I have “come out of the closet” as queer a lot. It’s a common meme within the LGBTQIA+ community that you come out over-and-over again throughout your life. Every interaction becomes an opportunity to live your truth or to bury it, and there are many times valid reasons to do both.
My first outing was as a gay man in middle school to my mother, and then several weeks later to my sister, followed hesitantly by my fifth grade English teacher. Coming out became such a common occurrence in my life that, several years ago, I did it to the person manning the register at the local supermarket. They responded with an indifferent shrug.
I have become accustomed to explaining my queer identity. I can confidently walk a confused straight person through the mechanics of my sexuality. When they ask, “who’s the boy and who’s the girl in the relationship?” I can laugh off the ignorance and give them a reliable response. Although I still experience discrimination, it was something I knew how to handle.
Right as I started to become confident with my sexuality, however, I then started to realized I had unaddressed gender dysphoria. I was nonbinary, and suddenly the questions began pouring back in. What was that? How does it work? But who’s the girl and who’s the guy?
Like with many trans people, I had to become an expert in my identity once again. It became exhausting. I started to compile a list of all the questions people asked me, and I wrote my answers down.
This article is that list. I hope it can save one confused queer person from having to do all the exhausting Googling that I did. And if you are cisgendered (i.e., not trans), I hope it gives you more perspective on nonbinary people and maybe saves your beleaguered child, sibling, coworker, or grandchild from being asked the same question one more time.
Nonbinary, what now?
A nonbinary person is someone who does not identify as either the gender male or female. They consider themselves somewhere in the middle of the male-female gender spectrum, or maybe even beyond it.
They are not option A or B, but C.
Other variants sometimes used instead of nonbinary are Genderqueer, Genderfluid, or Bigender. For some people, these terms will mean distinctly different things. For others, they can be swapped out interchangeably.
When in doubt, it’s best to ask the person.
Isn’t this unnatural? There are only two genders in nature, after all.
I think you are confusing the concepts of sex (i.e., your biological sex characteristics), gender (what you identify as), and gender presentation or gender expression (i.e., using outfits, mannerisms, makeup, and even tone to manifest your gender).
As a society, we tend to conflate these three concepts, but they are quite different. In the United State’s recent past, we typically sorted people into either male or female at birth based on their sex characteristics. This practice comes with it some complications (see intersex people) and isn’t universal (see two-spirit).
In our day-to-day lives, however, we aren’t asking everyone to show us their genitals or birth certificate to identify their gender. We go by what gender they identify as (e.g., “Hello, my name is Mr. Banks.”) as well as by how they present that gender to us (e.g. “look at that lady in a dress.”). We use these cues to sort people into categories we are accustomed to — male or female, man or woman, masculine or feminine.
Gender and gender presentation have nothing to do with biology. Humans do not come out of the womb wearing dresses and suits. A person’s gender presentation is arbitrarily decided based on their culture and environment. Here, for example, is President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a dress:
Aren’t they adorable?
This outfit reads as feminine today, but the social custom of the late 1800s was for boys to wear dresses until they were 6 or 7 years old. Dresses at the time were considered to be gender-neutral fashion, and “boys” would not adopt more masculine clothing until around the time of their first haircut. Anyone who has a passing understanding of anthropology or history knows that gender expression varies dramatically across cultures and across time. A skirt is feminine in the United States, for example, until you fly over to Scottland and see men wearing kilts for formal and not so formal occasions.
Our notions of male and female are far more fluid than we often recognize, and even with the area of sex, things aren’t so clear cut. As I already mentioned, there are intersex people within the United States and throughout the world who have anatomy that doesn’t fit the “stereotypical” definition of male and female. Intersex is an umbrella term that includes hundreds of different, completely natural medical conditions, some of which do not become apparent until well after puberty (if they are recognized during the person’s life at all).
The exact number of intersex people is a subject of heated debate, and this is, in part, because of stigmatization. In the past (and sometimes still now), parents would force a gender upon their intersex child through both gender presentation (i.e., making their child strictly wear the stereotypical clothing of a man or woman), as well as non-consensual surgeries. This stance is now being challenged, and many activists believe the right thing to do is to accept children the way they are, and not push them into a predefined label.
As we can see, sex and gender are not and have never been an option between two choices.
Does this mean you are going to start wearing suits or dresses?
Maybe, but not necessarily.
Remember, there is a difference between gender (i.e., how you identify/how other people recognize you) and gender presentation (i.e., how you present to the world). One confusing thing about nonbinary identity is that most people have been using these two concepts interchangeably, but they are not the same.
Drag, for example, is an art form where performers dress up as exaggerated personas. Many Drag queens are people of the male sex (though not all) that temporarily change their gender presentation for the sake of entertainment or art.
