Myths, misconceptions, and the wide variety of gender identities
By Rebecca Peterson, Assistant Editor
Here’s a tired phrase you’ve likely heard a thousand or more times, with varying levels of sincerity: “Gender is a social construct.”
It’s a common talking point in feminist circles. Feminist philosopher Judith Butler was the one to coin the term “gender performativity”; the idea that traits that we attribute to the traditional gender dichotomy (quiet, submissive, emotional women, and strong, stoic, hypersexual men) are not the result of biological forces, but rather social pressures. We are taught how to be men and women respectively as we grow up, and if we do not fit into these roles and molds, we are punished and ostracized by society until we do in sometimes overt, but more often subtle, ways.
Is this all sounding a bit esoteric? It’s boiled-down feminist academia and philosophy, so it probably does. The main takeaway point is this: Gender is a game where the rules are made up and the points don’t matter. It’s also a game that many can’t or simply do not want to play.
Transgender identities on the whole have become more visible in mainstream culture over the past decades, but the conversation, it seems, is still being conducted in a binary way. We’re starting to wrap our heads around trans women and trans men—though not well, and with torturously slow forward motion, with setbacks from both within and without feminist social movements (TERFs, I’m looking directly at you). However, if understanding and empathy for “binary” trans experiences is limited, understanding and empathy for nonbinary identities is borderline nonexistent. While Google is hardly a good metric for judging global trends and moods, it’s telling that the first options to come up when searching the phrase “nonbinary people are” are “nonbinary people are stupid” and “nonbinary people aren’t real.”
On the left, nonbinary people are often seen as co-opting the experiences of “real” trans people. On the right, we’re seen as “attention-seeking special snowflakes” with made-up identities and pronouns; a result of teenagers and young adults spending too much time on Tumblr running with the dreaded “SJW” crowd.
It’s a degrading misrepresentation of people who span a broad range of ages and experiences, many of whom aren’t looking to cause a controversy by asking to be referred to with they/them pronouns. Nonbinary people have existed under different forms and labels for centuries; they can be young or old, assigned female, male, or intersex at birth. So, in the interest of education, here are some common confusions and misconceptions about nonbinary people. All I ask is that you keep an open mind and an open heart and keep all tired jokes about identifying as an attack helicopter to yourself.
“There are only two sexes; ergo, there are only two genders”
Nope. For one thing, there are, biologically, more than two sexes—though less common, intersex people exist in many different forms. For another, sex, gender, and sexuality are three separate concepts. Sex refers to anatomy and biological makeup; sexuality covers attraction; and gender is a form of expression. This has been accepted as fact in academic and medical circles for decades, so if you’re just hearing this now, it’s not because it’s a hot new concept—it’s because it takes time for these sorts of ideas to become mainstream. They’re still teaching the Bohr model in high school, after all, and that’s been considered outdated for a good while now.
“Nonbinary people are a recent phenomenon”
Nonbinary and gender-variant people have existed all over the world, all throughout history. It would be disingenuous to apply the nonbinary label to established identities in other cultures as they have their own traditions and terminology, such as the hijras in South Asia and the Two-Spirited people of Indigenous and Native American people, but it proves that the current binary is not a universal constant. One of my favourite stories of nonbinary people comes from Ancient Sumer and Akkad, from the myth of Ishtar’s descent into the Underworld. After Ishtar is imprisoned by the queen of the Underworld, Erishkigal, the god Ea (or Enki) creates a genderless being, Asu-shu-namir, to go to the Underworld and rescue her. Erishkigal curses Asu-shu-namir and all people like them to endure ostracism from society to punish them for helping Ishtar; Ishtar, to mitigate the curse, blesses Asu-shu-namir and all people like them with magical abilities such as foresight and healing.
