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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2 thoughts on “Gender Identity Development Theory: Critiques and New Perspectives; By: Carson Williams

Add yours

  1. While an overall interesting and informative article, I as a student of psychology was struck by the lack of empirical evidence cited. Aside from case studies, I’ve been having trouble finding good statistical data and analysis. If you know of any good studies to reference me to I would appreciate it.

    Jason Merrell


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