What is Genderqueer or Non-Binary Gender?

by cazort

Genderqueer is a broad umbrella term for gender identities that fall outside the gender binary. Here I explain and work to dispel some misconceptions about these identities.

Genderqueer is a broad umbrella term for gender identities that fall outside the gender binary of male or female. The term is used interchangeably with other terms, such as "nonbinary". This means that a person who identifies as genderqueer or nonbinary does not consider themselves to be a man or a woman.

Although genderqueer people usually identify as not being cisgender, they may or may not use the label "trans" or "transgender" to describe their gender identity.

I am genderqueer and nonbinary, and while I believe I've been this way my whole life, I didn't learn these terms until years into being an adult. I have only come to openly identify as nonbinary and genderqueer recently. I share some of my own personal experiences here, but I aim to make this page inclusive and descriptive of a wide range of people's experiences beyond my own.

Gender Identity vs. Assigned Birth Sex

Cisgender vs. Transgender

In order to understand gender identities other than male and female, it is helpful and important to understand the distinction between assigned birth sex and gender identity.

Babies are typically assigned a sex at birth, based on their anatomy.  Most Western cultures only recognize male and female sexes.  This poses a problem for classifying intersex people.  The exact portion of people classified as intersex depends on where you draw a cutoff, but depending on the measure it could be as much as 1 in 100 births, or as few as 1 in 2000 births, according to the Intersex Society of North America.  Even with the low estimate, this is a lot of people, about 160,000 in the U.S. and 3.7 million globally.

Gender identity is separate, but often related to assigned birth sex.  Gender identity refers to the identity that a person believes they are, feels like, or wants to be identified as.  It may or may not correspond to their assigned sex.

Most people are content with identifying as the gender they were assigned, and these people are referred to as cisgender or just cis.  However, some people have a mismatch between their gender identity and assigned sex, and these people can be described as transgender or trans.

Genderqueer or nonbinary people are people whose gender identity is not strictly male or female.

Note: I strongly recommend against using the term "transgendered" or "cisgendered"; this term is widely considered by trans people to be rude.  Also, do not refer to transgender people as "transgenders" as this is often perceived as dehumanizing and thus very offensive.

What is Genderqueer or Nonbinary?

These are broad umbrella categories.

Genderqueer and nonbinary are both broad umbrella categories with slightly different and overlapping uses.

These categories both include people who identify mostly or partly as male or female, but have some other component to their gender identity, and people who identify as more strongly outside the gender binary.  Sometimes the "genderqueer" umbrella also includes transgender people who identify primarily with one particular sex.

Are Genderqueer People Transgender?

Technically yes, but not everyone identifies in this way.

Using most definitions, genderqueer people are transgender, because they have a gender identity that does not match their assigned birth sex.

However, not all genderqueer people wish to identify as transgender or use the label "trans" to refer to themselves. One reason is that there is much less familiarity with and knowledge of nonbinary gender identities in the mainstream culture, so if people here "trans", they typically think of binary trans people, like a male-assigned person identifying as (and transitioning to presenting as) female, or vice-versa.  Many people (including myself) are cautious about using the term trans because we don't want people to wrongly assume certain things about us on the basis of misunderstandings of what it means to be trans.

The Genderqueer and Non-Binary Pride Flag

Genderqueer identity has its own pride flag, with a symbolism designed.

The top stripe is lavender, a color which is a blend of the pink and blue colors typically used to represent female and male gender.  Lavender thus represents androgyny. Independently of this symbolism, lavender also represents "queerness" and represents a link between queer gender identity and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and other communities centering around queer sexualities.

The center stripe is white, representing the absence of gender, which can be described as agender.

The bottom green, technically dark chartreuse green, is the inverse color of lavender, and it represents identities which exist outside or without reference to the gender binary.

I love the genderqueer flag, both because I love these colors on their own, and because I love the symbolism that the colors embody.

Flag Design by Marilyn Roxie
Genderqueer Pride Flag
Genderqueer Pride Flag

Can one "look genderqueer" or "look nonbinary"?

The subject of a person "looking" nonbinary or genderqueer can be a touchy one.  Although it is very important for many people with nonbinary gender identities to express their identity through their appearance and clothing, because nonbinary identities are so diverse, and because, at least in Western society, there is no long-standing widely accepted tradition in the mainstream, of what any genders other than male or female are expected to look like, it's very hard to generalize about what genderqueer or nonbinary people look like.

Some of the different looks people will take on include:

  • Some people look and dress mostly like their assigned birth sex, perhaps with small details that cross certain gender boundaries, or perhaps not.
  • Some people present themselves mostly like the opposite of their assigned birth sex
  • Some people take on a very androgynous appearance, lacking in strongly feminine or masculine signals
  • Some people mix strongly gendered signals from both male and female stereotypes. These can include combinations like a person wearing a dress but clearly displaying facial hair, or a person with breasts having an otherwise masculine way of presenting.