“Nonbinary people are/aren’t transgender”
This is technically not wrong, though the debate as to whether or not nonbinary people “count” as trans is an exclusionary one to be sure. However, if you ask nonbinary people if they identify as trans, you’ll receive a wide variety of responses. Many do identify as trans, and many don’t. Many opt for gender-confirming medical treatment such as hormone therapy and surgery, and many don’t. Many experience gender dysphoria, and many don’t. The nonbinary umbrella is so wide and nebulous that it covers an enormous array of identities and experiences, from genderfluid people to genderqueer people to agender people, and everyone in between. I consider myself nonbinary; I don’t consider myself trans, but I have nonbinary friends that do. I experience gender dysphoria from time to time, but I also have nonbinary friends that don’t.
“Nonbinary people are ‘crossdressers’/I can tell if someone is nonbinary by looking at them”
It is very unlikely that you would look at me and assume that I’m nonbinary; I’d actually be very flattered if you did. I present as femme, very aligned with my assigned gender at birth. I also have a friend who identifies as nonbinary who presents very masculine and was assigned male at birth—they also identify as straight, so again, there’s that whole thing about sex, gender, and sexuality being very different and virtually unrelated concepts, and all. I often wish I was more androgynous-looking, but at the end of the day, my gender identity has very little to do with how I’m perceived by others, but how I feel most comfortable identifying. I’ve only recently come out, though I’ve known about my gender identity for a while now; it’s always been for me and my own benefit, rather than the benefit of others.
I can’t speak for all nonbinary people, but to me, the nonbinary identity represents a certain kind of freedom. It’s an acknowledgement of the fabrication of gender roles, a term to describe an experience that, while not universal, is more common than many might think. One of my friends describes themself as having “retired from gender”—I think that’s an apt way to put it. Nonbinary people do not need others to understand their experiences; however, a little respect goes a long way. If the concept of nonbinary genders is concerning to you, if you’re one of the people who winces when you see “all genders” instead of “both genders”, I have to ask: How does the gender identity of someone else affect you personally? Why does it bother you?
After all, at the end of the day, whatever you think of us, whether you believe it or no, we have always and will always exist.
Nonbinary people in the spotlight
Alec Butler (he/him): Playwright and filmmaker nominated for the Governor General’s Award for English drama in 1990. Identifies as a Two-Spirit trans man.
Alexander Steinberg (a.k.a. Sasha Velour) (any pronouns): Drag queen and creative director. Identifies as genderqueer.
Amandla Stenberg (they/them): Actress and singer, best known for their role as Rue in The Hunger Games. Identifies as nonbinary.
Asia Kate Dillon (they/them): Actor on Orange is the New Black and Billions. Identifies as nonbinary.
Eddie Izzard (he/him): Actor, comedian, writer. Identifies as transgender, or “a complete boy plus half girl.”
Gopi Shankar Madurai (ze/zir): Indian equal rights and Indigenous rights activist. Intersex and genderqueer.
Ivan E. Coyote (they/them): Performer, writer, and LGBTQ+ advocate. Identifies as nonbinary.
Jeffrey Marsh (they/them): Writer, actor, and social media personality who rose to prominence on Vine. Identifies as genderqueer.
Kaitlyn Alexander (they/them): Actor, writer, YouTube personality. Played a nonbinary character, S. LaFontaine, in the webseries Carmilla.
Miley Cyrus (she/her): Actor, singer. Identifies as genderfluid.
Raykeea Raeen-Roes Wilson (a.k.a. Angel Haze) (they/them, he/him, she/her): Rapper and singer, identifies as agender (and did a really good cover of “Same Love” that I highly recommend).
Richard O’Brien (he/him): Wrote Rocky Horror Picture Show, identifies as genderqueer (but unfortunately has some TERF leanings, so not exactly a paragon of the movement).
Ruby Rose (she/her): Actress and model, best known for her appearance on Orange is the New Black. Identifies as genderfluid.
Tyler Ford (they/them): Actor and writer, identifies as agender. Often writes about the experiences of being a transgender person of colour.