As a genderqueer person who works with sexual education and in my free time write about gender, sexuality, etc, I often encounter people who are confused about what exactly it means to be genderqueer or non-binary. What’s the difference between being non-binary and just not conforming to gender norms, they ask. Well, as it is Transgender Day of Visibility, I thought I would attempt to answer.
First of all, I want to note that this is just one answer to this question, and I no means intend to speak for all non-binary people. Second of all, I here use non-binary as a sort of catch-all-term for people who describe their gender as being outside of the gender binary (i.e. not man or woman, or not exclusively man or woman), but I acknowledge that not everyone who fit that description would call themselves non-binary. Third of all, not everyone who see themselves as non-binary would describe themselves as trans. I personally do, which I thought it might be fitting to publish this on Transgender Day of Visibility, but not everyone does. I will get into some possible reasons for this why later on. But first off, I wanted to relate a bit of my own experience of being non-binary, which will then lead me into some more scholarly perspectives.
I was assigned female at birth and was therefore raised as a girl, however, I never really fit in with the other girls. For most of my childhood and teenage years I could probably be described as a “tomboy”, being much more comfortable when I was out in the forest with my scout troop, getting sweaty and dirty, than I was trying to fit in with the popular and feminine girls in school. I often felt like I had missed some unspoken rule, like there was a script or manual that everyone else was following, that I just hadn’t read. While I sometimes tried to dress more feminine, wearing makeup and push-up bras, I still didn’t feel like I fit in. I was also bullied for quite a lot of this time, mocked for being weird by my classmates. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this, both people who are cis and trans. When I started high school, things got a bit better, I got new friends and, perhaps crucially, I found some feminist and LGBTQ+ spaces. This helped me understand myself more, and I got more tools for analysing gender norms, etc. At this point I saw myself as a queer woman, as I was (and am) attracted to people regardless of their gender. I generally dressed in a mix of feminine and masculine clothing at this point, but hadn’t started questioning my gender. I knew that people who were non-binary existed, I had several friends who were non-binary, but I didn’t see myself as non-binary.
When I was twenty, I started thinking more about what it really meant for me to be a woman. I had recently moved to a new town, where I was to live for a year while studying at the university there. Moving from the city where I grew up and getting to know new people made me consider a lot of things in a new light. At this time, I was also studying gender studies at university, reading a lot about both womanhood and gender in general. Now, I realise that it’s a stereotype that taking gender studies will make you queer, but it did influence me in a way. It’s not that it made my gender identity change in of itself, but spending all of my time reading about gender forced me to confront my own feelings and experiences. Crucially, it made me realise how much I didn’t identify with womanhood. I kept reading texts about women, about women’s oppression, about women’s experience, and I just felt “this isn’t me.” I could recognise myself in some of it, I had been raised as a woman after all, and I could relate to the expectations put upon women (be feminine! Be into guys!) but I just didn’t feel like the texts I read talked about me. After that slow realisation, I had what I jokingly called “my gender identity crisis”, where I over the next few months tried to figure out what the heck it meant that I didn’t identify with other women. I started realising that when someone referred to me as a woman, for instance saying “hi girls!” or “us women”, I didn’t feel like that included me. It’s honestly hard to describe, but it was just this gut feeling that told me that I didn’t belong in that group. After a while, I settled on describing the way I experienced my gender as being genderqueer, since I queered gender. I question(ed) what gender was, how people should act according to gender, and what it means to be a man or a woman. A lot of this was the same thing as I had done for years: I didn’t behave according to gender norms, I questioned gender norms. But what had changed was that I had realised that I didn’t feel like a woman. This feeling in my gut told me I wasn’t a woman, that when someone referred to me as a woman that was wrong. But I also definitely knew that I didn’t feel like a man, even if I was masculine at times.
