What Does It Mean to Be Genderqueer or Have a Non Binary Gender?

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Discussions of gender have come a long way over the past few decades. Just as there has been a growing understanding of the variations of sexual and racial identity, there has also been an increasing awareness that the historically traditional gender categories of "male" and "female" can be overly restrictive. People aren't just transgender or cisgender. These days, more and more people are describing themselves as genderqueer, genderfluid, non binary, or agender.

These terms mean different things, but they all describe people whose gender identity is something other than simply male or female.

Understanding the Gender Binary

Historically, most people have identified their gender as male or female. These identities are most often correlated with a person's assigned sex at birth. However, there have always been people who identify as a gender that isn't correlated with their assigned sex at birth. Some of those people are transgender. Others have gender identities that are harder to categorize.

The gender binary refers to the notion that gender is an either/or proposition. In a world with binary gender, people are either male or female—a binary choice. However, some people identify as neither male nor female, a combination of male and female, or a different gender entirely. The phrase "off the binary" is usually used by people who do not feel as though the male-female binary is relevant to their identity.

For many years, transgender people were required by medical professionals to identify as the "opposite" sex and plan to transition to become a heterosexual member of that sex in order to qualify to start a medical or surgical transition. Those requirements have become substantially more relaxed over time, mostly thanks to the activism of the transgender community.

This change reflects, in part, a growing acceptance of homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality as healthy sexual orientations.

What Does It Mean to Be Genderqueer or Non Binary?

Some individuals refer to themselves as having a non binary gender, an identity that is also known as "Enby" (Pronounced like the letters N and B). These individuals may identify as off the binary or somewhere between male and female. Non binary people have a wide range of appearances. Some embrace elements of both masculine and feminine clothing and accessories. Some strive for androgyny. (Of note, the word androgyny is a combination of the Greek roots meaning male and female). Others may present in a more binary way but still identify as non binary. It's important to remember that gender presentation or gender expression is what people choose to show the world, but gender identity is who they are.

Genderqueer and non binary are somewhat overlapping categories. Some people actually use the terms to mean the same thing. For others, a genderqueer identity is more equivalent to the sexual orientation of queer. Queer is an umbrella term that encompasses all sexual orientations other than the heterosexual "norm".

Similarly, someone who is genderqueer is someone who does not necessarily identify as non-binary. They may also identify as neither male nor female, both male and female, or some combination of genders.

Someone who identifies as genderfluid has a gender that is not fixed over time. Their gender identity may vary with circumstance or situation or just with time. The extent to which they feel or express their gender may also vary with time. Some people identify very strongly with their gender or genders. They are very aware of their gender and are uncomfortable if misgendered (seen as a gender other than how they identify).

Other people don't find gender to be as salient.

Being Agender

When someone is agender, it means that they do not have a gender identity, or that gender identity isn't a relevant construct for them. In this case, the prefix a- is used to signify without. People who are agender may also identify as genderqueer or non binary. It is important to mention that just as a genderqueer person is not necessarily queer, an agender person is not necessary asexual. People of any gender can have any sexual orientation.

Neutrois and gender neutral are other terms that may be used by people who do not identify as having a gender, or who identify as having a neutral gender.

The Singular They—A Pronoun Primer

Not all genderqueer and non binary people use the same pronouns. There are a variety of pronouns used across different groups. However, one of the most common pronouns used by people who do not identify as male or female is the singular they. "They" is used in place of "he" or"she." "Them" is used in place of "him" or "her". Finally, "their" is used in place of his or hers.

If you don't know what pronouns someone uses, it's alright to ask. In fact, it's far more polite to ask than it is to guess. All you have to do is say, "what pronouns do you prefer?" You can also set a clear example when you're introducing yourself by giving your pronouns. For example, you might say "Hello! I'm Elizabeth, and I use she/her/hers pronouns."

That said, if you're in a group where you're going to ask about one person's pronouns, you should ask about everyone's pronouns. It is inappropriate to single out one person to question, as that can feel like you're targeting them. Instead, you might say something like, "Can we all give our pronouns? I use they/them/their."

A Word From Verywell

The words used to refer to gender are constantly changing. Therefore, it's important to be aware that one person's self-definition may be very different from another's, even if they use the same words to describe their gender identity. The important thing is to respect people's declared gender identities. That means reflecting the words they use to describe themselves, rather than choosing your own. It also means respecting and using their preferred pronouns. After all, every person is an expert in their own life and gets to share who they are with the world. Others are merely observers, not nearly as qualified to describe that person's experience.

Sources:

Bockting W, Coleman E, Deutsch MB, Guillamon A, Meyer I, Meyer W 3rd, Reisner S, Sevelius J, Ettner R. Adult development and quality of life of transgender and gender nonconforming people. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2016 Apr;23(2):188-97. doi: 10.1097/MED.0000000000000232. 

Bosse JD, Chiodo L. It is complicated: gender and sexual orientation identity in LGBTQ youth. J Clin Nurs. 2016 Dec;25(23-24):3665-3675. doi: 10.1111/jocn.13419.

Johns EA, Jin H, Auerswald CL, Wilson EC. Sociodemographic Factors Associated With Trans*female Youth's Access to Health Care in the San Francisco Bay Area. J Adolesc Health. 2017 Apr 21. pii: S1054-139X(17)30100-3. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.02.013.

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