America’s concept of gender is dramatically changing.
"There’s nothing wrong with taking a label for gender and finding out it doesn’t work for you," Yesenia Ruelas, a self-described "gender apathetic" 18-year-old, said. "I went through several labels before I figured out what works for me. And if anyone tries to shame you for quote-unquote experimenting, fuck them. That’s not their business — your gender, your sexuality, whatever. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, feel free to experiment."
It’s a comment that might confuse some people: What does it mean to experiment with gender? And what labels are involved — what is there beyond male and female?
But as LGBTQ and transgender issues drip into mainstream discussion, so too do views that go further to challenge America’s gender norms. It’s now more accepted if someone is a man and loves a man, or if someone is designated a woman at birth and identifies as a man later in life — or perhaps during childhood. Seeing this progress, others are trying to expand concepts of gender even further — to directions many Americans may not be used to.
These groups are known by a variety of names — gender nonconforming, genderqueer, gender nonbinary, genderfluid, and much more — but they tend to share a trait: They totally reject the traditional conception of a "gender binary."
That binary is the idea that gender is limited to only two categories: man or woman. People who identify outside the binary don't identify or express solely 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. An androgynous person, for example, may identify as nonbinary or genderqueer.
In the interest of understanding what it means to live outside the binary, I contacted people who identify as gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and gender nonbinary. I had two big questions for them: How do they describe their identity? And why is it so important that people respect their identity?
For the most part, the interviewees agreed that people should just respect how someone identifies because that’s the right thing to do. But there was also a lot of variety in some of the explanations, as people tied together their own views of themselves and their life experiences with their gender identity and expression.
Some people, for example, identified as genderfluid, so they may change how they express or identify their gender on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. Others used terms unique to themselves, including concepts as differing — at face value, anyway — as "gender-full" and "gender apathetic." Others stuck to terms like genderqueer, but how each person presented or expressed that label could vary wildly.
For people who identify outside the gender binary, that kind of diversity in gender is okay. In fact, it’s the point.
Here are 12 people’s accounts, slightly edited for length and clarity, based on a dozen interviews with people who don’t fit the traditional mold of the gender binary — with their age, location, the pronouns they used to identify themselves, and some of their stories and experiences.
Amanda Sapir: 39. Washington, District of Columbia. She/her.
How do you identify? For me, gender identity and expression has always been something I’ve thought about — since I was a kid. I’ve always felt more masculine, male-identified. Yet I was identified at birth with these physical attributes as female. The word I use to describe it is "gender-full" — that’s how I’ve always seen myself.
Why is your identity important to you? I think respecting one another for who we are as people is fundamentally important. Period.
Also, I think there is a profound usefulness to all of society to have people who are brave enough to explore gender in expansive ways. I think there are gender norms that are damaging to everyone. So respecting my expression of who I am and how that relates to gender could also be useful to cisgender folks, because there are plenty of ways that cisgender men are locked into particular ways of being that they don’t necessarily want. And that’s true for cisgender women. Expectations can be very damaging to everybody.
There’s one way where it could be welcomed that this concept of gender is not as simple as we’ve been taught and that it’s made out to be — and that could be useful for a lot of folks.
But, fundamentally, we should just respect people.
Emily Gorcenski: 34. Charlottesville, Virginia. She/her.
How do you identify? I describe myself as a genderqueer trans woman. I present as mostly feminine. … The thing I most want to be seen as is a transgender woman. I am female, and I am transgender, and those two things are really important to me. There are a lot of ways to be trans, but I would want people to see that I’m just an ordinary woman if someone were to pass me on the street.
Where the genderqueer identity comes into play is more interesting. The way I describe that is even though I identify as female, I don’t identify as fully binary. I feel very excluded when I see language like, "This event is open to both genders." I feel like that excludes me. And I don’t like being beholden to the expectations of femininity; I like to do it on my own terms. There are times where I drive a pickup truck, I work with power equipment all the time. And I like being able to do that without having that take away from my femininity or my womanhood.
Why is your identity important to you? It’s such an important part of how I want to be seen, who I want to be seen as, and where I come from. All of the experiences I developed having lived as a male, those are really important to me. I still exercise those and sort of flex those when I feel it’s appropriate or when I feel like it’s what I want to do…
I don’t want to feel like I am doing womanhood wrong, because I already felt for 30-something years that I was doing manhood wrong. So identifying as genderqueer and possibly nonbinary are really important to me because they allow me to give a name to who I am, to how I do gender, to how I exist in the world.
Jackie Mautner: 33. Portland, Oregon. She/her.
