Transgender Americans and their struggles have become much more prominent in recent times. Last year, an article about the transgender rights movement focusing on actress Laverne Cox made the cover of TIME magazine;[i] and earlier this year, Caitlyn Jenner made her transition from male to female public, discussing it in interviews with 20/20[ii] and Vanity Fair.[iii] It would be fair to say, then, that there is a fair amount of public interest and discussion on the subject of transgender people and the life they experience at present. However, most of the public discourse appears to focus on a clearly delineated change: male to female, female to male. But for many people, gender can actually a much more complicated issue than simply being one or the other.
People who do not feel they fit in the world as either male or female will often refer to themselves as “genderqueer” or “nonbinary” rather than simply transgender.[iv] Both are umbrella terms used to cover many ranges of gender expression. Some people will use both terms interchangeably; others feel they have slightly different connotations. For the purposes of this article, I will be using the term “nonbinary” to refer to this group of people, as it came into use for this purpose more recently than “genderqueer,” and I have seen it used more often in recent discussions of gender. The word nonbinary refers to the fact that these people consider themselves as living outside of the gender binary, which is to say, the male/female dichotomy we usually think of when describing a person’s gender.
Nonbinary people can experience or express their gender in a variety of different ways. Some of them are intersex, people who were born appearing more ambiguous in their genitalia and were assigned a gender at birth by a doctor, or with a genetic makeup that does not fit the norm.[v] Others are agender, people who feel they have no gender at all. Some people feel their performance of gender is radically different from their sex, but don’t wish to identify as the opposite gender of their assigned sex. These are only a few examples among many of what is encompassed by nonbinary gender, and some people do not feel the need to fit themselves into a neat category at all, and instead simply explain themselves as they feel necessary. I have nonbinary friends myself, but their experiences of their gender differ from each other, even though they put themselves under the same umbrella. For example, one friend uses only the term nonbinary to describe their gender, and does not pay attention to or alter performative aspects of gender such as clothing or mannerisms; still, being described as a specific gender makes them viscerally uncomfortable. Another identifies as genderfluid, and dresses and behaves in a more masculine or feminine manner depending on which they feel closer to at any given time. Nonbinary is a category covering a wide range of people, and every nonbinary person’s experience of their gender and preference in how they carry themselves and how others treat them will vary depending on them.
Of course, this is a lot to keep track of, especially when our society is accustomed to thinking of gender as being one thing or the other. It can be very confusing, and some people don’t understand why others would want to identify as something besides male or female, or what the point is in remembering all these terms, pronouns and preferences. However, for the most part a nonbinary person’s internal workings are not going to intersect with the lives of those they interact with. Usually, if it even comes up, they’ll simply ask people not to refer to them a certain way, or to use the pronouns for them that they would prefer, or something along those lines. Generally, it’s simply a matter of respecting the way they wish to be treated, regardless of personal opinion. And while gender identity can be a fascinating topic to learn about and discuss, it is also important to remember that for many people it can be intensely personal; many non-binary people will not wish to discuss such private matters with those they are not close to, and that is part of respecting them as well. Non-binary people might view themselves as different from others in some ways, but they are still people like anyone else, and deserve to be treated as such.
[ii] Dooley, Sean; Dawson, Margaret; Zak, Lana; Ng, Christina; Effron, Lauren; and Keneally, Megan. (2015). Bruce Jenner: ‘I’m a Woman.’ ABC News, available at: http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/bruce-jenner-im-woman/story?id=30570350, accessed 8/5/2015.
[iii] Leibovitz, Annie. (2015). Caitlyn Jenner: The Full Story. Vanity Fair, available at: http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/06/caitlyn-jenner-bruce-cover-annie-leibovitz, accessed 8/5/2015.
Gender expression and the umbrella of terms by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Elektra Christensen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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