Gender Identity Development Theory: Critiques and New Perspectives; By: Carson Williams

Gender identity development, while a relatively recent topic in student affairs and psychology, plays a great role in people’s lives. Gender interacts considerably with many important aspects of life, including career paths, social barriers and opportunities, personal perceptions, and even the talents we choose to nurture, which makes it vital to the work of student affairs practitioners (Bussey & Bandura, 1999).

Bilodeau’s (2005) commonly-referenced transgender identity development theory focuses too heavily on behavioral and environmental aspects and has directed little attention to the development of a cisgender identity. This essay will review the literature concerning gender identity, its development, and related theoretical perspectives. After identifying a gap in previous theories, it will then use Bussey’s and Bandura’s (1999) social cognitive theory of gender development and Marcia’s (1966) research on identity statuses to submit a non-linear model of gender identity development that may be helpful to more accurately describe the gender exploration, declaration, and development process.

Gender and Transgender Individuals

It is crucial to define the appropriate terms when looking at gender and sex. Even though the two terms are closely related, Caplan, Crawford, Hyde, and Richardson (1997) state that sex refers to a “biological distinction between women and men that may be based upon their anatomical, physiological, or chromosomal properties” (p. 7). Gender, on the other hand, refers to a “sociocultural distinction…on the basis of traits and behavior” that are thought of a masculine and feminine and assigned to either the male or female sex (Caplan, et al., 1997, p. 7). LaFrance, Paluck, and Brescol (2004) note that gender and gender identity are terms that were designed to define individuals’ outward behaviors, traits, and attitudes. When a person’s gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth, they are referred to as transgender, while people whose gender identity does match their sex assigned at birth are known as “cisgender” (Patton et al., 2016).

With an understanding of basic definitions, it is also important to understand how a transgender identity is oppressed, at least in American society. Bilodeau (2009) used the term “genderism” to refer to the set of rules and expectations society imposes on individuals to exhibit behaviors consistent with their observed sex. When children are born, they are immediately assigned a sex and assumed a gender (Tate, Youssef, & Bettergarcia, 2014). Under the operation of genderism, a society may inhibit opportunities for gender exploration for students who believe they may not identify with their observed sex. For individuals who experiment with gender identities and roles misaligned with their observed sex (and therefore expectations from peers and society), there are consequences. Harassment, bullying, isolation, and violence are common concerns of transgender individuals in genderist societies (Bilodeau, 2009).

Gender identity development should also consider the experiences of cisgender individuals. While research concerning cisgender identity development is scarce, there is enough to make basic connections. Men and women are expected to fulfill clear gender roles in a society under the operation of genderism (Bilodeau, 2009). Tate, Bettergarcia, and Brent (2015) indicate that, for cisgender adults, behaving in gender-typical ways resulted in higher indicators of self-esteem. This research underscores how a genderist society has a great impact on the actions of both transgender and cisgender individuals. While cisgender and transgender experiences are often studied separately, research does not present a particular reason why gender development stops in cisgender adults. Instead, the development of a gender identity (and subsequently gender roles and social presentations) are fluid and have the possibility to change over time (Tate et al., 2014).

Theoretical Perspectives

Many theories have emerged to explain overall identity development and, specifically, gender identity development. The commonly-accepted theory to explain transgender individuals’ identity development was introduced by Bilodeau (2005). He adapted a previous sexual identity theory that describes a timeline of gay, lesbian, or bisexual students’ experiences (Patton et al., 2016). Bilodeau’s (2005) stages involved departing a cisgender identity, developing a personal transgender identity, developing a social transgender identity, coming out to parents, developing an intimate relationship, and becoming part of a transgender community. There are issues with this theory. First, the initial three stages describe a vast bulk of identity development. Developing a personal and social identity takes time and effort, and Bilodeau does not explain this process in detail. The fourth stage, coming out to parents, is significant but can be considered a part of a social identity because it involves interacting with external factors. Developing an intimacy status, the fifth stage, is also important but does not take into account individuals who may not be interested in intimate relationships and can be considered a part of either the personal or social identity. The sixth stage involves social and political action. This stage parallels stages in other theories like Black Identity Development (Cross & Fhagen-Smith, 2001) and Racial and Cultural Identity Development (Sue & Sue, 2003).

Arguably one of the earliest identity development theories, Marcia’s (1996) Ego Identity Statuses, sets a foundation for many theories related to identity development. His theory states that two components, exploration and commitment, occur in specific realms of identity and decision-making. In 1972, he added sexual decisions into his study (Patton et al., 2016). While he did not conduct research on gender identity and decisions thereof, his theory can be applied as a model to identity development processes in many areas. The interaction of exploration and commitment creates four statuses: foreclosure (commitment to an identity without exploration), moratorium (exploration without commitment), diffusion (neither commitment nor exploration), and identity achievement (commitment following exploration; Marcia, 1966). Identity achievement is considered the “healthiest psychological status” since it indicates a successful navigation of developing an identity (Marcia, 1980).

