What is gender?

This is the best effort of a trans enby to explain their experience with gender to people who might not be familiar with nonbinary identities at all.

It's also an exploratory piece, an effort to make sense of the vague and abstract concept that is gender, and maybe understand it a little better by writing about it.

And maybe it's also a philosophical piece, and an attempt to make sense of the complicated world we live in, not just physically, but mentally.

I hope that this will be useful to people who want to learn not just how they can respect nonbinary identities, but who want to understand them. I also hope that it will still be an interesting exploration of gender for those who already are familiar with it, and maybe are nonbinary.

This will discuss gender on a introspective level, and a lot of the things attached to it, like specific biology, as well as gender roles and misgendering. It's written to an audience of people who are not nonbinary, and assumes that the reader is either a man or a woman and sometimes addresses them as such.

Step 1: Gender is not physical.

A lot of people think that gender is about something physical. Most often, they think it's about what's between a person's legs. This is definitely part of it, but it's certainly far from the whole thing. Think about it: If you need to refer to someone you've never met, you probably just throw a glance their way and say, "do you see that woman over there", without needing to go up to her and ask what's between her legs. Similarly, it's not just about what you wear or how you act. A boy can wear a skirt and act feminine, but that doesn't make him not a boy.

There's something harder to pin down, and very personal about gender. Calling someone a gender that they aren't is often seen as an insult ("what are you, a woman?!") in a way that isn't true about saying someone has a hair color that they don't, or is a height that they aren't. This would suggest that it's a very important part of people's identity. But we've also worked out that it's not a descriptor of anything physical. So what is it?

I'm not going to be able to give a perfect answer, because this is something that philosophers still talk about today, and will for a very long time to come. But to give a working definition, gender is a feeling about how you relate to specific, very fuzzy categories of people.

Step 2: Gender isn't black and white.

Most people in most societies are introduced to two genders at birth: boy and girl, man and woman, male and female. A lot of us feel comfortable with one of these labels. Often, our bodies line up with the stereotypical bodies for that group, and that's what everyone tells us we are. As we come to identify with them, they also mold our behavior. Boys might pick up on boy-ish behavior, because that's how they see themselves portrayed and that's how many of their peers act. Same goes for girls. And so it was that most people in the world end up feeling pretty content either as a boy, or a girl.

However, it's important to remember that nothing outside of math is absolute, and nowhere is this more true than ambiguously defined social structures. There's a million exceptions to this perfect story, from people whose bodies don't perfectly line up with one of the stereotypes, to people who accept the label but reject all the "acceptable" norms for that group. Today we're just going to focus on the people who were told that they were one thing when they were young, but grew up to find that that's not what worked best for them. Oftentimes, these people call themselves trans, or transgender. We're going to zoom in even further though, to all the people who not only found themselves unhappy with the label they were given when they were young, but also felt that neither of these two labels fit their experience all of the time. These people typically call themselves nonbinary.

What does that mean? How does that work? Well, because gender is so personal, it's a little bit different for every person. There's some people who just don't feel a connection to either of the two groups (agender). Some people feel like they match well with one group some of the times, and but match differently at another (genderfluid). Others might feel a connection to both (bigender). Others still might feel like a whole 'nother thing altogether (xenogenders). The list goes on and on.

Step 3: Gender can't be measured.

It's important to remember that there's not a certain number of genders, or even a spectrum of genders. Gender isn't something that fits nicely into mathematical models. It's jagged and chaotic. It's not a metric or a measurement, it's a story about something so personal it could never be expressed completely through language. We come up with words and labels that can describe bits and pieces of our gender, but we could never completely express it.

This is even true for you, and for everyone who only identifies with the gender people told them they were when they were born. Ask yourself, "how does it feel to be a man/woman?", "how do I know that's what I am", and "what does it mean to be a man/woman to me?".

I'll give you a second.

No one is going to have the same answers to these questions, and it's likely that, as you were trying to come up with an answer, you found a feeling that you couldn't quite explain. You know that this is what you are, but not because of anything about your body, or because of how you act, but just, a feeling that it's right. That's your gender. You could never put it in words, you could never compare it to someone else's, you probably couldn't even say what it means, but that's okay. You don't need to do any of those things, only know that it's yours, and respect that others' will be different.

