Gender Identity and Expression: Affirming and Expressing Your True Colors
Originally Published: March 4, 2020
Revised: May 21, 2021
Scrolling through social media, I often see people who identify along many parts of the gender spectrum. It makes me so happy to see teens showing the truest version of themselves. Teens often have a strong sense of their gender identity, but the messages we get about gender from family, friends, strangers and even social media can make things feel more complicated. I wanted to speak to young people who identify along the gender spectrum and hear what their journey has been like and how they are able to express themselves.
Gabe, Cas and Joél are three teens who are challenging gender norms, expanding what gender means to them and showing their true colors. Read on to hear about their experiences.
There are typically expectations put on people about how they should express themselves based on their sex assigned at birth. But many teens aren’t so rigid in how they feel or how they want to express their gender. Gabe, 18, of Lawrenceville, NJ, was assigned male at birth and identifies as cisgender. However, identifying as the sex he was assigned at birth doesn’t stop him from exploring gender and pushing back on norms, like the idea of a gender binary that says people are strictly masculine or feminine.
Gabe often incorporates “feminine” clothes into his look and occasionally wears makeup. Gabe says that sometimes, people in his life question his gender expression. “Family and friends commonly ask if I’m trying to ‘be a girl’ or ‘trying to transition’ when that is not the case at all.” In many cases, not conforming to gender roles or stereotypes can make others jump to conclusions about how a person may identify. It’s easy for someone looking from the outside to make assumptions about gender based on looks alone, when in reality gender identity is deeper than that.
Gabe says he tries not to label things as “masculine” or “feminine” because “when you do, you leave out all sorts of people.” For example, as a guy, he actually finds some feminine clothing and certain products appealing for himself. This does not make him any less of a guy or change his gender identity as a cis-male. People identify on different points of the gender spectrum and Gabe believes their experience “should be valued just as much as anyone else’s.”
Gender isn’t a binary, meaning two separate boxes for male and female. It’s a spectrum, along which people identify. Some people identify as male and some as female. But others, like Cas, 16, of Parkland, FL, who was assigned female at birth, fall somewhere in between. Cas identifies as genderfluid. They identify not in an either-or binary of male or female, but instead at places along the spectrum.
On Twitter and elsewhere online, Cas deals with being the target of hate from people they don’t even know. “I still have screenshots from someone DM’ing me about my genitals,” they say. “To be quite frank, I don’t know why transphobes are so obsessed with my genitalia. People like to stare at my chest a lot too if they’re unsure about what gender I am. I want to yell at them that I can be a boy! I can be a girl! I can be a person!” People can feel uncomfortable if they can’t clearly put someone into a box. That’s why education, awareness and visibility are all important.
Facing pressure from anonymous people online to conform to gender norms is something Cas has unfortunately gotten used to. On the other hand, it’s great that Cas receives a lot of loving and supportive comments from their family and friends.
At school, Cas describes being misgendered often. Even in their progressive town, Cas has to work hard to make sure their pronouns and affirmed name are used. “Before the school year starts, I email my teachers and let them know that I use ‘they/them’ pronouns.” Cas also uses an affirmed name, Caspen. An affirmed name is a chosen name, which can be a way for a person to assert their gender identity and express a truer sense of self. While it can be challenging to advocate for yourself in an environment where you’re pressured to conform, being honest with teachers and counselors, if it’s safe to do so, can make it easier to focus and feel more comfortable in school.
“My affirmed name is in the school system and shows up in attendance and gradebooks,” says Cas. “It’s supposed to show up consistently, but sometimes there are errors made.”
Despite curve balls that may come their way, Cas continues speaking out to live as the truest version of themselves.
Some people feel clearly that their sex assigned at birth does not describe the way they feel internally. Joél, 20, of Swarthmore, PA, was assigned female at birth but identifies as a transgender guy.
Joél came out as a senior in high school. While most cisgender teens don’t have to think twice before heading into their assigned bathroom or locker room, Joél remembers entering the men’s bathroom with a couple of his peers who waited for him to leave before they would use the bathroom. Even in New Jersey, a state that protects transgender students’ rights to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, teens may struggle to be accepted.
Despite the day-to-day challenges of transitioning, Joél says his “few close friends were supportive.” When Joél entered college in a fairly progressive area, he began to physically transition. Under the supervision of a doctor, he started taking hormones and had gender affirmation surgery to remove breast tissue. “Now that I have been on hormones for a year and a half and have a full beard and deeper voice, I’m never mis-gendered,” says Joél. “Strangers don’t even know that I’m trans unless I take my shirt off and they see my surgery scars or I tell them that I am.”
Joél tries to help his peers and family who are genuinely interested in learning about the trans community by being open and honest and educating them when he can. Joél recalls, “I even made a PowerPoint for my close friends and family about all the terms that relate to the transgender community so they can refer to it whenever they have basic questions.”
Despite facing pressure to conform, these young people—a cis guy, a genderfluid person and a trans man—are all being true to themselves. Gender isn’t always black and white. As tough as it might be to step out of the guy or girl box, it’s OK to go against the grain to find what feels right and authentic, if it feels safe to do so. When considering gender identity and gender expression, I hope we can create a world where more people are safe and free to be themselves.
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