A third relevant theoretical perspective is Bussey’s social-cognitive theory of gender identity development. Her theory asserts that gender identity development takes three interrelated components into account: personal components (such as biological features), self-perception, and self-concept; behavioral components such as gender roles and activity patterns; and environmental components that involve the people and places that surround individuals (Bussey, 1999; Patton et al., 2016). This theory is an ecological approach to explaining factors related to gender identity development and states that the three components intersect when individuals decide to display behaviors or appearances associated with gender. Bussey (2011) also mentioned that culture and time have a significant effect on individuals’ decisions to explore non-conforming identities. This theory can be helpful in determining different depths of a person’s gender identity by recognizing that a person can identify personally separately from how they express themselves socially.

Towards a Model of Gender Identity Development

The gaps in Bilodeau’s model mentioned above support the need for a comprehensive gender identity development theory that is detailed and takes into account social and internal decisions and exploration. The proposed model (Figure 1) draws from previously mentioned research and is explained below. This model may appear similar to a theory proposed by Dillon, Worthington, and Moradi (2011). That is because their theory derives from Marcia’s (1966) ego identity statuses, and reflects the same process used here. As supported by Bussey (1999), this development can happen on two planes: individual development (self-concept and self-perception) and social development (representation of gender through behaviors and appearances).

Stage 1, Foreclosed Cisgender Identity, describes how individuals are assumed to be cisgender from birth (Tate et al., 2014). This stage is also supported by Bilodeau’s (2005) first stage, exiting a cisgender identity. To exit that identity, an individual must have existed in it. Stage 2, Gender Moratorium, Gender Diffusion, and Commitment to Gender Identity, describes the process of exploring and committing to a gender identity. These processes align with Marcia’s descriptions, detailed above. Commitment to a gender identity is the process through which individuals can declare their identity and move forward to deepen it. When individuals enter Stage 2, they can enter into any of the processes and move to another freely, similar to Marcia’s theory. As Patton et al. (2016) state, “Marcia’s identity statuses are not progressive or permanent” (p. 291). Individuals may move directly into the foreclosed cisgender identity into commitment to a cisgender identity, or they may explore identity options before arriving at a trans* identity to which they can commit.

Stage 3, Development of the Identity, includes the choices a person makes that supports their committed gender identity. This stage encompasses stages four and five of Bilodeau’s theory without putting undue emphasis on actions and behaviors. For transgender individuals, this stage may include coming out to parents or friends and connecting with other members of the transgender community. For all individuals, this may include entering into an intimate relationship or participating in actions that confirm their gender identity. Sax (2008) states that cisgender individuals are more likely to engage in events that perpetuate a gender schema (masculine actions belong to men, and feminine actions belong to women), like fraternities, sororities, and gendered sports.

Stage 4, Social and Political Awareness, describes the process of individuals engaging with society and developing anti-genderist attitudes. For transgender individuals, this theory is much like Bilodeau’s sixth stage. This concept of abandoning oppressive systems and supporting underprivileged populations is a common theme in several social theories and may look similar to Helms’s (2005) model of white identity development. This theory states that there are two stages of identity development in white identity, which are abandonment of racism and the evolution of a non-racist identity.  In cisgender development, Helms’s concepts of opposing structures of systemic oppression may be applied to indicate that individuals can abandon genderism and adopt a non-genderist identity.


Gender identity development is complicated and under-researched because the field is relatively new and existing research focuses mainly on transgender experiences with a limited lens. The proposed theory seeks to explain the personal and social development of gender identity in transgender, cisgender, and non-conforming individuals. Beginning with the foreclosed cisgender identity, individuals can move through life with varying degrees of exploration and commitment. After experiencing gender moratorium (high exploration and low commitment), gender diffusion (low exploration and commitment), or by simply committing to a gender identity without exploration, individuals can move forward in solidifying their identity in their world. It is important to have a theory that encompasses all gender identities because the development of the expression of gender is different for all transgender, cisgender, and non-conforming people alike. This theory can be helpful to student affairs practitioners as they continue to work with increasingly diverse populations. Mrig (2015) stated, “The time is now…creating more diverse inclusive environments isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s imperative for continued success” (Sec. 4). As we look to understand underserved and oppressed individuals, we get closer to the inclusion of all students.


Gender identity model

Figure 1. Proposed model of gender identity development.


