Sociology Index


Gender Identities

What is the meaning of nonbinary? Trans rights are human rights! Nonbinary people do exist and deserve our acceptance and support. We can all support the nonbinary community by celebrating the evolution of language to describe gender beyond the binary, especially on International Nonbinary People’s Day. Gender is often an ongoing journey of self-discovery. There are many gender identities that exist beyond the binary. Transgender Day of Visibility or Transgender Day honors the transgender and nonbinary community as a group. International Nonbinary People’s Day, which falls on July 14th, raises awareness for people with gender identities that do not fit into the male/female binary. Gender identity, or one’s internal understanding of one’s gender, is different from gender presentation, or how one’s gender is perceived and interpreted in the world. We shouldn’t assume what a person’s gender identity is based on whether they are presenting in a way that is interpreted as masculine or feminine, such as by dress or behavior, or is perceived to be a specific gender due to secondary sex characteristics. There is no right way to be nonbinary, and there is no right way to express nonbinary status. Some people identify with a nonbinary gender: A nonbinary person identifies with a gender outside of “the male-female gender binary,” such as an agender person, whose gender identity is gender-neutral rather than specifically male or female.

Agender or neutrois people do not identify with any gender; while their internal orientation is gender-neutral, they may physically present in a variety of ways or use varying pronouns. Xenogender used as an term for an entire category of nonbinary genders that are defined by characteristics with no relation whatsoever to “female” or “male.” Other gender identities may fluctuate between or identify their gender in masculine, feminine, or androgynous ways, without a fixed identity as a “man” or “woman.” Genderqueer, genderfluid, or genderflux people experience a fluid or fluctuating gender among a variety of gender identities and expressions. Pangender people have a gender identity that encompasses the entirety of the gender spectrum. Bigender, demigender, or intergender people may lean more towards one gender identity than another, such as a demigirl. Culture plays a role in how we identify gender. Indian hijra and Samoan fa’afafine cultures, for example, recognize a “third gender.” The term berdache or two-spirits is also used by some modern Indigenous North Americans to describe Native people in their communities whose sexual, gender, or spiritual identity is not binary or heterosexual.

In the United States, there is now legal recognition of genders besides male and female, such as introducing the letter X as a nonbinary or other gender marker on identification documents. As of 2019 in the state of Oregon, any person can select X on their driver’s license or identification card without any requirements of proof of gender.

Nonbinary people are generally included under the term transgender, which refers to people whose gender identity does not correspond with their sex assigned at birth. While transgender and nonbinary people are often discussed as a group, there are many distinct genders within this group.

Like transgender, nonbinary is also used as a general term, but there are many ways to identify outside the binary. There are those whose gender identity is not fixed, such as gender-fluid people; experience a variety of masculine, feminine, or androgynous identities, such as pangender people; do not identify with any gender, such as agender people.

Our society has begun to see gender beyond a two-label system, and an increasing number of young people are now identifying as nonbinary. One in four LGBTQ youth surveyed in The Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health identified outside of the gender binary, and youth surveyed used over 100 different words to describe their gender identity.

According to new research by The Trevor Project released during Pride month 2020, distinct differences in mental health outcomes exist among members of the transgender and nonbinary population. Labels also allow researchers to study specific identities and their outcomes, informing the policies and programs we create to support the transgender and nonbinary community. Normative identity for a person is binary, that is, male or female, and cisgender, having a gender identity that corresponds with one’s biological sex assigned at birth.

No matter what sex a person is assigned at birth, they can be: a boy or a man, a girl or a woman. We would define their gender identity as binary. Some transgender people identify as nonbinary. Some nonbinary people identify as transgender. While transgender and nonbinary people as a group have much in common, there are also differences in lived experience and mental health outcomes between trans men, trans women, and nonbinary people.

Some people identify with a binary gender: A binary transgender man identifies simply as a man, and a binary transgender woman identifies as a woman. Trans men and Trans women should never be forced to disclose their identity or personal medical history to satisfy the curiosity of cisgender people.

