By Kai River Blevins

Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities. Do you have a word that needs defining? Let us know!

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Gender nonconforming is a complicated term that can be used in a few different ways, but for now we’re going to focus on what it means when someone identifies as a gender nonconforming person.

Define It:

Gender nonconforming is a term that some people use to describe themselves when they do not dress, behave, or otherwise “fit in” with gender expectations.

Explain It:

Now that we have a definition, let’s get into what it means to be gender nonconforming. Typically, people who are gender nonconforming will express this identity through individual expression: how they dress, walk, talk, and act in the world.
In our society, pretty much every way that a person behaves, dresses, speaks, moves, and interacts with others is gendered. Women are expected to act, dress, speak, and move in specific ways simply because they are women, and men are expected to act, dress, speak, and move in specific ways simply because they are men. For example, women are often expected to wear dresses, be mothers, cross their legs, smile, and have long hair. Men are often expected to be strong, breadwinners, emotionless, and wear pants and neckties.
Gender nonconforming is used as an identity term in two ways. First, it can be an umbrella term. Often, people say “trans and gender nonconforming (GNC)” as a way to describe people who, regardless of their gender identity (you do not have to identify as trans to identify as gender nonconforming), do not adhere to gender expectations.
Second, people can use the term gender nonconforming as a label for their own gender identity. Much like the identity term non-binary, people who use gender nonconforming to describe their identity do not fit in the traditional categories of “men” or “women.” Gender nonconforming people fit into the non-binary community because they don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth or with either of the two traditional binary genders (man and woman). However, this does not mean that gender nonconforming people cannot be men or women. For example, some gender nonconforming people identify as “gender nonconforming men” or “gender nonconforming women.” If this seems a little confusing, consider that gender categories are not mutually exclusive. In other words, people don’t always have just one gender. In this way, gender nonconforming people can have ‘gender nonconforming’ as the only gender identity term they use, or they can use a combination of terms to express their gender identity.

Debunk It:

Only transgender people are gender nonconforming. As noted above, this isn’t true! Anyone can identify as gender nonconforming, including men, women, and non-binary people alike.
All people who identify as gender nonconforming are transgender or non-binary. Much like the answer above, this isn’t true! While it might be helpful to think of gender nonconforming as being similar to non-binary or transgender identities, it is important to remember that not all gender nonconforming people use those terms to describe themselves. For example, some people identify as gender nonconforming women or gender nonconforming men. As with all identities, each person has their own relationship to the term, their own understanding of what it means for them, and their own combination of identity terms to best describe their experience with gender and sexuality.
Gender nonconforming people all use “they/them” pronouns. When it comes to pronouns, the general rule is to always ask someone what pronouns they use. The rule isn’t any different here! Gender nonconforming people use a wide variety of pronouns, from the binary pronouns “he/him” and “she/her” to gender neutral and other pronouns. Instead of assuming someone’s pronouns, make it a habit to learn everyone’s pronouns. If you’re in a group, the easiest way to do this is to tell others your pronouns first, and then ask everyone to let you know which pronouns they use. This is a good practice because you not only create an environment where sharing your pronouns is a normal thing, but you also give gender nonconforming people and others the space to share their pronouns without being singled out or overlooked. And if you forget a person’s pronouns or meet someone new, you can always politely ask them in private which pronouns they use.
Be sure to check out the rest of The Defining Series right here!

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Kai River Blevins is a genderqueer/femme poet, community organizer, and graduate student from western New York who now lives in Salem, Oregon. When Kai isn’t doing homework or writing on their blog, Queer as Life, they love to read, color, cook delicious vegan food, and spend time with their loving partner and adorable fur-child, Sir Reginald, the Earl of Puppydom. Follow them on Twitter @queeraslife

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3 thoughts on “Defining: Gender Nonconforming

  1. I’m hoping to get an answer to a question or two. I am trying to adjust to the new terminologies, and it gets confusing for us older people. Is gender nonconforming the same as inter-sexed? Is a tomboy gender nonconforming? How about a woman who prefers to wear pants? How traditional is the behaviour that is used to define gender nonconforming? Back in the Neolithic Period when I was young, we fought for acceptance of nontraditional interests as being just as normal for anyone regardless of gender. Are we no longer considering it normal for a woman to want to be a firefighter for example? How can using the word “it” for human being be ok when that is the word for an inanimate object? A person is not an inanimate object.

    I hope you are willing to answer my questions without attacking me. In a world where an incorrect pronoun on Twitter results in death threats, I am actually afraid to ask such things, or discuss them. Please understand that I am trying to learn, and not to be difficult or insulting.

    1. Hello Karen! First of all, thank you for reaching out with your questions. We really respect and appreciate your willingness to learn here, and we know that it can feel really intimidating to ask these kinds of questions. My name is Grace and I’m the Managing Editor here at My Kid Is Gay, and our wonderful intern, Hannah, helped write out responses to your questions. There is a lot packed in there, so we will do our best to address everything!

      To start, intersex is not the same as gender nonconforming. Intersex refers to biological variations (chromosomal, genital, or gonadal) outside of the narrowly defined boxes of male or female sex. If you haven’t already, you can read more about the term intersex here. The term gender nonconforming, on the other hand, is a term some people use to describe their gender performance that falls outside of masculinity or femininity—things like what clothes they wear, whether or not they choose to wear makeup or jewelry, and what pronouns they use for themselves (she, he, they, and others). You can think of the difference in terms of biology vs. expression. While it is possible to be both intersex and identify as gender nonconforming, they are not the same thing.

      The cool thing about gender nonconformity is that it is an identity that you claim for yourself—people who connect with the term can identify with it, and people who don’t, don’t have to! It’s possible for someone to identify as a tomboy and gender nonconforming, but not inherently so. Women can want to wear pants or be a firefighter, but that does not inherently mean that they are gender nonconforming. As you know, we do owe a lot to the previous generations for helping to break down these gendered stereotypes and allow for more variation and overlap between categories of masculinity and femininity. What being gender nonconforming boils down to, though, is whether or not the person in question has claimed the identity for themselves. It is about a specific person’s identity with the term that makes them gender nonconforming, rather than specific lists of likes/dislikes and behaviors that makes them so.

      As for your last question, “it” is generally never an acceptable way to refer to someone, just as you said, because a person is not an inanimate object. Instead, there are many sets of pronouns, other than he/him/his or she/her/hers that people use. The use of the singular they/them/theirs is common, as well as xe/xem/xyr and others—you can read more about those here and here. Remember, it is ok to respectfully ask what pronouns a person uses so that you can be confident that you are using the correct words to refer to them. An example of something to say would be, “Hi, my name is Grace and I use she/her pronouns. What pronouns do you use?”

      I hope this is helpful. Thanks again for reaching out to us here at My Kid Is Gay and for your respectful engagement and willingness to learn! <3

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