Carson Williams (he/him/his) is a second-year graduate student at Western Carolina University studying Higher Education Student Affairs. Before pursuing his graduate studies, he taught high school band in the foothills of North Carolina for two years. In student affairs, he has worked in several different areas such as academic advising, residential living, and disability services. Carson believes that creating inclusive environments for all students and validating their lived experiences is essential for their success, and incorporates that philosophy into his daily interactions with his students. He will graduate in May 2018 to pursue his career as a student affairs generalist. Carson currently resides in Asheville, North Carolina with his partner Josh, and their two pets Steve and Waldo. You can reach him online at or via email at



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Social Change in Hierarchical Institutions, By: Pat Tetreault

Hierarchical institutions are prevalent in our culture. We grow up within a variety of communities that are often structured with clear roles and a clear chain of command or authority. These include our families, faith communities, educational institutions, and government. All are structurally layered with those at the top of the system having more authority, status and decision-making power in regards to policies and practices, budgets, and resource allocation. Regardless of where we are located in the system, developing the skills to advocate for changes within the system to help obtain more equitable resource allocation, support services, programming, and inclusive excellence is vital. This is particularly true in regards to policies and practices.

Policies and practices differentially impact individuals and groups because we have different life contexts. Over time, structures expand to take into account the differing identities and experiences of the populations we serve. However, many of the structures in place have resulted in the creation of silos (or neighborhoods) as a way to provide space and to help address diversity, inclusion, and equity issues that exist in society and on our campuses. For example, we have programs for students of color; LGBTQA+ students; women; veterans and military members; international students; and services for students with disabilities. These neighborhood resources are important because neighborhoods provide visibility and recognition for the community (aka marginalized groups) to participate in the larger community, access resources and their identity communities, along with providing education and programming for the larger campus community.

One outcome of having these neighborhoods is individuals and groups often have to choose which neighborhood is going to be their primary community. Given the structures and often limited resources (of which time is one), we often navigate the campus environment while having one of those neighborhoods as our home base; addressing multiple, intersecting and mixed identities as needed or we are able. We are often under resourced for current demands. This means we are busy (although that may be a word we are not supposed to use as some perceive we are saying we are busy while they are not). We have also been socialized to perceive the world based on what we see and that often means we categorize people based on one or two primary identities. Societally, we often talk about and frame identities on a binary – woman or man; black or white; straight or LGBTQA+; progressive or conservative; and the identities list goes on. Yet, our identities rarely fit into such distinct boxes. When looking at campus climate, and addressing issues, it is often more manageable to address one or two areas rather than the complexity and challenges that accompany looking at the intersections of identities (gender, race/ethnicity, orientation, ability, faith, age, etc.).  Developing communities that are truly inclusive while allowing space and recognition for individual and group identities and contexts is needed and challenging; particularly when we consider the socio-political context within a country and world where inequity, privilege, and power varies for individuals and groups and there are differing value systems and approaches regarding differential resources and access.

Working in higher education  allows us to advocate for policies and practices that have the greatest benefit for the most people on our campuses in the same way that the constitution of the United States can allow people living at the margins to work with supporters to advocate for more equitable access to the benefits of living in this country. This allows us to build our case for diversity and inclusion and hopefully moves us toward a more socially-just campus community as well as a more socially-just society. While change can be quite slow, and not everyone wants or appreciates change, it does happen. Having worked in Student Affairs for over 25 years has allowed me to witness the progress and resistance to change that has taken place. Some positive changes include adding sexual orientation and gender identity to our nondiscrimination policy; starting a LGBTQA+ center on our campus; the development of a military and veteran success center; changes in policies and practices that include gender inclusive housing, a chosen name option, the ability to change gender markers on records with a changed driver’s license or passport (vs. a changed birth certificate); and the development of a disability club that helps provide community and advocate for a campus climate that moves beyond compliance to inclusive excellence for students of differing abilities.

I have been fortunate to have a career in higher education that has allowed me to advocate for change informed by my education, experience, and multiple, intersecting, and mixed identities.  During my career in Student Affairs, I have worked in positions where I was the first and only professional staff person in the role (Sexuality Education Coordinator; Assistant Director in Student Involvement serving as the Director of the LGBTQA+ Resource Center). Being the primary person in a role where I developed the programs and services has provided me opportunities to define the mission of the programs, which have included a focus on diversity, inclusion, equitable access, and social justice education in programming and services. Being a mid-level management position with students as staff and volunteers has also meant helping students develop the knowledge and skills to help create change through information and skills development. This is where the Social Change Model of Leadership Development (Astin & Astin, 1996) has been a useful tool to encourage leadership that can help foster an inclusive environment where anyone and everyone can develop and utilize skills to help create a system that is responsive to individual and group needs, particularly given our diverse identities and experiences. Leadership as a process encourages the concept of leadership as a behavior that anyone can engage in regardless of their position. The model consists of 7 C’s. Three C’s focus on individual values (consciousness of self, congruence, and commitment); 3 on group process values (collaboration, common purpose, and controversy with civility); and the Community/Societal value of Citizenship. These combined values result in an 8th value (or goal), Change (Astin & Astin, 1996).

