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Gender identity & expression

Gender is a concept that can be broken down into three categories: gender identity, gender expression, and physical sex. Gender is not fixed and can change over time.
  • Gender identity is how a person sees themselves. It is their own internal sense and personal experience of gender. 
  • Gender expression includes all the ways a person communicates their gender based on societal factors such as gender norms and perceptions. 
  • Physical sex is the development and changes of a person’s body over their lifespan. 

Gender identity

Gender identity is how a person sees themselves – their own internal sense and personal experience of gender. Only the individual can determine their own gender identity. Gender identity is different from sexual orientation.  Sexual orientation is who a person is attracted to on the basis of gender. Some of the words used to describe sexual orientation include gay, bisexual, lesbian, heterosexual or straight.

Gender binary is the problematic assumption that there are only two genders (man/male, woman/female), and that they are distinct and unchanging.  There is now more awareness of, and support for, the different ways that people identify outside of the gender binary (ie. Genderqueer / gender non-conforming / gender non-binary). People who do not identify as a man or a woman may identify as both genders, neither gender, between genders, or not gendered at all. Gender does not always match a person’s assigned sex at birth, and gender can change over time.

Some people whose biological sex does not match their gender identity may make physical and social changes to express their identified gender. This may involve using a different name, pronouns, clothing, hair or makeup style. It may also involve medical changes, such as taking hormones or getting gender-affirming surgery. This process is called transition.

Gender expression

Gender expression is how a person outwardly shows their gender identity. It includes physical expressions such as person’s clothing, hairstyle, makeup, and social expressions such as name and pronoun choice.  Some examples of gender expression are masculine, feminine, and androgynous.

Some people have the same gender expression all the time, while others may change their expression over time or based on circumstances. Some play with gender expression for theatrical purposes, or ‘drag’, and people can choose to express their gender identity in different ways at different times.  It can be psychological distressing for some people who do not feel safe or comfortable expressing their gender identity.

Physical Sex

Physical sex is how a person’s body develops and changes over their lifespan. It can be affected by sex chromosones, hormones, reproductive organs, secondary sex characteristics, and related medical care.

Exploring Gender Diversity

It can sometimes be hard to understand all the differences between gender identity, gender expression, and physical sex. This online resource offers visual guide. You can also use our gender glossary for definitions of different terms related to gender identity and expression.


Trans Care BC – Key information and definitions related to gender 
USC Rossier – A toolkit for schools that includes resources to support conversations on gender identity in the classroom 
Gender Spectrum – American website exploring issues related to gender for children and teens

Search related content:
gender, identity, expression, sexuality, transgender
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