Freelance writer Wiley Reading (he/him) says he knew as a child that the gender expression expected of him as a “girl” was alien, but he assumed at the time that he just didn’t know how to do it right.
“I didn’t realize until adulthood that I wasn’t just ‘bad’ at ‘being a girl,’ I wasn’t a girl, and dressing/styling myself as a man would make everything make sense,” Reading said. “I still have a lot of the same taste as I did before I realized I was a guy, it’s just now in a masculine context.”
Gender expression—clothing, makeup (or not), jewelry, facial hair, walk, and talk—does not always match internal identity. Sometimes that’s due to societal pressure, but it’s often a personal preference. A dress or nail polish, a beard or none, do not make the woman—or the man, or nonbinary or genderqueer person. The truth is that appearance alone does not define anything, really, about a person. And gender identity—a person’s self-concept as male, female, a blend, or none of the above—does not always match with the external communication of gender, commonly known as gender expression.
“Gendered clothing isn’t objectively a bad thing, just as it isn’t objectively a good thing,” Reading said. “Recognizing the validity of all areas of the spectrum of presentation—butch trans women, femme trans women, masculine trans men, effeminate trans men, feminine cis men, masculine cis women, etc.—and not pressuring anyone to dress more or less gendered than they are comfortable with is the gold standard.”
It’s All a Construct Anyway
“It was messy. It was rainbows, sparkles, all over the place trying different things,” Marsh says of their gender identity and expression evolution. “I think I probably came out as almost everything at one point. Oh, the language for who I am, that’s called ‘very flamboyant gay man…a trans woman,’ this that and the other, and it wasn’t until Tumblr, and people using the word ‘nonbinary,’ and talking about their experience, that things really fell into place for me.”
Marsh, who identifies as queer nonbinary, tends to wear their hair short, with some facial hair, and frequently—though not always—appears in artfully-applied makeup and, occasionally, wigs.
“I also do videos occasionally without makeup, and that to me is a nonbinary expression too,” they said. “Sometimes I do just a hint of makeup. Being nonbinary gives me the freedom to do whatever the heck.”
After a childhood rife with abuse, bullying, and pressure to reject their natural identity and expression, Marsh reached a turning point that led to a spiritual path of self-discovery. In a recent video they describe their father trying to “hit the LGBTQ” out of them.
“I was doing internally what my dad was doing externally,” Marsh says. “I had internalized trying to hate the LGBTQ out of myself. I was in this process of constant judgment and self-hatred, and self-hatred became my hobby, vocation, passion for so many years. It got so bad that I eventually moved to a Buddhist monastery, which seems pretty extreme, but it was also the place that taught me the same kind of play with expression and identity.”
No one in the monastery could wear makeup or distinctive clothing, but Marsh feels this is where they really came to peace with themselves, followed by discovering the term “nonbinary.” Then, Marsh felt the freedom to be themself.
“In regard to expression, I’m all over the place, with lots of different looks and ways of being,” they said. “What having the term of nonbinary gave to me was the permission to not have to land anywhere.”
Blaire Ostler (she/they/he), a queer, intersex person from Utah, and a philosopher specializing in queer and Mormon studies, also had a circuitous path to genuine self-expression.
”When I was younger I was more androgynous and a bit of a tomboy,” they said. “However, as I grew, it was clear that binary gender presentations were preferred, and I slowly conformed to those expectations.”
Ostler made choices—and some concessions—in line with their evolving identity.
“In my youth, I hated bras and refused to trade in my sports bra that functioned as a [breast] binder, for a floral, lacy bra,” they said. “During puberty I also had a fair amount of body hair and was made fun of for having facial hair and a unibrow, so it was clear that had to change too. I was a relatively compliant child, at least from the outside looking in. I never wanted to cause a commotion, even to my own detriment.”
Eventually, the discomfort with holding back their true expression became too much to bear. During a family caroling outing, Ostler refused to wear the women’s costume of a petticoat and bonnet.
“Once my family saw that I was serious about staying home unless I could wear a men’s costume, they conceded,” Ostler said. “My mother said that she would rather have me come be a part of caroling in a men’s costume than to not have me there with them. My mom can be really supportive sometimes, and I’ve always appreciated that about her. I put on the men’s costume, and I don’t want to brag, but I look amazing in a vest and top hat. It’s been over 15 years since that experience, and it is still an unforgettable moment of gender euphoria for me.”
And what if it’s about the feelings, after all?
The judgments and emotional reactions to external appearances aside, the work, and the eventual freedom to be oneself, is an ongoing inside job.
New York City-based writer Issa Mas identifies as a pansexual cis-woman and says the intersection of her identity and expression is much more nuanced these days, and has little do with her outfit.
“There are days when I can be in full makeup, a dress, and heels, but still ‘feel’ very masculine,” Mas says. “It’s a hard thing to pin down, but it’s far more about how I feel than what it ‘looks’ like. And while I don’t like the ways we ascribe certain energies to ‘corresponding’ genders, I guess the closest I can get is that I feel most masculine when I’m feeling aggressive, forthright, and not at all in touch with what others want, while I feel very feminine when I am in a place of softness, compassion, and sensitivity to others.”
Researchers have found that expression does vary and has an impact on mood in some people. Michigan State University assistant professor of psychology and gender researcher Adriene Beltz’s work focuses on the consequences of gender expression—how self-perceptions of masculinity and femininity associate with other aspects of an individual’s psychology, especially their adjustment, such as depression or anxiety symptoms. She studies the same people for many days in a row—usually 75 or 100—and then investigates whether day-to-day changes in gender expression relate to other daily changes, feelings, or experiences.
