Updated: Aug 23, 2022
The more I read about nonbinary folks and the more I see cis folks try and talk about nonbinary folks, the more I understand that this is just a giant ball of confusion for many people. As someone who has understood gender isn’t binary and has been living as a nonbinary person for way longer than it has been in the mass media, it always surprises me how much so many folks struggle with the concept. So dear reader, here are a few things I think might help clear up some issues.
1. Gender isn’t just “boy” and “girl.”
Years ago when I was in undergrad I was trying to explain who I experience gender to some people. This was in the way, way back times of the early 1990s. Terms like “nonbinary,” “genderqueer,” “gender fluid” and “agender” simply didn’t exist and were not part of the language. While there was a growing understanding of trans, most trans folks were largely unseen and unacknowledged even by the queer community.
I think of gender as stereo equalizer. There are buttons for the biology you were born with (think “on” or “off” for secondary sex characteristics like penis, vagina, and breasts). Then there are slider bars for things like “typically feminine” and “typically male” gender expressions like how you wear your hair, how you walk, and how you talk. There is another set of balancing bars for how you feel about your gender. You feel “female” or “male” or “no gender.” Bars are set differently for everybody and for many of us, the move throughout our lives.
For a “typical” cis woman, breast and vagina buttons would be “on.” Gender feeling would be high on feminine and low on masculine. Gender expression would be higher on feminine than masculine. However, these bars can move around and change and be set at all different combinations, so you begin to see how complex gender actually is.
2. Nonbinary isn’t synonymous with trans.
Transgender typically refers to someone whose gender expression and gender feelings don’t align with the gender they were assigned based on the genitals the doctor saw at birth. Transgender is a type of nonbinary person, but not all nonbinary people identify as trans. Some trans folks identify with binary genders. Some do not.
3. Not all nonbinary folks want sex affirming surgery.
How we choose to express our gender and what we need to feel comfortable in our bodies differs for each nonbinary person. Some nonbinary folks want to change their bodies to fit how they feel. This may be as simple as wearing their hair a certain way, wearing chest binders, wearing a prosthetic penis, or wearing the clothing of their gender. For others it can be taking hormones to help alter their bodies and changing their speaking voices. For some, it can involve surgery. Engaging in any or all of these activities does not make one more or less nonbinary or more or less trans.
4. Nonbinary folks may or may not use their legal birth name.
Some nonbinary folks are happy with their legal birth names (I’m one of them). Some want a name that reflects who they are now and use a different name. Using a name that aligns with your assigned gender or your actual gender does not make someone more or less nonbinary.
Many of us nonbinary folks are also performers (I know too many nonbinary performers to count anymore). We use stage names, nom de plumes, and all sorts of alternative names. That name does not change our gender. However, we expect you to use the name we ask you to use as a sign of respect.
5. Nonbinary does not mean androgynous.
Some nonbinary folks are androgynous, some are not. Some keep one look for long periods of time that is in line with their gender (a nonbinary person may look and dress “femme” for years). We do not necessarily dress as the “opposite” gender or as an androgynous person. We often dress based on the occasion and location we will be at (we have work clothes, date night clothes, beach clothes) and changing our style or “gender” of clothing does not change our gender.
6. Sex, Gender and Sexual Orientation are all different things!
Sex is something that refers to our genitals and our bodies.
Gender is a complex psychological concept that most people discover well after birth. We learn what it means socially to be “male” and “female” and “nonbinary.” We discover our own identities. Sometimes we feel that our gender matches our sex, sometimes it doesn’t, and for some of us, it is difficult to describe the connection.
Sexual orientation is about who we are are sexually attracted too. I may find men, or women or nonbinary folks attractive. Depending on my own gender then, I could figure out a sexual orientation (hetero, homo, bi, pan).
It is completely possible for someone to be an agender female pansexual (hi, right here). Others can be nonbinary male heterosexuals or trans female lesbians or any of dozens of permutations.
7. I don’t have to disclose my gender to demand you respect me.
I see a lot of rants by TERFs and other bigots in both the hetero and queer communities that those of us who are nonbinary must disclose our gender immediately upon meeting them or we are somehow “lying” to other people. My simple take is, “Go eat a donkey dick.”
Gender is complex and personal for many of us. While cis folks may feel completely comfortable shouting out their gender from the top of their lungs, many nonbinary folks understand that there is a great risk of harm in doing that. We are not lying by choosing to have some discretion and self-preservation. If we ask you to use a specific pronoun, just do that. It isn’t an assault on your world. I will use your cis het preferred pronoun without a fight, you can use mine. It is being a decent person.
If you are reading this and getting angry and arguing with me in your head that I must come out to you when we meet, you are the reason I don’t come out all the time. That anger some of you readers are building up can translate into very real physical harm for nonbinary folks.
So try this, take a deep breath. Realize my identity has nothing to do with you. Now go and use the pronouns folks ask you too.