The majority of us still grow up thinking and being taught about people that either they are a girl or a boy. As we get older our definition might expand to include that women and men can look all sorts of ways, but they ultimately have to fit into these 2 distinct categories. Turns out we humans are a bit more diverse than that with gender identities. Meet my adorable friend, the gingerbread person:
Let’s start with the concept of gender identity. As you can see in the image above, this is the concept in someone’s head about their gender. And the options for this actually fall on a spectrum, with man/woman being the two ends of the spectrum, and there is a whole lot of middle to go around. Note that this might be similar or different (to varying degrees) to one’s sex which as you can see is defined by what’s between one’s legs (and all the other sex related physical characteristics such as hormones, internal organs, etc.). (Throughout in this article I will be referring to assigned sex at birth, referring to how people were identified as being a certain sex and matching gender when they were born) So for people whose sex and gender identity align, we use the term cisgender, and for those whom it differs, we use the term transgender. Also as the image above illustrates, gender identity and sex are separate, independent parts of one’s identity. In the same way, one’s sexual orientation (to what kind of gender identities one is attracted to romantically and/or sexually) is separate from these other two elements.
Now, on this gender identity spectrum, those who are not on the two endpoints we are used to (man or woman) fall under the non-binary category. They might just define that as being on neither end of the spectrum or that they are closer to one or the other, or they might move around on this spectrum. Everyone defines non-binary for themselves. Some labels under this umbrella term include: non-binary (as a label itself), genderqueer, gender non-conforming, genderfluid, agender (someone who feels that they don’t have a gender at all), bigender, grey gender, etc. Here is a list of more identities and their definitions. (Since for non-binary people, their gender identity technically doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth, some consider themselves to be part of the trans community and will identify as trans non-binary.) More information on non-binary identities and how to be supportive, here.
Some more resources on the basics:
“What is a nonbinary gender?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruST0GPi68s&ab_channel=RileyJ.Dennis
“Living as a non-binary in a binary world” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pvLDHFCEWk&ab_channel=TEDxTalks
“Are Nonbinary People Trans Enough?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABSOXepvhTA&ab_channel=JacksonBird
Above I mentioned that gender identity is something that is in your head, how you define yourself. But really, we only know this about other people if we go up to them and ask them. But before we would get there (if it’s even appropriate in the situation) we already make assumptions about people based on how they look. This is what we call gender expression: how you dress, act, what are your hobbies, etc. This is also a spectrum, with feminine at the one end and masculine at the other, some flavor of androgynous in the middle (more on the difference between non-binary gender identities and androgyny here). This element plays into how we describe someone as a feminine man, a masculine woman, or an androgynous woman and so on. So what does someone with a non-binary identity look like?
Well, their bodies might be male, female, or intersex. They might experience gender dysphoria (discomfort that one feels about their gender identity not matching their assigned sex at birth; not to be confused with body dysmorphia) and in order to alleviate that, choose to alter their body to better match up with their gender identity. This is what we refer to as medical transition (an umbrella term for many different medical procedures such as hormone replacement therapy, different top or bottom surgeries, etc.) Not everyone undergoes medical translation, but almost all people who are trans in some way, go through social transition. This involves coming out to different groups of people and might involve changing one’s name, using different pronouns, or asking others to use different gendered language.
Some more resources on gender expression and transitioning:
“Why I’m Not a Boy” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EDzapkuN34&ab_channel=AshHardell
“A Non-Binary Transition” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvHWfdEnkmE&ab_channel=TEDxTalks
How to be a good ally?
Some of you reading this article might have realized, that they are not actually cisgender, and that’s okay. I encourage you to look up a non-binary community near you or online. I recommend you read this article. Some of you might feel that all this is fine but what does it have to do with me? To you I say: If you are cisgender, you can still make all of the difference in someone’s life who is trans and/or non-binary. For that matter, so can you binary trans people.
- Be aware of the use of pronouns, gendered language, and inclusive spaces
- Don’t assume someone’s gender – ask what pronouns they prefer and/or what sort of gendered language.
- If you mess up, that’s okay, apologies and you’ll get it right eventually. (Don’t apologize at length, it’s just awkward for all involved.)
- Whatever our gender identity, we all receive pressure from society at large to conform to binary gender expression.
- Binary trans people feel this when they want to “pass” (ie. the goal is for other’s to perceive them as the gender identity they identify with and not their sex assigned at birth)
- For non-binary trans folks though, because they are not distinctly feminine or masculine-presenting, they are often perceived to be younger than they are because society links “looking like an adult” to presenting either distinctly feminine or masculine.
- And remember: “You cannot be what you cannot see” (Marian Wright Edelman).If you are in a position to give trans and/or non-binary people the spotlight then please do so. Non-binary entertainment needed! If they are invisible, they might as well not exist. More on this subject in this talk.
The takeaway: you are free to experiment with what really feels comfortable for you (questioning is valid), there is no rush for you to be certain. Your preferences might change. And regardless of your gender identity, always feel free to play around with your gender expression.
Many terms discussed in this article are discussed in more detail in the Trans 101 YouTube video series: watch here.
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