to their journey, simply hear what they have to say with an open mind and heart.
Finally, be an advocate. Support trans people and lobby for safe spaces in your community. Be a safe person yourself.
What is gender exploration?
Gender exploration is a personal journey that some individuals undertake to learn how they identify (or whether they do at all) with a gender.
What is the process of gender identity?
Gender identity is how an individual internalizes and understands their own sense of gender. Gender identity is not always related to a person’s sex, which consists of reproductive organs, genitalia, and other biological factors.
For many years in the United States and other western cultures, society’s expectations were that individuals fit into a gender binary—which means that they recognize only two genders, and that these genders were to match physical appearance.
However, the young people of today are less attached to the idea that they need to identify with a specific gender label, or to identify with the gender assigned at birth. There are any number of gender identifiers, and some may choose not to identify with a specific gender at all.
How do you talk to students about gender identity?
If you work with kids or young adults, it can be incredibly helpful to study gender and identity. Many students will not have support at home for a number of reasons, and may come to you for help or a listening ear. Understanding the building blocks of gender identity and gender roles can give you a strong jumping off point for having a conversation with someone who may need you.
Why is it important to respect all genders?
Simply because it is important to respect a person for who they are, not who you believe they should be.
How is a person's gender identity related to their gender role?
Gender identity is how one understands and experiences their gender, while gender expression or gender role is how one lives their identity in day to day life (such as verbal and nonverbal expression, how they dress, and behavior). Sometimes gender identity and gender roles match up in a traditional way, and other times the lines may be blurred.
What to select for gender identity?
There are many options, and gender identity is solely the choice of the individual. Some identities include:
- Two-spirit (for Indigenous people)
- Third gender
A person may identify as a female, but also as genderfluid. Others may not identify with a particular gender at all. In some schools or workplaces, nametags or email signatures give a person’s preferred pronouns, to avoid confusion.
In the end, these are just words. What a person chooses as far as how they identify is a personal choice and depends on who they feel they are at their core.
What is an example of gender exploration?
Let’s say a person is assigned gender at birth is female. At an early age they feel comfortable in traditional “boys clothes” and prefer the company of boys. As they grow, they begin taking hormones because they aren’t yet sure that being female is the right path for them. They may try growing facial hair and wearing sparkly skirts, and not conform to any one identity. Feelings and thoughts can change regarding identity, and that can be completely normal. A person may change their mind once, twice, or explore the question their entire lives.
Why is it important to study gender and society?
To safeguard, respect, and help other people. There are so many genders that have not been traditionally recognized and/or accepted, and this has put many people at risk for misunderstanding, bullying, and violence. The more people learn and understand about the different ways that gender can present, the safer the world can become for men and women and others beyond the binary who don’t fit into the traditional roles.
For anyone who wants to learn more or requires immediate help the Trevor project is a nonprofit organization that offers resources and 24-7 assistance for LGBTQIA+ people in crisis.
- Previous Article
- Next Article