clock menu more-arrow no yes

A genderqueer activist explains what it means to be nonbinary on the gender spectrum

Not everyone identifies as a man or woman. You may have heard of this idea talked about before — usually described as being genderqueer or nonbinary. But what exactly does that mean?

In a great video by NBC News, genderqueer activist Jacob Tobia explains what it means to fall outside of the gender spectrum. Here’s Tobia’s explanation in full:

The first time that you heard the term binary, it was probably in a computer class. Unlike people, computers are built entirely around binaries. All computer code is written as a series of 0’s or 1’s, and the order of the 0’s and 1’s helps your smartphone know how to upload pictures onto Instagram — or something like that.

Anyway, binary systems, like computer systems, assume that you can be only one of two things — you’re hot or you’re cold, you’re yes or you're no, you’re up or you’re down. I mean, I can go on, but I think you get the point.

Here’s the problem: People don’t work like computers. Our identities, our thoughts, and our beliefs can't always be sorted easily into two categories. In the world we live in, we set up two distinct categories — man and woman — that everyone must choose between. But that doesn't actually reflect the full diversity of the human experience.

Within the categories of man and woman, there is incredible diversity of gender expression. And some people, like me, don't really feel good in either category. Instead of choosing, we want to live in a world where gender and sexuality can be more fluid, more playful, and can exist outside of such explicit sorting between one category or the other.

This is what it means to be genderqueer or nonbinary: People who identify in this way generally don't identify or express as men or women, instead adopting gender roles and traits outside society’s typical expectations and other times taking elements from both masculinity and femininity. Androgynous people can also fall into this category if they identify their gender as neither male nor female. (There are nuanced differences between the terms genderqueer and nonbinary — although they’re fairly similar and often used interchangeably.)

This is not, however, the same thing as being transgender. Although some people who identify as trans are genderqueer or nonbinary, most simply identify as male or female — meaning they do fit into the binary of man and woman. So a trans man is a man, a trans woman is a woman, and a genderqueer or nonbinary person, who may identify as trans or may not, is genderqueer or nonbinary.

For more on the topic of gender identity and expression, check out Vox’s explainer.

If you identify as genderqueer or nonbinary and would like to share your story with Vox (for a project similar to this one), please contact German Lopez at german@vox.com.


Watch: Anti-transgender bathroom hysteria, explained