What Is Gender Expansiveness?

Portrait of a gender-expansive person with colored hair enjoying sunshine and standing against the wall

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What Is Gender Expansiveness?

Gender expansiveness is an umbrella term for any expression of gender that falls outside of society's current gender binary standards.

It can manifest in many forms, and a person can be expansive in their gender at some times but not at others. Gender expansiveness is not a gender identity in and of itself, but rather a term that can be used to describe people and the ways they express themselves. A person who is gender expansive may be of any sexuality and any gender identity.

History of Gender Expression

What is "normal" for gender expression changes with time. For example, when we think of high heels in our current society, we consider them to be women's clothing. It is outside of cisgender male expression to wear high heels. However, high heels were first worn by men who continued to wear them through Victorian times. Similarly, in Elizabethan and Victorian England, wigs were as common for men, if not more so, than they were for women. How we express gender changes over time.

Pre-colonial indigenous cultures have had expansive definitions of gender for millennia. In many of these cultures, gender was less prescriptive than in the Western European cultures on which much of our country's thinking is based.

The term "gender expansive" was coined by the Human Rights Coalition after they conducted a survey in 2012 of more than 100,000 LGBTQIA+ youth. They said that they used the term "to classify youth who did not identify with traditional gender roles but were otherwise not confined to one gender narrative or experience." The term has continued to be used in our culture in relation to both children and adults.

How Gender Expansiveness Can Manifest

Any way that a person expresses themself that doesn't fall in lines with what society sees as the "correct" expression of their gender can be considered gender expansive. These are some of the most common ways that gender expansiveness manifests.

Clothing

When you enter a clothing store, you'll see different sections for men's and women's clothing and separate sections for boys' and girls' clothes. Anyone who wears clothing not aligned with their perceived gender may be considered gender expansive.

One person who has made a name for himself just by wearing clothing meant for the opposite gender is Eli Cohen, an author, speaker, fashion advocate, and "self-expression facilitator." He founded an organization called Spacious Human, with the tagline "Experiencing Expansiveness." Cohen is a cisgender man who began wearing dresses and skirts after the age of 50. He now teaches others how to explore their gender and their expressions of it.

In children, gender expansiveness through clothing might look like a child wanting to wear day-to-day clothes or costumes typically prescribed for a different gender. A boy might insist on being a Disney princess for Halloween, or he might enjoy wearing girl's dresses. As with all forms of expression, this might be the case temporarily or permanently.

Makeup

With the exception of makeup designed to cover facial flaws, makeup is considered an accessory for women in our current society. However, some men like to wear makeup, too. For example, James Charles became famous for his YouTube makeup tutorials. He was one of the first men to wear makeup publicly and taught about it proudly, also showing others how to do his complex designs.

Identity and Fluidity

Gender expansiveness isn't an identity itself, but expansiveness can be an important step for people who are discovering their gender identity. A person might change their pronouns as one part of being gender expansive and exploring their identity. Or they might change their first name to one that is gender neutral or typically ascribed to a different gender.

Gender expansiveness may also be a part of someone's gender becoming more fluid. That could mean that someone is nonbinary or gender-nonconforming, or they could be transgender. However, gender fluidity and expansiveness don't necessarily mean that a person identifies as something other than cisgender; it's just one of many possibilities.

Benefits of Gender Expansiveness

Often, people who feel freer to be themselves feel happier than those who feel like they have to conform to societal standards. Therefore, the biggest benefit of being gender expansive could be feeling free enough to be experimental in one's own expression.

Another benefit of gender expansiveness is the ability to feel like you are able to try new things. Without necessarily having to subscribe to societal definitions of what is "right" for your gender. You are free to be fluid in how you express yourself, no matter what people might think.

Challenges of Gender Expansiveness

Unfortunately, many people are highly judgmental about what others do with their bodies. Being gender expansive can lead to judgment from others, which could involve harassment or bullying. For example, people who dress outside gender norms often get called terrible names by others for not conforming well enough to society's standards.

It can be challenging to put yourself out there in a way that makes you appear different than others, and you're opening yourself to judgment just by looking different or noticeable. However, some people feel that it's more important that society sees more than one version of humanity and expression, so they take on that potential judgment.

How to Support Gender-Expansive People

The best thing you can do to support someone who is gender expansive is not to make assumptions about them. A man in a skirt does not necessarily identify as a woman, and a little girl in a Superman costume isn't necessarily identified as a boy. Don't presume people's gender or pronouns before they tell you about them.

Additionally, it's important to ask appropriate questions to others. You wouldn't want a stranger to ask you invasive, personal questions and the same applies to them. For friends and acquaintances, you likely wouldn't want to have to explain concepts that are easy to Google.

Consider doing your research before asking anyone in your life about their gender expression. This saves others from having to perform emotional labor for you. It is considered polite to not ask people questions you could easily find the answers to yourself.

A Word From Verywell

If you have considered becoming more expansive in your gender expression, you are far from alone! It may be the start of a gender-related journey for you, or you may enjoy some expressive forms that don't align with what society presently says are "right" for your gender.

Know that your choices are valid, and you can express yourself in any manner that makes you feel the most "you." It doesn't have to mean anything, and it's okay if it does, too.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Human Rights Campaign. Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ Identities: Today and Centuries Ago.

  2. Human Rights Campaign. Resources on gender-expansive children & youth.

By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.