How do you identify? I identify as a gender nonconforming trans woman. How I relate to that is very complex. I’m still thinking it through day by day. … In the binary, the boxes for woman and man are very small, and I think my relationship to that box is a constellation around it rather than within it.
It’s totally socially based. If there weren’t a gender binary, I wouldn’t be gender nonconforming because there would be no standard for which to conform.
Why is your identity important to you? My personal experience of coming to terms with my gender has helped me break out of a way of living that I now feel I was confined to. I was constantly trying to live up to this ideal of being a guy, being something that I would later come to terms with to say that it didn’t fit. And part of that experience was working in a workplace — in a factory — that was predominantly men, and they all had a very intense attachment to masculinity. Trying to live up to that — because they would constantly make little jabs at me for my body type for being kind of scrawny and seen as weak — I realized it just wasn’t clicking. …
I realized that gender is more of a spectrum. Our gender identities and the way we relate to gender is more of a constellation than an either-or. That made me feel a lot more free to express myself as I see fit. And it’s a constant struggle between what society is projecting onto me — onto all of us — and figuring out how I relate to gender.
Faith Moore: 18. Las Vegas, Nevada. They/them.
How do you identify? I identify as agender. At least for me, it’s being neutral — in a way where I don’t really fit into either [side of the binary]. It’s hard to describe. One way I did to my mom when she was still trying to understand it: We went to a play, and on the stage they had girls on one side and boys on the other. I told her, "I would just be up in the rafters at this point."
Why is your identity important to you? By not being attached to a certain gender, I feel more free because we do have that essence in our society that boys need to be this way and girls need to be this way. So it helps me be more free.
Jesse: 26. Tullahoma, Tennessee. He/him or they/them.
How do you identify? I hate to use the old cliché of being born in the wrong body, but you wake up and you have this sense of discomfort. So when you look at yourself and you see what’s going and you notice what’s wrong, you notice that what triggers this discomfort has to do with your body or what people refer to you as. It’s as if you are constantly forced to put on a mask, and look at yourself in the mirror, and everyone looks at you as if you are that mask.
Why is your identity important to you? It would be like if a [cisgender man] suddenly woke up without a penis or suddenly woke up with breasts and realized, "This isn’t right." And people treated him like a cisgender woman, even though he’s still a man on the inside. He’s still who he is, but everything else doesn’t match. The reason I want to be identified as [genderfluid] is because I am the person I am on the inside, not the person that nature has deemed me.
Max: 18. Haymarket, Virginia. They/them.
How do you identify? Agender is how I identify. If you have two boxes — male and female — I’m someone on the outside. I might go close to some of the boxes from time to time, but I never feel male and I never feel female. I’m just Max.
Why is your identity important to you? As I was growing up, people would talk about how, "Oh, I’m a boy because I play sports," or, "Oh, I’m a girl, and that means I like pink." I would think that was kind of a joke. I didn’t really understand that people weren’t just putting on; they actually felt one way or the other. And then there was me — I went out and played sports, and I wore a dress, and that’s just who I was. …
It did [make me feel ostracized]. I remember that when I was younger, in elementary school, all my friends were boys, and I just didn’t get along with the girls. And then as we all got older, all my friends decided that it was weird to be associated like that with the opposite sex, and they were now mature. So I found myself alone for several years.
Charlie: 24. Medford, New York. They/them.
How do you identify? There are aspects that I do feel feminine in. At the same time, there’s very much a sense that I don’t fit at all with the gender binary. It’s hard putting into words, really, why that is. It’s just a general sense that there’s some aspects that I feel this speaks to me and that doesn’t, but it’s really hard to put in a sense of words as to why I’m nonbinary. I found out what nonbinary is, and that just clicked in my brain as, "Yes, this is who I am." … I just want to be as neutral as possible.
Why is your identity important to you? It’s important that people recognize my identity because my identity is who I am. It’s a kind of self-obvious statement, but there’s little acknowledgement that a trans person or a nonbinary person is a trans or nonbinary person. To get our stories out there creates a little more awareness little by little by little in order for people to be aware of our identities — so that our identities … are safer.
Mitch: 40. Cleveland, Ohio. They/them.
How do you identify? I describe my gender identity as masculine of center. The acronym for that is normally MOC. That’s the easiest way to say that.
Then people are like, "What does that mean?" So as masculine of center, obviously I have a more masculine presentation. People look at me and say, "That person would be most representative of what we think of as a man." But instead of man [or] woman, I tend to use feminine or masculine — to me, that makes more sense, it’s a lot less binary. So it’s normally how I describe it.
Why is your identity important to you? One is it’s how I self-identify. So I think that it’s just mutual respect between individuals that when you find out how they want to be treated, you treat them that way.