As you can discern from these examples, you can't tell if a person is genderqueer or nonbinary by looking at them.

Gender-neutral Pronouns in English

Many, but not all, nonbinary people prefer gender-neutral pronouns, with singular "they" being the most common. Other people can use these pronouns as well.

The English languages pushes people to use gendered constructions when referring to people, like referring to them as "she", "he", "him/her", or "hers/his".  Many transgender people prefer the pronouns of a binary gender, which can be the same pronouns of their assigned birth sex, but is usually that of the "opposite" sex.

A lot of genderqueer people though, do not want to be referred to in this way, and instead prefer gender neutral pronouns.

Singular They/them/their

The pronouns they/them/their can be used to refer to individual people.  Contrary to what some people think, this usage is grammatically correct and has been used continuously since the mid 14th century.  It is most commonly used in casual speech, when referred to a generic person, or a person whose gender is unknown, for example:

  • "Someone left their umbrella."
  • "What does that driver think they're doing?!?"
  • "If anyone asks where I am, you can tell them I went next door."

More recently, nonbinary and genderqueer people have come to start advocating use of these pronouns to refer to themselves.

Singular they is currently the most widely accepted gender neutral pronoun, and it is the most common.  Singular they is the safest way to refer to a person, the least likely to offend them, if you do not know their gender.

Other pronouns

There are many other sets of gender-neutral pronouns.  Some of the most popular ones include Ze, which can take the forms Ze/Zir/Zir or Ze/Hir/Hir, and the Spivak pronouns, ey/em/eir, which sound a lot like "they/them/their" but without the "th", or Xe/xem/xyr.  Slightly less common are Ne/nem/nir and Ve/ver/vis.

Nonbinary and genderqueer people using gendered pronouns

Not all nonbinary people want to use gender-neutral pronouns for themselves.  Some people prefer to stick with the pronouns of their assigned birth sex, out of familiarity, ease of use, or a desire not to impose on others.  Other people prefer to use the binary pronouns associated with the opposite of their assigned birth sex, so as to emphasize their transgender status, or in an attempt to induce people to see or treat them more the way they want to be treated.

Cis and binary trans people using gender-neutral pronouns

There are also cis and binary trans people who prefer gender-neutral pronouns for other reasons, including political or ideological reasons, or just personal preference.  Gender-neutral pronouns were actively advocated by some feminists for years before nonbinary gender identities became widely known.

Some More Specific Nonbinary Identities

Both genderqueer and nonbinary are broad umbrella terms.  Many people use these terms to describe their gender when displaying their gender publicly, even if there are more specific terms that more accurately or fully describe their gender.

Here are some more of these terms:

  • Agender - Feeling genderless, not identifying with any gender, or feeling, experiencing, or identifying with a lack of gender.
  • Genderfluid - Having a gender identity that changes over time. The changes could be slow or fast, smooth or abrupt, and could be between binary female and male identities, or could be a more subtle shift between other nonbinary identities.
  • Neutrois - A gender identity that is usually associated with a distinct sense of discomfort with both female and male identity and often body characteristics as well, and a desire to live as and be perceived as gender neutral.
  • Genderflux - When a person's intensity of feeling their identity changes, but the identity itself does not change, for example, a person who sometimes feels fullymale, but other times feels only slightly male, or not at all male.
  • Demigender  - Identifying partly, but not completely, with a binary gender.  People can identify as "demifemale" or "demimale".  The prefix "demi" mean half but this identity is broad and encompasses a wide range of people who feel mostly like a binary gender, or only slightly like it.

These identities can all overlap in complex ways.  For example, some people might identify as both neutrois and agender, but others might identify in one way or not the other.  Another person might identify as genderfluid between agender and some other identity.

How can you support genderqueer or nonbinary people?

Genderqueer and nonbinary people unfortunately encounter a lot of discrimination.  There are lots of things you can do and support that will make life easier for these people.  A lot of these things overlap largely with things that help binary transgender people.

These include:

  • Use the pronouns that people request, and people's chosen names if they introduce themselves with a name that doesn't match official documentation.
  • Support gender-neutral bathrooms, and when there are only gendered bathrooms, don't police who goes into what bathroom.
  • Avoid speculating about whether a person is male or female, and don't try to force people into the gender binary without their consent
  • When running any sort of group or organization, avoid dividing the group into male and female. If you do, make sure to make an explicit mention of nonbinary people, like saying "Nonbinary people can choose to go where they feel most comfortable".