“We found that the vast majority of people in our cisgender sample felt more feminine or less masculine some days compared to other days,” Belz wrote in an email, noting that a few people reported that their expression was constant. Women in the study also tended to report greater day-to-day fluctuations in gender expression than men.
Belz’s research also showed that daily psychological adjustment—not disorders, but symptoms that people often experience—related to daily fluctuations in gender expression, especially for cisgender men, but not for all men.
“For example, about 44 percent of men reported increased depressive/anxiety symptoms on days they felt less masculine, but another 17 percent of men had fewer symptoms when they felt less masculine,” Belz writes. “Whereas for women, only about 31 percent reported increased depression/anxiety symptoms on days they felt less feminine, and a similar 27 percent reported fewer symptoms on days they felt less feminine. Importantly, about 39 percent of men and 42 percent of women did not show meaningful relations between their daily gender expression and psychological adjustment, suggesting that gender means different things for different people.”
Societal pressure to “fit in” does still press some people to make a choice between public comfort and internal desires. For instance, after a childhood of discomfort with clothing and toys traditionally intended for girls, Reading found freedom in expressing himself in more traditionally male ways. He says that this was also not without its struggles—struggles vary for people depending on personal privilege and identity besides gender.
“It’s all well and good to say, ‘I don’t care about society’s expectations of me, I’m going to wear whatever I want’ but that’s a privilege only the most societally and financially (and racially) privileged people can do,” Reading said. “Most of us make choices based in part on our own personal styles, and in part on what will make us fit in. It is literally exhausting to know that even the best-intentioned cis people are still reading us as trans a.k.a. ‘other,’ ‘different,’ ‘gender-bending,’ or whatever, and that personal parts of our identity are on display for everyone to think about and occasionally harass us about.”
This treatment, frequently poor and unsafe, has an impact on the extent of identity that people feel safe expressing.
“People are punished for transgressing gender norms, and one way we minimize this punishment is by not trying to stand out, gender-presentation-wise,” Reading says. “It’s a complicated dance.”
That said, Reading believes that learning about the history of fashion and trends can be helpful when developing and evolving into one’s personal style.
“Most of the celebrities/personalities who are praised for their ‘gender bending’ fashion choices are knowledgeable about fashion trends and are able to choose pieces/styles based on those traditions,” he adds. “Men especially seem to be tapping into the history of fashion—you see people like Billy Porter drawing from male fashion history to create looks that incorporate things that used to be totally in vogue for men to wear, like capes and skirts. Obviously, everyone should get to wear whatever they want, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say you’re going to get a lot less harassment (and a lot more positive attention) if you’re able to combine your personal preferences with looks that are in now, or ripe for resurgence.”
Ostler has had a similar experience with navigating their personal tolerance for public judgment and tries to strike a balance between full expression and safety.
“Sometimes we glorify being your most authentic queer self and while I like that mentality, there are also some drawbacks,” they said. “For me, I decided not everyone is worthy of my authenticity and I will show my authentic self when and how I choose. My best advice is to believe that your gender is for you and only you and you get to share that however you want and however it best helps you achieve your goals.”
What can give people the ability to move through hatred, bullying, and abuse to a fuller expression of gender varies. Marsh says that accepting public reaction has been a process for them as well.
“I used to hate the fact that people could tell that I’m LGBTQ the instant they saw me,” Marsh said. “I tried to hide it. I tried to blend into the wallpaper to avoid the disdain, disgust, and judgment that come with being ‘OBVIOUS’ in all caps. Now it’s my favorite thing about me. It’s the thing I love the most and it’s the thing that helps me feel fulfilled and happy.”
Marsh cannot specify what has made that perseverance possible for them, but hopes their public presence offers badly needed support to others in the queer community. A recent Trevor Project survey found that 42 percent of LGBTQ youth considered suicide in 2020, with the number for trans youth more than 50 percent.
“I have absolutely no clue [how I made it],” Marsh said. “Just luck. I think because a lot of people like me, to be honest and somewhat grim, don’t make it. I had no idea if I was going to help anybody try to do what I have done and learned to treat yourself well. I would simply say give yourself lots of time and space to build self-kindness. It’s not a quick process.”
Being an Ally
Education, empathy, and a willingness to embrace discomfort with what can be an ongoing learning process are key for people who want to help make gender identity and expression safer and freer for all. Allies can, quite simply, understand and support individual identity and expression, no matter what it is.
“For allies, the best thing you can do is listen without judgment. Then study and learn what countless queer scholars have written about gender and biological sex,” Ostler said. “Then share what you’ve learned with your friends and family. My favorite kind of ally is an educated ally who isn’t afraid to share what they’ve learned, even if that means they’re going to make mistakes.”
Marsh says that parents frequently ask them how to support their children in their gender identities and expressions. The answer is often unexpected, Marsh said, because it focuses on the parent first.
“You have to learn to love yourself,” they said. “You are not going to be able to treat your 10-year-old nephew, your coworker, or anyone else with kindness and respect unless you’re already doing it inside.”
The freedom to live as oneself, whatever it looks like, matters.
“The most helpful thing for me is shifting my mentality from ‘my gender is for others’ to ‘my gender is for me,’ Ostler said. “Once I realized my gender expression and identity were here for my joy and gratification, I was able to use gender expression as tools to help me flourish. If I was to conform to avoid being gawked at, I could. If I wanted to enjoy myself with an androgynous presentation, I could. I stopped privileging what everyone else thought I should look like, and started privileging what I wanted to look like.”
“It’s nebulous, but the best I can describe it is how I ‘feel,’” Mas said. “I feel very much masculine sometimes and I’ve just learned to accept that my feminine cisgendered energy isn’t static. It’s a fluid thing and isn’t even based on anything external. It’s just who I am.”