If someone changes their gender presentation, however, that doesn’t change their sex, and it doesn’t necessarily change the gender they identify as. The drag performer Bob The Drag Queen (seen above) still identifies as a man, even though in said picture, they are presenting their gender in a way that does not stereotypically align with how a man dresses in our society. Bob The Drag Queen is still a cisgendered (i.e., not trans) man. They just sometimes wear dresses and put on makeup.
Gender presentation does not necessarily make someone’s gender.
In our case, nonbinary people are not always going to dress in a way that defies your expectations. Sometimes you will come across a nonbinary person with stereotypically male genitalia and who presents as male, and yet, still identifies as nonbinary.
Put a nonbinary person in a dress or a suit, and they are still nonbinary, not male or female.
Why don’t you choose to be feminine/female or masculine/male?
The short answer is because they don’t want to.
This is a very loaded question because it’s ultimately all a matter of choice and free will. Nonbinary people do not want to “fix” their gender to male or female. It psychologically and emotionally feels wrong to them, and they have therefore rejected it.
If you are someone who hears that explanation and goes, “well, that’s wrong,” then I don’t think any amount of reasoning will ultimately work on you. You incorrectly believe that gender is fixed between two arbitrary categories, and no amount of history, science, or anthropology will alter that mindset (as we have already mentioned, the science and history aren’t with you on this one).
It’s something that you will have to come to on your own, and I recommend that the nonbinary people in your life cease relying on you for emotional support (if they haven’t done so already). The only thing I can ask is that you do some introspection.
- What about this person’s gender identity affects me personally?
- What gives me the right to force someone to adhere to my definition of right and wrong?
- What will alter in my day-to-day life if I start accepting them for who they are?
- What will I lose if I don’t?
Are Nonbinary People Trans?
The short answer is yes.
The long answer is that words are complicated, constantly evolving, and mean different things to different people. Some people maintain that the word transgender applies narrowly to people with diagnosed gender dysphoria (i.e., a psychological discomfort between a person’s assigned gender and the one they perceive themselves to be) who desire to both socially and medically transition to the gender of their choice.
This definition has fallen out of favor in recent years for being a little too narrow. Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign now widely see the word Trans as an umbrella term for people whose gender identity is different from the stereotypes of the sex they were assigned to at birth.
Nonbinary 100% falls into this category, and the same logic applies to agender people (i.e., someone who does not have a gender identity) as well as countless other identities.
Some Trans people and Feminists tell me that you are wrong.
The thing about transphobia is that it doesn’t just come from intolerant cisgendered people. While vertical oppression (i.e., pressure coming from those with more privilege) exists, all marginalized communities also know the pain of horizontal or lateral oppression, which is when people from a targeted group enforce persecution against another oppressed group.
A classic example of horizontal oppression is how early suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton refused to fight for the ratification of the 15th amendment (which gave black men the right to vote) because they believed the right to vote should be expanded to white women as well. The expansion of the vote should have been a goal white suffragettes fought for, and yet these women refused to back this group and ultimately lost valuable allies in the process. Famously, Black writer Frederick Douglass, a co-founder of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), of which Anthony and Stanton belonged to, left the group in protest of their decision not to back the 15th amendment.
This tension sadly exists inside transgender and feminist communities as well. It was not too long ago that the word transgender was used in a very narrow context to refer to someone who had diagnosed gender dysphoria. This diagnosis was often accompanied by the perception that trans people had to physiologically transition via surgery to conform more to their preferred gender of choice. A lot of Binary Trans people (i.e., trans people who want to conform to traditional feminity or masculinity) historically have felt an enormous pressure to validate their identity by obtaining a diagnosis and medically transitioning.
While there are unquestionably trans people who do have gender dysphoria and want to transition medically (and this is valid), the problem is that this definition has never fit everyone. There have always been people who perceive themselves to be a different gender without the accompanying dysphoria or the desire to transition to a binary gender role medically. The belief that transgenderism is a mental illness comes more from modern cultural biases than from our current understanding of psychology. This evolving realization is partly the reason why the World Health Organization (WHO) has removed gender dysphoria from its list of mental disorders and that there is a similar campaign for the American Psychiatric Association in the United States to do the same.
Some transgender people, however, still cling to the idea that only trans people with diagnosed dysphoria or the inclination to transition medically are valid. Trans people who hold this mindset are sometimes referred to as Transmedicalists, and this impulse is a form of horizontal oppression. Transmedicalists are claiming that they are more “valid” trans people and will sometimes derogatorily refer to nonbinary, trans people as “transtrenders” in the hope that such a claim will bolster their acceptance amongst other cisgendered and binary trans people.
Likewise, some feminists maintain that transgender people invalidate feminism because it gives “men” the ability to “infiltrate” female spaces. Some even argue that transgenderism reinforces the male-female binary because they are reinforcing societal patriarchal conceptions of feminity or masculinity. These bigots are sometimes referred to as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists or TERFS, and they hold a mindset that completely disregards the identity of trans people.