After this realisation, I started coming out to people, and a few months later changed my name from my very feminine sounding name to a more gender neutral one. I felt like this more closely fit how I saw myself and would (perhaps) make people less likely to immediately assume I was a woman. After coming out, I slowly became feeling more secure and comfortable in myself. I could for instance dress more comfortably in feminine clothes, and still feel like me, still feel queer, because I knew in my heart that I was. I was also more comfortable about for instance not shaving my legs before going swimming, because I felt less pressure about conforming to feminine beauty ideals when I had accepted that I wasn’t a woman. There are still moments when I feel deeply uncomfortable, for instance when I get misgendered. When someone assumes that I’m a woman, refer to me as “she” or use feminine coded words (“sister”, “daughter”, “girl”, etc). When that happens, I often feel like I’ve been punched me in the chest. Sometimes it feels like a stab in the heart, sometimes just as a light push. The intensity depends, but it always hurts. I know people don’t mean it, but it still hurts. I think it hurts the most when people who didn’t know me before I came out does it. That makes me realise that they, deep down, don’t see me as me. They still see me as a girl, a woman. It’s always a little extra heart-breaking. Because I know so clearly, in my soul, in my bones, that I’m not a woman. I’m genderqueer.
So, now that I have described my experience, I would like to compare it to what different researchers have found when analysing non-binary people’s experience. As I noted above, for many non-binary people, gender is experienced as something you feel. You feel that you’re not the gender you were assigned at birth, you feel that you’re something else. One good explanation of this comes from Dr. Dana Stachowiak who writes:
This felt sense [of gender] manifests through our lived experiences in relation to the social construction of gender and the attributes that are socially linked to what mediates masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and so forth. How we identify or disidentify with socially constructed ideals is attached to the multiplicity of our identity. (…) Felt sense of gender essentially translates to a critical embodiment of self, driven by both the corporeal body and the psyche, and the impact of social, cultural, and institutional theories of hegemony on both the body and the psyche. (2017, 535)
Essentially, a non-binary person will identify and disidentify with different aspects of gender, perhaps identifying as feminine but not as a woman, or as androgynous and not a man or a woman. As a non-binary person, you spend your time negotiating your experience and feelings with what society assumes you should feel, and ending up with “a critical embodiment of self”, generally being quite aware of both your body and psyche and how they do or do not match in the way society assumes they should. As Dr. Igi Moon writes from a psychological perspective, when you first experience that divide between how you experience/feel your gender and what society expects (based on your body), that can be quite disorientating (2019). It can feel as if the rug is pulled from underneath you, it can feel unsettling. For many non-binary people, this first realisation leads to trying to negotiate one’s feelings of “in-betweenness” (not being quite a woman, not quite a man), and finding a one’s footing in this liminal space between genders. When that footing is then found, one generally finds it easier to express themselves, feeling more at peace. Moon describes this feeling as “the consolidation of dis-orientation and liminality. There is a sense of ‘self’ as somehow ‘beyond’ cis-gender male or female.” (Moon 2019, 74) This, I think, is what in the end differentiates being non-binary (or genderqueer or any similar term) from just being a man or a woman that breaks gender norms in terms of dress or behaviour. There’s a deep-seated feeling that one’s self is not male or female.
Another difference, I think, concerns one’s experience when moving throughout the world. As I mentioned when telling my story, when people refer to you as a binary gender even while you’re non-binary, that hurts. In a study of trans and non-binary people’s health, it’s described like this:
One of the stronger narratives concerned experiences of repeatedly being misgendered (being referred to by the wrong pronoun, name or gender) or in other ways not having one’s identity respected. (…) The repetitiveness created feelings of fear and self-doubt. Not having your identity recognised by others (a kind of repetitive violence) can affect your health and presence in the world. Participants described how they withdrew from particular spaces and how feeling unsafe limited their lives. Their experiences ranged from avoiding specific spaces that were seen as unsafe, such as pubs, gyms, baths and public toilets, to avoiding almost all spaces except for controlled environments with close friends. (Linander, Goicolea, Alm, Hammarström & Harryson 2019, 919)
