Gender nonconforming individuals do not comply with societal stereotypes of how they “should” look or behave based on binary – male and female – gender roles.
This article will explain what the term “gender nonconforming” means in more detail and explore how this form of identity differs from others. It will also describe some pronouns a gender nonconforming individual may use.
A note about sex and gender
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.
Gender nonconformity is the rejection of societal gender norms.
Societal gender norms are social principles or expectations of how people “should” act and look based on the sex assigned to them at birth. This assigned sex, which people may also refer to as biological sex, birth sex, or natal sex, is
While gender norms vary among cultures, some examples may include the following:
- females have long hair, while males have short hair
- females wear stereotypically “feminine” clothes, such as dresses and skirts
- males wear stereotypically “masculine” clothes, such as suits, pants, and shirts
- males are strong, stoic, and hard-working
- females are polite, emotional, and nurturing
- females are stay-at-home mothers, and males are “providers” or partake in hard physical labor
Rejecting some or all of these stereotypes in outward appearance or behavior is gender nonconforming. Gender nonconforming people can hold any gender identity, including:
Where does the term come from?
The history of people who do not conform to gender norms is expansive and likely dates back as far as humanity itself.
It is also widely known that some indigenous communities recognize at least four genders:
Native cultures refer to those who embody both masculine and feminine “spirits” as “two-spirit,” an English translation of the Ojibwe term “niizh manidoowag.”
However, while gender nonconformity is not a new phenomenon, its visibility in contemporary Western societies increased during the 1990s. This was mainly due to the work of Riki Anne Wilchins, who coined the term “genderqueer” to describe gender nonconforming people in a 1995 essay for In Your Face, a political activism newsletter.
The term “gender nonconforming” holds no concrete definition, and people largely use it based on personal experience and identity.
All the terms stipulated below are new or relatively new, with somewhat fluid interpretations.
Individuals who identify with these terms use them and the appropriate pronouns to best reflect how they feel about themselves. Each term may be subject to interpretation and nuance by those who identify as such.
What is nonbinary?
“Non-binary” means “not simply one thing or another.” People who are nonbinary do not identify with societal conceptions of male or female genders or do not identify as only male or female.
Because they operate outside of the socially constructed gender binary, people who are nonbinary are, by definition, gender nonconforming.
Why is nonbinary different from gender nonconforming?
While all people who are nonbinary are gender nonconforming, not all people who are gender nonconforming are also nonbinary.
For example, someone may consider a cisgender man to be gender nonconforming if they are a stay-at-home father. This may be because they are taking on what a particular society has traditionally viewed as a stereotypically feminine gender role as a primary caregiver.
This does not mean the person actively rejects gender norms in other aspects of their life or personality. They may not even be aware that people might consider them to be gender nonconforming.
This section illustrates how being gender nonconforming differs from and is similar to other gender expressions.
People who identify as agender do not align themselves with any gender. Because they do not follow societal gender norms, agender people are also gender nonconforming.
Vs. gender void
“Gendervoid” describes someone who feels nothing where gender identity is “supposed” to be. People who identify as gender void are also gender nonconforming.
People who are asexual do not experience sexual attraction, desires, or feelings. According to a 2017 article, the development of gender identity and sexual identity follow two separate developmental tracks, although they cross at certain points.
However, because of the points in which gender and sexuality cross, it is arguable that people who are asexual also fall under the umbrella term of “gender nonconforming.”
“Genderqueer” is an umbrella term for anyone who is gender nonconforming. Therefore, it is the most comparable gender identity to gender nonconforming.
However, that is not to say that everyone who identifies as gender nonconforming also identifies as “genderqueer.” This is a personal choice for individuals who may or may not wish to adopt the term.
Someone who identifies as genderfluid actively changes or is open to changing their gender identity at any time. This means they may identify as male, female, nonbinary, or any other gender from one day to the next.
All individuals who identify as genderfluid are gender nonconforming, even if they currently identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.
Because gender nonconformity is a broad spectrum, people who are gender nonconforming use a wide range of different pronouns to describe themselves.
These commonly include:
- she, her, her, herself
- he, him, his, himself
- they, them, theirs, themself
- ve, ver, vis, vis verself
- xe, xem, xyr, xyrs, xemself
- ze, zie, hir, hir, hirs, herself
- (f)ae, (f)are, (f)are, (f)aers, (f)aerself
- e, ey, em, eir, eirs, eirself
- per, per, pers, pers, perself
Practicing pronoun use
“Sara’s cake is the best! She really is a phenomenal baker.”
“Actually, Sara prefers they/them pronouns.”
“OK, cool. Their cake is fantastic.”
Knowing which to use
The best pronouns to use for someone are always the ones by which that person chooses to refer to themselves.
Misgendering is the act of using the incorrect gender when referring to another person. This can be harmful, even when it is accidental. It is never acceptable to consciously refer to someone by a gender that they do not identify with.
If a person is unsure which pronouns to use for someone who identifies as gender nonconforming, the best way to approach the situation is usually to ask them. However, asking someone the person knows well and is close to might be more comfortable for some people.
Other ways people can find out which pronouns to use for an individual include:
- Using they/them/theirs: If a person is in doubt and does not feel they are in a position to ask someone their preferred pronouns, using “they/them/theirs” is an inclusive option until told otherwise.
- Sharing their preferred pronouns: Opening this dialogue will likely create space for the other person to also share their pronouns openly without the need for upfront questions.
- Avoiding assumptions: It is best not to assume people’s gender upon first meeting. People may wish to wait for cues from others and use gender-neutral language in the interim.
It is important to know that making mistakes in this process does not make someone insensitive or a bad person. Making assumptions and mistakes are a natural result of socialization.
Sometimes it can be difficult for people who have known certain individuals for a long time to adjust to different pronoun usage due to habit.
Still, making a conscious effort to apologize when mistakes happen and adjust language in response is important.
It may be best for people who identify as gender nonconforming or are thinking about how they wish to present their gender identity to choose the terminology and pronouns that resonate most appropriately with them in the current moment.
The following resources may help a person who would like support or advice in exploring their gender identity:
- The Trevor Project: Information for LGBTQIA+ youth, including gender nonconforming individuals. It also offers suicide and self-harm prevention services. People can call 1-866-4-U-TREVOR (1-866-488-7386).
- Trans Lifeline: A trans-run organization offering support and resources. People can call (877) 565-8860.
The following may be helpful in supporting gender nonconforming people:
- researching gender and correct pronoun usage further
- asking questions, if people are comfortable with that
- becoming an ally
The following resources provide more information:
- Gender spectrum: Educational articles on understanding gender, the language to describe it, and more.
- Genderqueer: A forum of images celebrating gender nonconforming people.
- The Gender Justice Leadership Programs: Youth-led programs for trans and gender nonconforming young people that build public knowledge and empathy and promote trans liberation via storytelling and the media.
- Gender and Education Association: This charity based in the United Kingdom offers free resources and education on gender equality.
Gender nonconforming individuals reject societal gender stereotypes of appearance or behavior.
Supporting gender nonconforming people can include educating others on gender nonconformity, not assuming people’s identities or pronouns, and being an ally.