This backward view ultimately blames binary trans people for having to adhere to societal gendered norms that trans people are not in charge of setting. This line of attack is similar to blaming some black women for straightening their hair or attacking first-generation immigrants for not teaching their native language to their children. You are blaming the marginalized for having to bend to oppressive power structures they are not in charge of making. Many Trans people would love to not face outward rejection for not presenting “correctly,” but that’s not the world we live in.
This discrimination is especially puzzling when TERFs attack nonbinary people because we don’t like the male-female spectrum either. It’s why we are nonbinary in the first place, which means by attacking nonbinary people, TERFS often end up reinforcing the patriarchal definition of men and women that they claim to want to disrupt.
Again, this type of discrimination is not new and comes more from a TERF’s desire to find acceptance through punching down. Trans people have sadly received plenty of horizontal discrimination from members of groups that should be their natural allies.
What’s with all this talk of pronouns?
For my grammar nerds, a pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun in a sentence.
Billy is a goat. He is farmer Donald’s favorite goat.
“He” is the pronoun for Billy. It’s a placeholder for a participant in the sentence, and English-speakers use gendered pronouns such as he, him, his, she, her, and hers all the time. English has a plural, gender-neutral pronoun known as they/them (e.g., Farmer Donald has a lot of goats on his farm. They are really fluffy), but there currently is not a widespread singular one in the same vein as for he/him and she/her.
This gap is why nonbinary people have taken two main approaches for affirming their identity:
- They have made some pronouns up, such as zie, zim, zir, and zis. These follow the same rules as the other singular pronouns, and if you can get other people to adopt them, then nothing about the English language changes.
- The second approach has been to use the plural they/them and apply it as a singular pronoun (e.g., I just met Alex. They seem cool). This may make some situations confusing linguistically-speaking, such as when you transition back and forth between the singular and plural usage of they/them. Still, it has the added benefit of everyone already knowing what the word means. This popularity is why they/them has become the de facto gender-neutral pronoun in many activist circles.
Pronouns may seem like a light topic, but they are one of the most common ways we affirm or deny someone’s gender identity. When a nonbinary person is misgendered, either purposefully or not, it can be perceived as erasing a part of their identity.
But they/them pronouns are so clunky to use!
Listen, I understand that this will be an adjustment. No one expects you to be perfect, but here’s the thing, you already use they/them pronouns like this all the time.
Here’s a great example that I came across courtesy of the podcast Gender Reveal. Let’s say you find a stranger’s wallet on the ground, and you are pointing it out to your friend. You wouldn’t tell your friend, “Hey, someone dropped his or her wallet.”
That is clunky and unwieldy.
You would say, “Hey, someone dropped their wallet” because you don’t know the gender of the stranger in this case, and it’s easier to use they/them pronouns.
These situations happen a lot, and all nonbinary people are asking is to give them the same respect you would give to a random stranger.
Why are you telling me?
This gut reaction occurs whenever someone hears information they don’t like. If someone asks the question, “why are you telling me?” then that person is being defensive. This new information has upset their emotional equilibrium, and they are now attacking the bringer of that information in the hopes that it will go away.
If this is you, then know that someone comes out to you because they love you or, at the very least, see you as a constant in their life. They want you looped into the crucial changes in their life.
They are coming out to you because they respect you. They want to give you the information you need to respect their identity.
All this means is that you use their preferred pronouns and that you accept when they wear clothing that doesn’t align with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Sheesh, how many times are you going to come out of the closet?
While some people may have realized that they were nonbinary at an early age, for many others, it has been an arduous process. For most of history, our society has not condoned gender identities and presentations outside the male-female binary, which means that many people have not had the vocabulary to understand their own identity until like now.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of stories of people who came out as gay or as lesbian only to realize that that label was not quite right. It’s not that they were lying, but rather that their information was incomplete. We are still evolving as a society, and even the nonbinary label might give way to more precise language and terminology. The thing about gender is that there is no instruction manual. Everyone is just doing what they feel is the most accurate thing in the here and now.
If a nonbinary person has come out to you, this might not be the last time they come out.
Maybe this person will decide in the future that they would fit better as a binary woman or man and transition to that.
Maybe masculinity or feminity will expand to incorporate different gender expressions, and this person will instead identify as straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Maybe nonbinary will become our society’s default, and therefore irrelevant as an identity.
No one can tell you what the future will be, but I can tell you that right now, I, and countless other people, identify as nonbinary, and that is what we will be until further notice.
I still feel weird about this. Is that okay?
Yes, and that’s normal. You are being asked to make a change, and that can be uncomfortable. I find change uncomfortable too.
It’s okay to be scared and make mistakes, but you are expected to try.
What is not okay is to reject someone because you are afraid or to ignore these changes because you feel inconvenienced.
Your nonbinary loved ones, friends, coworkers, and celebrities are the same people you’ve always known. Their personalities have not changed. They want you to be included in their life and to be included in yours.
Previously published on “Equality Includes You”, a Medium publication.
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