As Linander et al. note, this is something that happens both with trans people in general and with non-binary people. In studies made by organisations that work to support LGBTQ+ rights, it has also been noted that non-binary people can often have it especially hard to have their gender be recognised by their surroundings (RFSL 2017, 30). One explanation for this could be that while binary trans people have gained some acceptance (albeit little), claiming a gender identity completely outside of the binary is still extremely difficult to grasp for many (most) people. As several researchers have noted, society in general assumes that if someone doesn’t identify as the gender they are assigned at birth, then they must want to transition into the opposite gender (eg. Krieg 2013; Bremer 2017; Bolton 2019). Much of this can be traced back to the medical understanding of being trans, i.e. that it’s a medical condition to be treated by turning the patient from one binary sex into the other. In that way the patient can then be reintegrated into society as a “coherent” man or woman. Many binary trans people have questioned this view and argue that they are not sick people to be fixed, regardless of if they want gender affirming treatment or not (see for instance Stryker 1994). This view has also made it difficult for binary trans people who don’t want to medically transition, or not “fully” do so, since they are then not seen as “proper” men/women (Bremer 2013). The way transness is sometimes understood as so binary is one reason that some non-binary people feel like that term doesn’t describe them. Personally, I see “trans” as describing a movement, a transition, away from something, so for me a movement away from my assigned gender toward being genderqueer/non-binary, but I obviously respect other people’s view. Regardless, for non-binary people, this societal view of (trans)gender means that their gender is not fully understood by people who don’t understand what it means to have a gender outside of the binary. This non-understanding can often lead to questions such as the one I started this essay discussing: What’s the difference between being non-binary and just not conforming to gender norms? What’s the difference between being a masculine girl or a feminine boy and being non-binary? As I’ve attempted to explain here, the difference is that you have this embodied feeling of not being a man or a woman. You feel it in your guts, in your bones. It feels wrong when someone refers to you as a man or a woman. Some non-binary people experience discomfort with their bodies, specifically body parts that are very gendered, like breasts (Bolton 2019). This can be due to feeling like this part of one’s body doesn’t fit one’s self-conception, or that it makes other people see oneself in a way that doesn’t fit one’s self-conception. For other non-binary people this is less of a big deal.
There’s a million different ways of being non-binary, but what one can say is the unifying trait is not experiencing one’s gender as being a woman nor a man. It’s not just dressing in a masculine way as someone assigned female at birth, or in a feminine way as someone assigned as male at birth. Non-binary people can be feminine, masculine, neither, or a mix of both. It isn’t just gender presentation. It’s how you conceptualise yourself, your identity, perhaps even your soul. It’s feeling strongly that you’re not a man nor a woman. For me it’s also a frustration with having to use these overly simplistic and binary terms to describe my gender, because I know in my heart that what my gender is cannot be captured by those words. My gender overflows these gendered boxes, it leaks through the confines made by the gender binary. It always has in the sense that I’ve been gender nonconforming all my life, but what makes me non-binary is that my very being exists outside of the any gendered script. Who I am cannot be described fully by words because this language is not accustomed to describing people such as me. In the words of writer and activist Eli Clare:
I’m hungry for an image to describe my gendered self, something more than the shadowland of neither man nor woman, more than a suspension bridge tethered between negatives. (2003, 260)
While we hunger for a language to fully describe us, we’ll have to make do with the imperfect tools we have. Which is what I have attempted in this essay, describing my queering of gender and my non-binary self. I hope it has been helpful to you, dear reader.
Bolton, Rillark M. 2019. “Reworking Testosterone as a Man’s Hormone: Non-binary People using Testosterone within a Binary Gender System.” Somatechnics 9(1): 13-31.
Bremer, Signe. 2013. “Penis as Risk: A Queer Phenomenology of Two Swedish Transgender Women’s Narratives on Gender Correction.” Somatechnics 3(2): 329–350.
Bremer, Signe. 2017. Kroppslinjer: Kön, transsexualism och kropp i berättelser om könskorrigering. Makadam: Göteborg.
Clare, Eli. 2003. “Gawking, Gaping, Staring.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9(1-2): 257-261.
Krieg, Josephine. 2013. “A Social Model of Trans and Crip Theory. Narratives and Strategies in the Redefinition of the Pathologized Trans Subject.” lambda nordica 3-4/2013, 33-53.
Linander, Ida., Isabel Goicolea, Erika Alm, Anne Hammarström & Lisa Harryson. 2019. “(Un)safe spaces, affective labour and perceived health among people with trans experiences living in Sweden.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 21(8): 914-928.
Moon, Igi. 2018. “‘Boying’ the boy and ‘girling’ the girl: From affective interpellation to trans-emotionality.”, Sexualities 22(1-2): 65-79.
Stachowiak, Dana M. 2017. “Queering it up, strutting our threads, and baring our souls: genderqueer individuals negotiating social and felt sense of gender.” Journal of Gender Studies 26(5): 532-543.
Stryker, Susan. 1994. “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: Performing transgender rage.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1(3): 237-254.
RFSL. 2017. “In society I don’t exist, so it’s impossible to be who I am.” – Trans people’s health and experiences of healthcare in Sweden. https://www.rfsl.se/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Trans_health_2017_RFSL.pdf