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Gender variance, or gender nonconformity, is behaviour or gender expression that does not conform to dominant gender norms of male and female. People who exhibit gender variance may be called gender variant, gender non-conforming, or gender atypical.[1]


The terms gender variance and gender variant are used by scholars of psychology[2][3] and psychiatry,[4] anthropology,[5] and gender studies, as well as advocacy groups of gender variant people themselves.[6] The term gender-variant is deliberately broad, encompassing such specific terms as transsexual, butch, femme, queen, sissy, travesti, hijra, or tomboy.

The word transgender is sometimes used interchangeably with gender-variant,[7] but usually has a narrower meaning and somewhat different connotations, including a non-identification with the gender assigned at birth. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Reference Guide defines transgender as an "umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth."[8] Not all gender variant people identify as transgender, and not all transgender people identify as gender variant—many identify simply as men or women.

Gender identity refers to one's internal sense of being male, female, both, or neither. Gender expression is the external manifestation of one's gender identity, usually through "masculine," "feminine," or gender variant presentation and/or behavior.[8]

Childhood gender varianceEdit

Main article: Childhood gender nonconformity

Multiple studies have suggested a correlation between children who express gender non-conformity and their eventually coming out as gay, bisexual, or transgender.[9][10] In some studies, a majority of those who identify as gay or lesbian self-report gender non-conformity as children. However, the accuracy of these studies have been questioned, especially within the academic community.[11] The therapeutic community is currently divided on the proper response to childhood gender non-conformity. One study suggested that childhood gender non-conformity is heritable.[9] Although it is heavily associated with homosexuality, gender nonconformity is more likely to predict childhood abuse. A recent study illustrated that heterosexuals and homosexuals alike who do not express their gender roles according to society are more likely to experience abuse physically, sexually, and psychologically.[12]

Social status for men vs. womenEdit

Gender nonconformity among males is usually more sensitively and violently policed than is nonconformity in females. Many theorists believe this is because femaleness is inherently devalued in a patriarchal society, therefore a male seeking to be more feminine is actively reducing his social status, yet a woman acting in a masculine way is tolerated and encouraged because her social status will be enhanced by the addition of the valuable attributes of maleness (e.g. physical power, assertiveness, ambition). The deep social pressure for those traditionally viewed as "male" to be masculine can be seen in the especially high levels of violence against transgender women.[13]

A fear of being labeled gay or feminine causes many men to overtly reject and devalue such gender non-conforming behaviours, even prosocial ones such as caring for another individual and emotional communication. Some researchers have suggested this self-suppression has a negative impact on men's mental health. As with female gender nonconformity, gay men may find it easier to reject traditional masculinity because the price for doing so has already been paid by being gay.

Association with sexual orientationEdit

Behavior such as expression of emotion, an inclination toward caring for and nurturing others, an interest in cooking or other domestic chores, self-grooming, and a desire to care for children are all aspects of male gender non-conformity. Men who exhibit such tendencies are often stereotyped as gay. One study did find a high incidence of gay males self-reporting gender-atypical behaviors in childhood, such as having little interest in athletics and rather playing with dolls.[14] The same study found that mothers of gay males recalled such atypical behavior in their sons with greater frequency than mothers of heterosexual males.[14] But while many gay and/or bisexual men exhibit traditionally feminine characteristics, many of them do not, and not all feminine men are necessarily gay or bisexual.

For women, adult gender non-conformity is often associated with lesbianism due to the limited identities women are faced with at adulthood. Notions of heterosexual womanhood often require a rejection of physically demanding activities, social submission to a male figure (husband or boyfriend), an interest in reproduction and homemaking, and an interest in making oneself look more attractive with appropriate clothing, make-up, hair styles and body shape. A rejection of any of these factors may lead to a woman being called a lesbian regardless of her actual sexual orientation. Therefore, attracting a male romantic or sexual partner can be a strong factor for an adult woman to suppress or reject her own desire to be gender variant. Lesbian and bisexual women, being less concerned with attracting men, may find it easier to reject traditional ideals of womanhood because social punishment for such transgression is not effective, or at least no more effective than the consequences of being openly gay or bisexual in a heteronormative society (which they already experience). This may help account for high levels of gender nonconformity self-reported by lesbians.