Step 4: Gender isn't something you have the answer to.

A lot of our first instincts with this is to try to come up with some model or some other explanation that neatly wraps up gender into a tidy package. You might even have one right now. Human brains really don't like things that are as open and ambiguous as gender is.

But I'd like to ask you to take whatever model of gender you have and really test it. How does it handle people whose bodies don't fit the norm? How does it handle people who don't act like the gender you say they are? How does it handle people who might medically change themselves, either by hormones, or surgery, to feel more like a different gender? Can it explain why people who, by all observable measures appear to be one gender, nevertheless feel so much like another gender that they go through complicated, difficult, scary, and sometimes dangerous means to better express themselves? Does it explain why we associate certain non-biological things with certain genders? Does it explain why we care so deeply about gender that almost everything in our lives are touched by it?

You get the idea. Don't get me wrong, I don't claim to have the answer either. I've done a lot of talking in this document, and there's still a million reasons why what I've discussed is a "good enough" explanation at best. If you really want to chat about it though, please reach out to me, I'm more than happy to talk about gender any day.

Step 5: People are something you can respect.

I'd be elated if everyone who read this was convinced of the validity of nonbinary identities, but a lot of people will just be confused, and some more might even disagree completely. That's okay, and I encourage you to find other resource people have made to help you understand better. One person's perspective will never be enough to gain a complete understanding. In fact, nothing will.

But, if I've failed to explain to you why nonbinary identities exist, I'd like to at least ask this of you: Respect when people say they are nonbinary.

If not because you believe them, then because you want to be nice. If you go up to someone you know is nonbinary, and you actively reject their gender, use the wrong name and pronouns, and tell them they don't exist, I promise you this will hurt them at worst, and drive them away from you at best. It won't "make them less confused", or "remind them what they really are". But if you respect their name, you ask for their pronouns and try your best to use them, you might just make their day.

This isn't an effort to take away your free speech. Nothing will stop you from misgendering nonbinary people. But it is an effort to encourage you not to be rude, and an effort to keep the people you care about in your life.

Addendum: What can you do to support nonbinary people?

In brief, here's what you can do:

  • Use the name that people give you, and don't ask for their previous name
  • Ask for people's pronouns, even when you don't think you're talking to someone whose nonbinary
  • Try to use people's pronouns when they give them to you, although it's okay if you genuinely slip up.
  • Watch for gendered language that you use, and try to use language that the person prefers. It's okay to check what's best with them if you're not sure.
  • If someone asks you to make a small change to how you treat them, try to humor it, even if it doesn't make sense to you. We all experience gender differently, and that's undoubtedly true for the two of you.

Addendem: What are pronouns, and how do I use them?

Pronouns are short words we use in place of other words. This is anything like, "it's", or "their", or "me", or "you". A lot of the time when people say pronouns, though, they're referring to third-person pronouns for people, like "he", "she", or "him". A lot of these carry heavy gendered connotations, so some people rather that certain pronouns are used for them.

We often give pronouns two or three forms at a time, like "he/him/his". If you're confused as to how to use a certain pronoun, try starting with he/him/his, and then swapping it out for the pronoun in the set that the person prefers.

For example, if someone asks for "they/them/theirs" pronouns, start with a pronoun set you understand, then find out what the pronouns correspond to. Where you might normally use him, use them, because him in he/him/his corresponds to them in they/them/theirs. This is only a crutch to get you started though, so try to become familiar with the words in context.

People might also ask for pronoun sets you've never heard of, or have never seen used for a singular human. A lot of the time, people do this because they feel it better expresses their gender. This might not make sense to you, but that's okay. Gender is uniquely individual. Try your best to use the pronouns that they give you. If you have difficulty, and you want to help make them feel more comfortable, you can try practicing their pronouns by using their name and pronouns together in your head. You can also get help with this from websites like pronouns.is, which lists many different pronouns that people use.

Most importantly, as long as you're trying your best and you respect their gender, people will appreciate you, even if you slip up from time to time. The fact that you've even read this far means that you care, and people will appreciate that.

Thank you for sticking with me through this. I appreciate it, and I hope you feel a little more comfortable not just with the idea of nonbinary genders, but with your own as well <3