By Namu Ju 

When my desires towards the clothes I’d wear or how I’d do my hair began to hold any weight, I found myself gravitating toward more masculine presentations, even as a child. Playground games of “show me yours, I’ll show you mine” ended with my parents’ panicked demands that I stop attempting to use the toilet while standing.

In my adolescence, back-to-school shopping was a battlefield of negotiations with my mother, who was supremely invested in my gender presentation aligning with my female sex assignment. After years of vacillating between resistance and desperate compliance to socially prescribed femininity, I found respite in deflecting my gender concerns with my attraction to women.

Why do I feel and present so masculine? Because I’m a lesbian—which, depending on context and who’s speaking, may or may not be a valid response. For me, it was a little of both.

What Exactly Is Non-Binary?

Non-binary is an umbrella term for gender identities that don’t fit neatly into the binary gender categories of “male” and “female.” Some non-binary people have a gender that falls on the male-female spectrum, while others have a gender that is different from either male or female. Some don’t identify with any gender, and some experience changes in their gender over time.

While “non-binary” is one of the most common identifiers for people whose genders are neither male or female, there are numerous identifiers that fall under the same umbrella. Many non-binary identifiers, such as genderqueer, agender, and bigender, have their own specific expressions of non-binary identity. For example, “agender” typically implies genderlessness (though the term is also used to describe gender-neutral identities), while “bi-gender” describes a gender that encompasses both male and female genders.

Some who identify as non-binary also identify as transgender. Trans* serves as an umbrella term for gender identity that differs from a person’s sex assigned at birth. However, not all non-binary people identify as trans. Not all transgender people are non-binary, as trans men and trans women are binary men and women. Some non-binary people undergo gender-affirming surgery or hormone replacement therapy, and other non-binary people do not. In the same way, some non-binary people experience gender dysphoria, while others don’t.

Dimensions Of Gender

While “sex” and “gender” may be related, they aren’t interchangeable equivalents. Sex is assigned at birth according to a person’s reproductive anatomy, usually along the rigid male-female binary, and often gender is assumed as congruent to the assigned sex. Gender, however, is a complex interrelationship of one’s body, identity, and society.

The body and a person’s experience of their body is one dimension of gender. This dimension includes sex chromosomes, hormones, and primary and secondary sexual anatomy. None of these are strictly binary, and most can be medically altered. Understanding sex as a genotype and gender as an identity may be a helpful distinction.

Social gender, including gender expression, is another critical dimension of gender. Social gender includes how society perceives, interacts with, and shapes our gender through gender roles and expectations. Gender expression is the way a person communicates their gender to others through clothing, hairstyles, and mannerisms. Expression, however, is distinct from identity. While gender expression may sometimes serve as an indicator of gender identity, a person’s identity can’t be assumed from their expression.

Gender identity is a person’s internal experience of their gender. It may or may not align with a person’s sex assigned at birth or with their gender expression. Some experience gender as an identity that cannot be chosen or changed, or that their gender does not change over time (though the language to name it might). Others experience a more fluid relationship with gender identity throughout  their lives.

Language Matters, Unless It Doesn’t

For non-binary and transgender people, coming into an authentic gender can be an awkward, scary, embarrassing, exciting, and empowering experience. During transition, some may choose to change their name and pronouns to better align with their gender identity, and this change is often met with resistance. Old friends and family may insist they’re just “used to” addressing a person as their deadname, or it’s just “too hard” to refer to an individual with certain pronouns. Man, that sounds rough, almost as rough as having to renegotiate your existence with yourself and all of society.

When I introduce my pronouns, the most common form of resistance is disguised as a grammatical objection to the singular “they.” Really? Let’s leave that conversation in 2015. It’s embarrassing, and we blame the Victorians. The use of the singular “they” is older and more pervasive than the debate itself. (It also doesn’t matter because language evolves and grammar doesn’t take precedence over dignifying human experience.) But not all non-binary people go by “they/them” pronouns. Language is evolving as people adopt and experiment with a variety of pronouns, including “ze/hir,” “ze/zir,” and “ey/em.” While the longevity of some of these pronouns is often debated, they’re important and legitimate markers for many non-binary people today.

Misgendering and deadnaming invalidate non-binary and trans people and the identity they’re fighting to affirm. These acts can be distracting at best, violent at worst. They can “out” the individual as trans or non-binary, leaving them in a vulnerable and potentially dangerous situation. These acts can also trigger anxiety, depression, and gender dysphoria. Correctly gendering someone not only affirms the existence of trans and non-binary people, who will continue to exist regardless, but contributes to creating a society where differences are recognised, honored, and even celebrated.