If you want to ask people about their gender, do not ask them questions like "Are you male or female?" or "Are you a girl or a boy?", but rather, ask them: "Can I ask, what pronouns do you use?" or "Can I ask, what gender do you identify with?"  This is more polite, you first ask permission to ask the question so you communicate that it's okay if they want to be private or not answer, but by asking about pronouns or gender identity, you communicate that you are familiar with the concept of preferred pronouns or gender identity, which can help people to feel more comfortable.

Do you identify as nonbinary and/or genderqueer?

Updated: 09/04/2016, cazort
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frankbeswick on 09/06/2016

This is useful information, for I have taken an interest in the subject of dysphoria, and am sympathetic to those who undergo what is essentially a heavy burden.

cazort on 09/05/2016

Thanks! I do think talking about this is important.

Experiences of body dysphoria are super diverse among nonbinary people, as well as specific identities like genderfluid. I'm active in a lot of online communities and have heard countless people's personal accounts, and there's the full range of experiences from zero dysphoria to crippling dysphoria. I do get the sense that binary trans people are more likely to feel dysphoria but that's also hugely variable, I know quite a few binary trans people who also experience no body dysphoria.

I think there's a large degree to which whether or not a person experiences dysphoria is actually a function of their overall mental state. For example, a person who has a more negative experience overall in life, and at the extreme, a person who is clinically depressed, might experience certain things being the way they want them to be as "neutral", and them not being the way they want as upsetting, unsettling, or things feeling wrong. Thus they might feel body dysphoria, and have it alleviated if certain changes are made. But a person who has a more positive experience overall and who has no symptoms of depression, might feel things as "neutral" even if their body isn't exactly how they like, and they experience a positive experience or feeling, like a sense of "euphoria", feelings of empowerment, happiness, fulfillment, etc. if they make certain changes. This is perhaps an oversimplification but I definitely notice this trend in my own life with respect to certain gendered changes of self-expression that I've made.

frankbeswick on 09/05/2016

Body Dysphoria! How common is it among gender fluid/transgender/non-binary people?

frankbeswick on 09/05/2016

Your honesty about your life does you great credit. This ability to speak openly about this issue is a good example to others who struggle with these difficulties.

cazort on 09/05/2016

Yeah, there's definitely a mix of like...innate qualities, and socialized qualities, that combine to form people's experience of gender.

I have felt certain strong innate tendencies that conflict with how I was socialized. For example, as a kid I would sometimes exhibit more stereotypically "feminine" body language, and then I would be bullied for this by peers, and also discouraged from it by adults. A deeper example, I spent years in academia in mathematics, a heavily male-dominated field. Although I was always perceived as male, I found that I would often be criticized, dismissed, excluded, and sometimes even explicitly shamed, when I expressed desires or values considered stereotypically "feminine", like a cooperative rather than competitive attitude, a desire to talk openly about my feelings more, a desire to both live out and be treated with a nurturing and caring attitude. I was explicitly told that my desires and attitude were "unrealistic", "inappropriate", and things like that, told things like "that's just not the way it is", or have my views laughed at. Another example is that I experience emotions strongly and I can cry easily, but this was suppressed by society, the whole "boys don't cry" thing. Now that I've overcome this socialization and I do cry more easily, I occasionally deal with people attacking me verbally, especially if I start crying during an argument with a man.

In my case, it is less that I felt trapped in my body, and more that my body and mind naturally functioned in ways that many people in society didn't always like, want, or accept, and would sometimes pathologize or demonize.

But many nonbinary and genderqueer people do feel a lot of body dysphoria.

I do think this is related to homophobia and males being persecuted or bullied for being gay. I was called "gay" a lot as a kid, which I knew wasn't true because I was strongly attracted to girls and not strongly attracted to boys, and knew that from a pretty young age, maybe around 5th grade? But I'd get labeled "gay" for displaying feminine characteristics like body language, vocal inflection, or even interests or ways of thinking or acting. I think I've always had a lot of solidarity with gay people and support for issues that affect gay people, because of this.

frankbeswick on 09/05/2016

A thoughtful article! Gender raises huge issues. The experience of transgender/gender fluid etc people shows us that gender is not merely imposed, but it surges up within us and imposes itself, as does the gender to which we are attracted. We simply have no control over these feelings, so it is not merely from conditioning that gender arises,for gender is sometimes anti what society imposes. Society should respect this reality.

The accumulated experience of the human race is that male and female bodies seem to correlate with masculinity and femininity, each of which seems to fit a particular body. But that is not the final or full answer, for, like yourself, there are people who do not fit into this pattern, and these people are real, have feelings and can be hurt, often badly in their emotions and sometimes physically. Being trapped in a body that does not allow you to express yourself is miserable. There is a related issue in that sensitive, heterosexual males are sometimes persecuted for being gay, as the macho male stereotype excludes sensitivity. This too is a gender issue.

I was particularly interested in the case of Aiofe Assumpta Hart, whose transgender story is interesting to me as it touches upon my own interest in religious matters.

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