There is a wide array of gender identities, and it can be difficult to understand the nuances and differences between them. Everyone wants to be respected and celebrated for who they are, and this is especially true and important for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, many of whom are frequently misidentified.
Some terms like transgender people, gay, or lesbian are common enough that many people are aware of what they mean, but there are a few LGBTQIA+ terms that are less discussed and therefore less understood. Two of these terms refer to nonbinary and genderqueer people, and in this article, we will cover the differences between them.
According to leading psychologists, gender identity is one of the three pillars of a person’s core identity, along with sexual orientation and style or behavior. When one of these pillars is violated in some way— when someone is misgendered, for example— it can be very confusing and hurtful for them. Furthermore, any limitation imposed on someone’s gender expression may lead to anxiety and depression and set the path to more severe mental health conditions.
First things first— what is gender?
Before we jump into defining genderqueer individuals and non-binary people, let’s take a step back and talk about what gender means. Historically, western cultures have held that there are clear gender norms and we only have two genders: male and female. However, gender-neutral people, gender fluid individuals, and genderqueer identity are as old as time, but western society has dismissed them as anomalies.
These two choices form what is known as the gender binary. This binary not only presents the male and female labels, but also the behavioral assumptions and various stereotypes associated with each gender. Through the lens of these binary gender categories, we are taught to believe things like “only girls can like the color pink,” and “boys should never cry.” These stereotypes are, of course, ridiculous, and boundaries of gender can only hinder society’s growth.
At birth, gender is assigned to a person based on their genitalia. If they then grow up to be someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth, they are cisgender. Many people are cisgender, and many people are not. Gender is a construct created by humans, and your identity may very well align with that construct. Similarly, if your identity doesn’t align with the binary social constructions of gender, that’s equally valid. A lot of people have gender identities that don’t fit into the traditional gender binary.
Before going forward with the expression of gender and different gender options, it is important to understand that gender and sexual orientation are not the same thing. While gender refers to your identity, sexual orientation refers to who you are attracted to.
What is nonbinary?
Nonbinary is a gender identity that is fluid and defined by each nonbinary person differently. Some gender nonconforming people might consider nonbinary to mean that they identify as some parts of both genders. Other nonbinary individuals might consider nonbinary to mean that they identify with neither gender.
What is genderqueer?
Genderqueer is similar to gender nonbinary in a lot of ways, and some people use the terms interchangeably. Many people define genderqueer to mean that they don’t identify with one conventional gender stereotype, but rather identify with both, neither, or a unique combination of the genders. The genderqueer umbrella is as large as the complexity of people and includes non-binary individuals.
Much like the term nonbinary, the term genderqueer is unique to the individual who identifies with it. There are people who view genderqueer as the parent or umbrella term for all other gender identities beyond cisgender. Others use genderqueer and nonbinary to mean the same thing.
Understanding the spectrum of gender
It’s important to understand that gender is a spectrum and gender diversity should be celebrated. Even if conventional gender norms insist on assigning gender at birth and limit gender categorizations to male and female, there will always be a wide array of people beyond the binary categories. Any and all gender experiences are valid and call for love and support.
Furthermore, the spectrum of gender is continuously evolving, and a person’s gender identity development may be ongoing throughout their life. It is valid and beautiful to identify anywhere on the gender spectrum, including nonbinary, female, genderqueer, transgender, male, gender non-conforming, or any number of other options. Our beliefs about our gender identities are greatly influenced by our surroundings, including the people we spend time with, the media we consume, and more. When well supported, it is easier to embrace our gender identity, because everyone’s gender identity is real whether it’s embraced or not. As we move through life, our gender experience and gender identity can evolve and transform and it’s important that we make space for that.
The importance of pronouns
From a young age, we are taught that the male and female genders have specific pronouns associated with each of them: he/him/his and she/her/hers. Much like gender identity, however, there is no external metric for pronouns, and a person’s pronouns are completely up to them. You can be an assigned female at birth and identify more with he/his pronouns or gender nonbinary and use they/them.
Some people have strong feelings about their gendered pronouns, and other people don’t care that much. If you are unsure of someone’s pronouns, it is generally okay to ask them, as long as you do so in a respectful manner.
LGBTQIA+ discrimination is still a problem, but you can help
Despite recent advances that have helped normalize the gender spectrum and different gender identities, there is still plenty of discrimination against LGBTQIA+ individuals. Some of this discrimination comes from a lack of understanding of gender, which is why it’s important to support, advocate for, and respect people of all gender identities. Believe it or not, setting an example of acceptance and support can have a massive impact on combatting this type of discrimination. There are plenty of helpful ways to show your support and foster an inclusive environment, including learning how to use nonbinary pronouns.