Gender Identity vs. Gender Expression: What’s the Difference?

Published on: 25 Oct 2021
Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
Man standing in front of rainbow

The difference between gender identity and gender expression can be confusing for some. Many people just lump the idea of gender into one, overarching concept. When in reality, we must be thinking of gender as something that’s three separate subjects — gender identity and expression and physical sex. 

There is a difference in gender identity vs gender expression, and it’s important for us to explore this concept. At the highest level, the differences between gender identity and gender expression have to do with how someone sees themselves vs. how they communicate their gender to the outside world. If you’re struggling with this, you can visit an LGBT therapist to learn more about the multiple gender identities and expressions.

Read on to learn more about gender identity and expression. 

What is Gender Identity?

Gender identity is best understood by thinking about how somebody sees themself. It’s a very personal experience and relies on someone’s internal sense of who they are in terms of their gender. Though people sometimes confuse the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity, in truth they’re two totally separate concepts.

While gender identity is how you see yourself, sexual orientation can define who you are attracted to in terms of gender. 

“Gender Identity defines who we are and how we want the world to perceive us. When there is a difference between the gender assigned to a person at birth and how they identify themselves, it can cause a lot of distress.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

What are some examples of gender identity?

So, when thinking about gender identity, we can keep in mind a few important things. First, there’s the idea that someone who’s born with female sex parts doesn’t necessarily identify with the gender commonly known as female. Likewise, for somebody who’s born with male sex parts — this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll always (or ever) identify as male in the future. There’s a gender identity term for how each individual chooses to identify themselves. Some examples of different gender identities include the following:

  • Transgender/non-binary/both: People who are born with different genitalia than what they identify with can be either transgender, non-binary, or both. Anybody can be transgender. They don’t need to use transitionary care to do so, although many do choose to use medical procedures. Some gender transition procedures can include gender affirming surgery and/or hormone replacement therapy, both of which are done in an attempt to better align with the person’s gender identity.
  • Non-binary spectrum: Someone who identifies with a gender outside of woman or man can identify under the non-binary spectrum as well. Note that people who identify as non-binary may also identify as transgender, but this is not always the case and really just depends on the individual.
  • Agender: Agender is another term for somebody who doesn’t identify with male or female. In fact, they may not identify with any gender at all. Other common names for agender include null-gender, neutral gender, genderless, or neutrois.
  • Butch: Women who are lesbians might use the term Butch as a way of expressing their masculinity, or, more to the point, the way that our society sees and defines masculinity. Though once just a label, the LGBTQIA+ Resource Center now notes that the term “Butch” can be a gender identity itself. 
  • Androgyne: Somebody who identifies as both or between male and female-identifying is known as androgyne.
  • Gender expansive: Gender expansive is a larger term that’s used for those who expand their culture’s standard acceptance of the definition of gender. This can include the cultural expectations for how one identifies, expresses, or expresses any perceived gender roles.
  • Bigender: Bigender is when somebody identifies with two genders.  
  • Gender fluid: Gender fluid describes someone who has a gender identity that shifts between or outside of their society’s gender norms or expectations.
  • Genderqueer: Genderqueer typically means somebody’s gender identity is not aligned with their society’s expectations for their assigned sex. It also can be somebody who identifies with multiple gender identities or identifies with a combination of genders.
  • Cisgender: Those who identify with the sex they were born with are what’s known as cisgender. An example of cisgender is when a woman is born with female sex parts and identifies as female.
  • Gender outlaw: Those who refuse to be defined by society’s accepted definition of female or male might identify as gender outlaws.
  • Polygender/pangender: When someone identifies as polygender or pangender, they display parts of and/or experience multiple genders.
  • Omnigender: Those who identify as omnigender experience and have all genders.
  • Two spirit: Two spirit is an umbrella term that explains different sexualities or genders in some Indigenous Native American communities. Indigenous Native Americans may or may not use this term, but it’s important to know that the cultural term is specifically intended only for those Indigenous Native Americans who identify as such.

What is Gender Expression? 

The official gender expression definition is: gender expression is how someone outwardly presents their gender to the external world. It’s an important concept when it comes to self-identity. Feeling confident and comfortable with how one expresses their gender is closely related to mental health and well-being.

While some people express their gender in the same manner every day, others might change how they express themselves over time. Often the change can be based on different circumstances.

“Gender expression allows an individual to embrace their authentic self and share it with the world. When an individual does not feel comfortable expressing their gender, that can often lead to a negative impact on their mental health.” 

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

It’s very important to point out that how somebody presents their gender does not dictate what gender they identify with. Equally notable is the fact that many people try to hide their gender expression out of fear of negative responses or discrimination, both of which can have a major detrimental impact on mental health. In fact, many transgender mental health issues stem from the worry or backlash of gender expression. 

It’s important to note that embracing who you are should never be a problem and you shouldn’t be embarrassed or scared. If you’re thinking about how to come out as trans, gay, non-binary, or whatever it may be, you can also seek help and support from a local community or even an LGBT therapist.

What are some examples of gender expression?

There are many ways someone can express their gender. It can be physically expressed through hair, clothing, makeup, interests, hobbies, and other ways that they choose to express themselves.

How Does Physical Sex Fit In?

Physical sex typically is referred to with terms like female, male, or intersex. It’s best defined as the way our bodies change and develop over time. 

Sex and gender are not the same things. Physical sex is the physical characters someone has at birth, whereas gender is someone’s expressions and identities as well as societal rules that are placed on them. The most important thing to know about physical sex is that gender can differ from sex. Remember, there’s also non-binary, which is where someone doesn’t identify with any specific gender at all.

Physical sex is based on biological factors: hormones, reproductive organs, and genes all come into play. So, for example, someone might have genes associated with either female or male, but their genitals or reproductive organs (or both) can be different — this is known as intersex. 

Understanding Gender Diversity

It’s important to note that gender identity and expression aren’t limited to being a man or being a woman. Equally important — so important, in fact, it’s worth mentioning again — is keeping in mind that some people don’t identify with either gender. Still, others may identify with more than one gender. 

Identity does not equal expression, which does not equal gender or sexual orientation. Gender can change over time, and it’s not always the same as biological sex. Gender is extremely personal and ultimately just depends on how someone identifies as a person — which can change throughout their lives. Some people identify as more feminine or more masculine, or they may identify as neither, or as a combination of both.

Understanding gender identity vs gender expression and overall gender diversity is important to ensure equitable and fair representation of all genders. Efforts towards gender diversity awareness have many benefits, both in the workplace and in basic, mainstream social settings. Knowledge breeds acceptance. 

If you or someone you know is looking for support as you navigate your gender identity and mental health, reach out to a licensed online therapist from Talkspace. You can find an LGBTQIA+ friendly therapist for the right care.


1. LGBTQIA Resource Center Glossary. LGBTQIA Resource Center. 2020. Accessed October 6, 2021.2. Understanding gender – GSDRC. GSDRC. 2015. Accessed October 6, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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