The Dress Closet: The Difference Between Identity and Expression

April 8, 2017

If I walked down the street, wearing a leather jacket, a miniskirt, and a faded, old t-shirt with some snarky slogan on it, you wouldn’t bat an eye. It’s 2017, after all, we girls aren’t expected to wear corsets and bonnets everywhere we go anymore. But, chances are if you knew I was transgender, you’d insist that, “I’m not really trans,” or something along those lines. The thing is, I’m still a girl, just like any other gal rocking that sweet outfit. Most people don’t call any cisgender girl who doesn’t conform to society’s standards of femininity, “Not really a girl.”  What rule means that I have to be feminine if I’m a girl that doesn’t apply to the rest of them? The answer is that there is none.

Welcome to Gender 102, folks. Class is officially in session.

Just in case you were incredibly confused by these newfangled terms like “transgender,” “cisgender,” and “snarky,” let me break it down for you. In incredibly simple terms, a person is transgender if their gender doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth. That’s oversimplifying it, but that’s the working definition that we’ll use for this article. Cisgender is the inverse, and comprises most of the world’s population: you’re cisgendered when the sex you’re assigned at birth matches your gender. And if you don’t know what “snarky” is, it’s shorthand for wry and sarcastic. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on to the meat of this article.

Gender identity is entangled with another new term, which is the primary concern for this little piece: “gender expression.” It’s exactly what that sounds like: how you express your gender. This is why drag queens and kings are still generally considered cisgendered. Their gender identity matches their birth sex, but their gender expression is different than what is considered the norm for their gender, either significantly more feminine or significantly more masculine. From that information, we can extrapolate that gender identity and gender expression, while vaguely related, are mostly independent. As a girl, do I like to wear dresses? Yes. But that doesn’t mean I can’t also wear jeans and a tee shirt.

Which brings me around to my original point. Normally, if a girl wore traditionally masculine things, nobody would mind. But, as transgender people, many bigots want to erase our existence (just look up “freedom bus” on the news right now to see what I mean). Although we have finally convinced the vast majority of the public that we actually exist, many still want to dismiss us out of hand. So, if we don’t conform to the standards of gender expression for our gender identity, they are quick to cry that we’re “Not really a girl” or “Not really a boy.” This has been at least somewhat aided by what I call the “All-American Transgender Story” that has been presented by most media. They get on the most publicly acceptable transgender woman that they can fine, often one who easily passes as their chosen gender and conforms to the standard gender expression for their identity. She tells her horrible story about her dysphoric childhood, her first experience putting on a dress, and the journey to where she is now, and our hearts go out to her.

But most transgender peoples’ stories are rarely that clean, that clear-cut. What about those of us who are mostly fine with masculine or feminine clothes? Nope, they’re not really transgender. Or those of us who like traditionally masculine or feminine hobbies, like gaming or knitting? Nope, they’re not really transgender. I don’t want to dismiss those brave women (and occasionally men, although that’s a rant for another day). They’ve struggled just as hard as the rest of us, and have experienced gender dysphoria and all of its related problems. But only highlighting the All-American Transgender Story and not showing all the wonderful, vibrant diversity the transgender community has to offer, it spreads a dangerous narrative that seeps into the public unconsciousness that unless we are like that wonderful woman on the television, we aren’t transgender. This makes it all the more difficult for the rest of us to transition, and to get the public to accept us.

I call this the Gender 102 because while the Gender 101 is what us transgender folks have to do educate people about our very existence, the 102 is what comes right after that. The thing is, though, it’s tiring. I am fifteen years old. I should not have to teach this stuff to everybody on top of my regular homework, extracurriculars, and other writing. I wrote this article in order to get the message out to everybody, and for you, dear reader, to also spread the message. To let everybody know that just because that she wears leathers, can punch your lights out, and swears like a sailor doesn’t mean that she’s not a girl, despite whatever is going on in her privates. Please. I should be getting freaking paid for this crap at this point.

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