Among adults, the wearing of women's clothing by men is often socially stigmatized and fetishised, or viewed as sexually abnormal. Yet, cross dressing may simply be a form of gender expression and is not necessarily related to erotic activity. It is also not indicative of sexual orientation.[15] Other gender nonconforming males prefer to simply modify and stylise men's clothing as an expression of their interest in appearance and fashion.

See alsoEdit


  1. Douglas C. Halderman (2000), Gender Atypical Youth: Clinical and Social Issues. School Psychology Review, v29 n2 p192-200 2000
  2. Lynne Carroll, Paula J. Gilroy, Jo Ryan (2002), Counseling Transgendered, Transsexual, and Gender-Variant Clients, Journal of Counseling & Development, Volume 80, Number 2, Spring 2002, pp. 131 - 139
  3. Arlene Istar Lev, (2004) Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working With Gender-Variant People and Their Families. Haworth Press, ISBN 978-0-7890-0708-7
  4. Walter O. Bockting, Randall D. Ehrbar (2006), "Commentary: Gender Variance, Dissonance, or Identity Disorder? pp. 125 - 134 in "Sexual and Gender Diagnoses of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM): A reevaluation edited by Dan Karasic and Jack Drescher, 2006, Haworth Press, ISBN 0-7890-3214-7 NB: Several articles in this book use the term "gender variance".
  5. Serena Nanda (2000) Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2000 ISBN 1-57766-074-9 NB: Nanda uses the term "gender variance" to encompass gender phenomena in different cultures.
  6. "Gender Education and Advocacy (GEA) is a national [US] organization focused on the needs, issues and concerns of gender variant people in human society." Mission statement, available on the front page of the group's website:
  7. After defining transgender as primarily "an umbrella term to describe those who defy societal expectations and assumptions regarding femaleness and maleness" including people who are transsexual, intersexual or genderqueer, as well as crossdressers, drag performers, masculine women and feminine men, Serano goes on to state: "I will also sometimes use the synonymous term gender-variant to describe all people who are considered by others to deviate from societal norms of femaleness and maleness". (p. 25), Serano, Julia (2007), Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Seal Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-58005-154-5, ISBN 1-58005-154-5
  8. 8.0 8.1 Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. ‘’GLAAD Media Reference Guide, 8th Edition. Transgender Glossary of Terms”, ‘’GLAAD’’, USA, May 2010. Retrieved on 2011-03-02.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Friedman, RC (2008). Sexual Orientation and Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Sexual Science and Clinical Practice, 53–7, Columbia University Press.
  10. Baumeister, Roy F. (2001). Social Psychology and Human Sexuality: Essential Readings, 201–2, Psychology Press.
  11. Brookley, Robert (2002). "Childhood+Gender+Nonconformity"&hl=en&ei=n0k4TNzJD4PQsAPOtqBR&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CD8Q66- Reinventing the Male Homosexual: The Rhetoric and Power of the Gay Gene, 60–65, Indiana University Press.
  12. "Andrea L. Roberts, Margaret Rosario, Heather L. Corliss, Karestan C. Koenen and S.Bryn Austin""Childhood Gender Nonconformity: A Risk Indicator for Child Abuse and Posttraumatic Stress in Youth",Pediatrics Official Journal of the American Acamedy of Pediatrics, February 2012
  13. Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “Transgender Day of Remembrance: Honoring the Lives Lost”, ‘’GLAAD’’, USA, November 19, 2010. Retrieved on 2011-03-02.
  14. 14.0 14.1 J. Michael Bailey, Joseph S. Miller, Lee Willerman; Maternally Rated Childhood Gender Nonconformity in Homosexuals and Heterosexuals, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 22, 1993.
  15. Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. ‘’GLAAD Media Reference Guide, 8th Edition. Transgender Glossary of Terms”, ‘’GLAAD’’, USA, May 2010. Retrieved on 2011-03-01.

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