Gender expression is the communication of gender to other people in the social realm. It is made up of things like clothing, hair styles, cosmetics, jewelry, gait, voice and more.
Gender attribution is the process of assigning (i.e. attributing) a gender to another person. Generally, in our society, this is done by visual appraisal of a person’s outward gender expression or the tone of their voice. Gender attribution was coined by sociologists and it is not often discussed but it is a vitally important concept.
Attributing a gender to someone is not a taken-for-granted process. Because of the strength of the binary gender system, I think far too many think of knowing a person’s gender as a cut and dried thing. It is not. Gender identity, gender expression and gender attribution are all related but ultimately different things. Gender identity is a person’s core internal sense of themselves as a man, a woman or something else entirely. Gender expression is the way someone is expressing gender. Usually someone’s gender identity and gender expression match, but not always! For instance, someone could inwardly identify as female but have a “masculine” gender expression. This could be because they haven’t started the process of social and physical transition yet or it could be that they are never going to transition and are opting to inhabit a body where gender identity and gender expression are in permanent incongruence. Then when we add in gender attribution to the mix it gets even more complex. People have genders attributed to them all the time that they do not identify with. This is called mis-gendering. It could be accidental or intentional but the effects are the same: hurtful and invalidating to the person whose gender is not being seen correctly.
We look at someone and make snap judgments and determinations about their gender. We are taught through socialization what a boy/man looks like and what a girl/woman looks like. We are not taught how to deal with people who look like both or neither. Thus we either try to re-stuff them into one of the two existing boxes or discount their existence altogether. I have felt this keenly many times. Because I fail to evince adequate masculinity or femininity, I cease to be an actual human being.
For me, I do not wish to present a coherent or stable gender expression. Since I am non-binary, my very goal is to confuse and confound people. I do not do this out of a sense of malice, but out of a sense of rebellion against hegemonic gender norms. Clothing is a double-edged sword. It can be incredibly oppressive but it can also be incredibly liberating as well. Sometimes it is hard for me to see the liberatory potentiality because I get so stuck in the rigidity of the gender system and how hard it is to wiggle out of these cultural requirements of gender. Genderqueer, gender-fluid, non-binary and gender nonconforming people can seize upon clothing, hair styles, jewelry, cosmetics, shaving/not shaving, etc. as tools to confuser and confound people. The goal is for this to happen enough so that people realize the whole project of gender is illegitimate. The more the category itself is assaulted through strategic subversion, the more it will cease to be a meaningful cultural entity.
For some people, including some trans people, their gender expression is very important to them, and they are dedicated to a masculine/butch or feminine/fem(me) appearance. I do not mean to imply that those of us who are genderqueer in our gender expression are politically more progressive or subversive. However, people with masculine or feminine gender expressions do not need anyone advocating for them. This is the dominant cultural norms. Those of us who have betwixt-and-between identities or expressions that are outside of binary gender altogether deserve special support and attention. We often lead challenging lives as we walk through the world with gender expressions that are not culturally legible or intelligible.
Finally, as with gender identity, do we have to “have” a gender expression? What if people just do their thing and it is what it is? While the concepts of gender identity and gender expression may be useful pedagogically or sociologically, from the standpoint of human diversity or radical political ideology they can seem like a real drag, pun intended. What does it mean to just BE, without the need for elaborations of one’s identity or expression thereof? My gender identity is nothing, It is unknown, It is X. My gender expression is nothing. It is unknown. It is X. If concepts like gender identity and gender expression are useful to some people to illuminate their personhood then I have no problems with that. But they should not be compulsory. There is the option to opt out. And I am taking that option.