Whether aware of this model or not, the process in student development and education can be related to the Social Change Model of Leadership Development. Individuals and groups, knowing their values, acting in congruence, and committed to making a difference, worked collaboratively with others on a common purpose, and managing controversy. This can be applied to a variety of situations. Good citizens working for the common good. This process reflects the importance of individual rights and responsibilities; and having a concern for the rights and wellbeing of all members of the larger community.

Our changing social and political contexts indicate the need to move in the direction of working at the intersections of identities and understanding the commonalities that impact all of us and working toward social justice education. According to Adams, Bell and Griffin (2007), social justice is both a process and a goal; and “The goal of social justice education is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society that is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.”

In order to work at the intersections, we have to be aware of specific topics and needs. We need space for marginalized populations, as well as ways to integrate all members of the community. We need interdisciplinary approaches; and we need equitable funding. We need transparency in budgets and decision making criteria. We also need to be able to work toward achieving balance. We are here for the students. How do we find those who are here for us? How do we achieve a healthy workplace and work-life balance if we are the primary professional attempting to meet the needs of a marginalized population, which also means changing the culture of the larger campus community? It takes time, it takes clarity, and it takes our supporting each other in our work.  We need space, resources, and support. We need to manage emotions, not only others, but our own. We have to recognize that we are impacted by the same minority stress and microaggressions that those we serve experience. We need to take care of ourselves so that we role model for others that self-care is valued. One way to approach our work is to work with primary identities while recognizing and acknowledging that we need to work at the intersections of identities and stretching our own comfort zones. We need to recognize that almost every identity label is more than a primary identity or label; and every identity is incorporated into other identities.

LGBTQA+ people are within other identity categories and need to be recognized in the same way that other identities within the LGBTQA+ community need to be recognized.  Working collaboratively across identity groups will help achieve the common goal of social justice if we can accept and support each other in moving toward equity and social justice for every individual and every group member. Understanding the difference between diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice is also important (see Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, 2017) because we need to continually strive for moving the conversation from diversity and inclusion to equity and social justice. We need to recognize and claim our own value within the institutions that we work in. This is not a small or easy task. It is an ongoing effort in how we manage our work lives, particularly given the challenges of working from the level of the hierarchy we are in to get the message up the chain of command in order to help create the changes that are needed to shift toward a more equitable campus environment. It is essential for us to build community at work for ourselves as we strive to help create community for students. We need to determine how we can best work at and across intersections of identities while building community and supporting each other in this work, not only with the identity group(s) we work with but across identity groups. We also need to acknowledge and manage the emotional impact of the work we do given that we are also impacted by sociopolitical climate, microaggressions, and inequitable resource allocation.  This takes time, consciousness, congruence, commitment, collaboration, and working toward a common purpose while managing controversy with civility. We also need to celebrate our successes and accomplishments.  It requires acceptance that we all matter.

Recognizing our own privilege in addition to knowing where we lack privilege is another essential component for it is where we have privilege that we can use it to help make the world a better place. Where we lack privilege can help us with understanding, awareness raising, and with advocacy. We can use our stories and our voices to demonstrate leadership from where we are at to the best of our ability.  Having the support of others who do this work is invaluable because there is a commonality of experience and identities. Community is essential, whether it is on our campus or beyond. Knowing and appreciating our commonalities is useful and one area that we all share privilege in higher education is having access to and being a part of higher education. How we use our privilege in this context can make all the difference in the world.


Pat (pronouns: she/her/hers) is the Founding Director of the LGBTQA+ Resource Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Prior to opening the Center, Pat served as the Sexuality Education Coordinator for the campus and is in her 26th year as a Student Affairs Staff member. Pat is the 5th of 6 children. Her parents were first generation college students, who were both proud of their ethnic heritage. Pat’s mom was Lebanese American and her father was French-Canadian descent with an English great, great grandmother. Both of her maternal grandparents were immigrants. Having grown up in a Catholic, military family influenced and shaped her views about diversity and social justice. She is a published author (articles and book chapters), has presented at international, national, and regional conferences, and has received recognition for her work over the years on her campus and nationally.



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