For many people, both inside and outside of the trans community, the word transgender is seen as referring to people who were assigned male at birth (AMAB) and transitioned to a female identity or people who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) and transitioned into a male identity. Sometimes this includes physically transitioning with surgery and hormones, and sometimes it does not. This idea, however, is missing a whole slew of folks under the trans umbrella: many people, whether they’re AFAB or AMAB, do not identify with one singular gender at all.
This is my experience. I was assigned female at birth and do not identify as a woman or a girl. I also don’t identify either as masculine or as femme—a term that has historically been used to identify queer women who perform femininity for themselves and other women, but has since expanded to include queer people of any gender who adopt feminine aesthetics and mannerisms—because my gender is often very fluid and doesn’t really feel like one or the other. It has literally nothing to do with my body and everything to do with how I feel, what I am comfortable with in terms of my gender presentation (clothes, hair, makeup, fragrances, my voice and way of talking), and how I move through the world (adopting mannerisms that might be seen as more masculine while maintaining ones that are also still seen as feminine, and some that aren’t seen as either).
Folks like me, who don’t identify as one gender or the other, or who identify as a different gender—such as demiboy, demigirl, or agender—are referred to as nonbinary. (Some of us prefer the term genderqueer.) Unfortunately, nonbinary people don’t get much representation or validation in the queer community or elsewhere. Some media have incorporated ideas of genderfluidity and nonbinary identities in their story lines, as Steven Universe does with the character Stevonnie, a combination of the characters Steven and Connie. But finding well-rounded representation like this is a challenge that often feels impossible. To understand this erasure outside of my own experience with it, I interviewed a handful of other nonbinary individuals within the geek community, all from varying backgrounds and intersecting identities.
When it comes to introductions, in many queer spaces, the first thing to do is ask what each person’s pronouns are. Decades ago, it was pretty widely accepted that the available pronoun options included he/him and she/her. Today, the range of options for people to self-identify with is vast, including, most popularly, the singular usage of they/them and also what are known as neopronouns. Neopronouns are those that have been born out of a lack of adequate language and a growing need for pronouns that express the wide variety of gender presentations that exist. Some of these include ey/em/eir, ze/zem/zir, ze/hir/hirs, and many more. While they are not seen as widely as she/he/they pronouns, they are equally valid and important. In an effort to normalize other pronouns and be inclusive of trans people, some conventions and other events have started offering stickers and buttons that attendees can use to let others know at a glance what their pronouns are, making interactions with strangers a bit easier. I asked all of the interviewees for this article what their pronouns were and what their nonbinary identities meant to them, and their answers all varied. Almost everyone interviewed used they/them pronouns, save for one who had no pronoun preference.
For one interviewee, Rin, being nonbinary is just a state of being. They said that they never really felt right being assigned female but never felt quite male either, and that it is sometimes difficult for them to navigate gender dysphoria because they do not have one static gender presentation. Another person, J, stated that some days their dysphoria is so bad that they can’t leave the house because there is no combination of clothing that makes them feel neutral enough. They said that they are so often invalidated by the trans community, being seen as “a cis girl co-opting trans culture,” that they feel even their experiences with dysphoria are not seen as real—or, more often, are not seen or recognized at all. For J, their nonbinary identity means resistance and individuality: “My biology is not responsible for my behaviors and feelings . . . my values and presentation are the result of my own self-governing and are not due to my conforming to society’s idea of who i can be.”
Lyd, a local queer nonbinary writer, said that their experience in queer communities has involved not only erasure but “straight-up animosity.” “Ironically, I find this most prevalent in the trans community, mostly with trans women,” Lyd said. “I’ve been called a ‘transtrender’ by trans women at least once a week since publicly coming out, despite starting my gender exploration as a trans woman, taking hormones, and having bottom surgery. It’s increasingly obvious that the binary trans community is suffering from their own breed of homonormativity.”
Rin explained this exclusion as binarist—dismissive of anything that doesn’t exist within the gender binary—stating that while there are trans folks who understand, others “view us as a threat to their credibility. They think that our nonbinary genders are made up, or fictional, or they’ve unfortunately been internalizing that gender is a binary instead of a gradient. Many times those people don’t realize that we’re trans too—we fall under that umbrella by definition of our birth assignment, based on biological factors, differ[ing] from our gender identity now.”
Lee said that for them, any pronoun was fine aside from “it”—because, as they say, “I am not an inanimate object.” Because their gender feelings and presentation vary, they don’t feel especially attached to any specific set of pronouns. Their experience with representation has been virtually nonexistent; as a person who is both queer and black, on top of being nonbinary, their identity is perceived as “a myth.” Since Lee does not see representation of their entire identity anywhere, they have to reach for partial representation whenever possible, such as finding representation in queer characters who do not share their black identity or vice versa.
In addition to erasure within the queer community and lack of representation in media, another issue that many nonbinary folks reported facing was the difficulty of speaking about their experiences with gendered violence, particularly what is typically seen as violence against women. When you’re a nonbinary person whom the world perceives as a woman, you experience sexism and violence that is targeted at women but may have no space or language to speak on those experiences. Many of those interviewed reported feeling connected to the #MeToo movement and yet simultaneously erased and silenced by it because of the disconnect between their perceived gender and their true gender identity. Personally, I know that I experience violence as if I were a woman, because by many people I am still read as and thought of as a woman. Creepy men at bars and people who do not understand or care about consent typically do not understand or care about my pronouns and how I identify, either. When a predatory or harmful person looks at me, they see a woman they can mess with—they aren’t likely to care or ask about my identity before trying to harass me or hurt me.
The catch here is that when we say women and femmes are more likely to be victims of sexual violence, we are erasing the experiences of many who do not identify as either but are viewed by the world as such and still face misogyny and gendered violence. If we were to say something along the lines of “people who are read as women,” we would be far more inclusive of those who are currently falling through the cracks of our limited language. This kind of shift in word choice and discourse, however, takes a large amount of buy-in from the rest of the queer community, and considering how many of the interviewees have stated feelings of animosity towards their identities from the cis and even binary-trans communities, it’s going to take considerable work and time to get there.
Allies can help. Simple changes, like saying “Hello, folks” instead of “Hello, ladies and gentlemen” or even just stating your pronouns, normalize the existence and inclusion of nonbinary people. Having conversations with friends and family about gender can help get people thinking about gender as a spectruml even if they don’t agree with it, the idea becomes a little less foreign with every conversation. Small steps matter when we’re walking toward lasting social change.