Binary and nonbinary people may need different social support: Binary people may prefer gendered language when referring to themselves, whereas nonbinary people may prefer gender-neutral language to be adopted so that identities outside the binary can be recognized and acknowledged. A trans woman may prefer the term mother over parent, whereas a nonbinary parent might prefer the term parent over mother or father.

Cisgender, transgender, and nonbinary people also have a sexual orientation, which includes the asexual spectrum. Just because you know someone’s gender does not mean you know their sexual orientation. The Trevor Project shows that transgender and nonbinary youth were 2 to 2.5 times as likely to seriously consider and attempt suicide compared to their cisgender peers within the LGBTQ community. Transgender and nonbinary youth also reported having been physically threatened or harmed at nearly twice the rate of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer youth.

Nonbinary vs. gender non-conforming vs. gender-variant

Nonbinary is sometimes used as an umbrella term for all people whose gender isn’t strictly male or female. Researchers historically used the term gender non-conforming to refer to this group, but this was not as often used by people within the community to describe their gender. It fell out of popularity as it implied gender is something one must “conform” to. Terms such as gender-variant or gender-diverse people are also used, but nonbinary has become the more common term.

Nonbinary Identities

The term nonbinary is commonly applied to a group of people, but it does not mean that everyone who may be classified outside the binary necessarily identifies with or prefers the term nonbinary. Different words or labels are used to more clearly express the nuances of that particular gender. Even though they are often included under nonbinary genders, these words to describe identity are not necessarily interchangeable or synonymous. Before labeling a person as nonbinary, it’s important to make sure that you know how that person identifies their gender before assuming which word they prefer to use to describe themselves.

Intersex people have also fought legal battles to have their correct genders recognized on birth certificates, such as nonbinary intersex writer and activist Hida Viloria, who was able to change her birth certificate to “intersex” in New York in 2017. Intersex babies are born with any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals that do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies. Sex does not define gender, and intersex people may grow up to identify as male, female, nonbinary, or another gender identity.

The Trevor Project found that, while transgender and nonbinary people as a whole have higher rates of suicidality than their cisgender peers, there are differences between transgender and nonbinary people. Language for nonbinary identities allows us to observe where the nonbinary community may need additional support, as well as to notice differences in outcomes depending on challenges relating to sex assignment at birth.

When describing a nonbinary identity, sex assigned at birth is sometimes used as a shorthand to describe one’s identity, that is, if you were assigned female at birth (AFAB nonbinary) or if you were assigned male at birth (AMAB nonbinary). Sex is not binary. Hopefully, future studies will look at people assigned intersex at birth. Sex assignment should never be used to define a person’s gender, but it can provide researchers with information about differences in lived experiences based on perceived gender or healthcare challenges associated with one’s body or anatomy. When we look at the results for symptoms of depression, we can see that cisgender lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer women, and transgender women have similar outcomes, but disparities exist among trans men and AFAB nonbinary people. AFAB nonbinary people and trans men outpace other groups for symptoms of depression, AFAB nonbinary people have slightly lower rates of suicide attempts than transgender women, while transgender men show an even more significant need for support.

There are a variety of struggles within the transgender and nonbinary community. We can’t simply say one gender identity has it worst across all outcomes, because the struggles of each gender identity measured here is different, intersectional, and complex. Language allows us to gather data to help understand these complexities.

Data allows us to recognize our commonalities and our differences. By grounding our understanding of gender in research, rather than anecdotal evidence or stereotypes, we can work together to support the transgender and nonbinary people who are most vulnerable within our community.

We all deserve language to self-define our gender and to communicate our gender to each other. Allies can show their support by educating themselves on gender identity, and adopting an attitude of curiosity rather than frustration or disapproval. Within the transgender community, we can support nonbinary people by appreciating our community’s diversity, and refraining from assuming that we all share the same experiences with gender.

Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages by Roland Betancourt A fascinating history of marginalized identities in the medieval world. While the term “intersectionality” was coined in 1989, the existence of marginalized identities extends back over millennia. Byzantine Intersectionality reveals the fascinating, little-examined conversations in medieval thought and visual culture around matters of sexual and reproductive consent, bullying and slut-shaming, homosocial and homoerotic relationships, trans and nonbinary gender identities, and the depiction of racialized minorities.