Another thing is to me, it’s historical. I have a degree in history, so I kind of see gender in a historical context. So I’m 40. I changed my pronouns later in life — late 30s. Using he/him/his, that seemed really weird to me. That seemed ahistorical, because I spent a majority of my life being referred to as she/her/hers. To me, switching to a very binary pronoun meant removing that history of my life — like all the battles I faced when I identified as a woman, they would no longer be there.
So that’s the biggest reason for me: I see myself as this historical person in the context of what has gender meant to me throughout my entire life. So to just let she/her/hers go completely, that seems to me like it never happened. A lot of people want that to be the answer for them, and I get that. That just doesn’t work for me.
Ronni Shue: 58. Glenn Heights, Texas. No pronoun preference.
How do you identify? I present myself two ways, because I am a drag queen. When I’m in drag, I just identify myself as a drag queen — traditionally, drag is the art of female impersonation, which would indicate that I’m a man playing the role of a woman, and I’m very comfortable with that role.
When I’m not in drag, I use the term gender nonconforming. Even though I am a male and I’m not transitioning to a female — I’m comfortable with being seen as a gay man — I don’t associate myself with the traditional male role. I don’t dress as a man. I don’t act like a man. I don’t feel like a man. … I don’t have a problem with people associating me with the male gender, because that’s what I am. But I just don’t present myself that way.
Why is your identity important to you? It’s part of who I am. Every aspect of our lives is important to us. It’s important that you realize you can be who you are, whether it’s through gender expression or anything else. … If you’re around people who don’t accept you for who you are, it’s very depressing. So it’s important to surround yourself with people who are supportive.
Yesenia Ruelas: 18. Herriman, Utah. They/them.
How do you identify? I view myself as gender apathetic. It’s a term I’ve adopted for myself in the sense that I never really felt like gender applied to me. When I was a kid on the playground, when someone would say to me "boys and girls," I would think, "Oh, and Yese," in addition to that. And I never really felt a really sincere attachment to my gender. So when I found out that there are people who identify beyond the binary, it kind of fit into place. So I describe my gender as nonexistent.
Why is your identity important to you? As nonexistent as my gender is, I just feel uncomfortable; it feels like someone is addressing me as someone else when someone uses "she/her" or when someone calls me "miss." It feels wrong. It’s as if your dog is sitting at your feet, and someone starts addressing you as your dog. It just isn’t right. It just doesn’t feel right.
Moira J.: 24. Boston, Massachusetts. They/them.
How do you identify? How dominant culture still views gender is still very much in the gender binary, even though the original peoples of this land — my mother’s side of the family is White Mountain Apache — in our culture don’t really have a concept of gender as it is [in dominant culture]. So it’s something very normalized in the community for us.
In talking to someone who doesn’t know about it, it’s saying that you may think of male and female, but I’m someone who doesn’t identify with either of those constructs. I prefer to live without those labels because they don’t fit how I think about myself and how I feel about myself as a person. I feel that my personhood shouldn’t be encapsulated only in this [view] that if you have a vagina you’re a woman and if you have a penis you’re a man.
Why is your identity important to you? It’s not a preference. It’s not something I just fancy. This is me. This is who I am as a person. And as much as I’m respecting your choice to identify however you identify, you need to be able to give me that same respect because it’s not just this preference, something I happen to fancy for the day.
Ruane Karpoff: 28. New York. No pronoun preference.
How do you identify? Genderfluid. … There’s some days where I absolutely wish I could cut my hair like Ruby Rose [and] wear a dapper suit — but I’m still a bit freaked out after my experiences as a teenager, from all the negative reactions. Some days I really do enjoy wearing dresses and heels, even though I’ve toned it down a bit. And some days I wish I could wear a binder and be very androgynous.
Why is your identity important to you? I would say it's important to me for others to respect my gender identity mostly because it’s just rude for others to try to invalidate your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
It’s not so much that I feel like I'm on some kind of a crusade to convert the nonbelievers and make them start every conversation with, "What's your preferred pronoun?" I would just be happy if I could mention my gender identity, feel like I'm being taken seriously, treated as a normal person, and not feel as though I’m being judged as some confused, attention-hungry child who jumped on the Tumblr nonbinary bandwagon in an attempt to seem more special and unique.
I think the biggest thing about my gender identity is that it's not as if some vaguely obscure gender identity completely defines who I am, what I think, believe, etc. It’s just another thing that makes me who I am, but it does not define me entirely. … A cisgender girl doesn’t spend every waking minute consciously focused on how she’s a cis girl.
I’m proud to be nonbinary, I enjoy experiencing gender as this nuanced, multifaceted thing rather than as an oversimplified, black and white, binary experience.