What Does It Mean to Be Genderqueer or Have a Nonbinary Gender?


Discussions of gender have come a long way over the past few decades. Just as there has been a growing understanding of the iterations of sexual identity, there has also been an increasing awareness that the historically traditional gender categories of "woman" and "man" are overly restrictive.

These days, more and more people are describing themselves as genderqueer, genderfluid, nonbinary, agender, or gender nonconforming. These terms mean different things, but they all describe people whose gender identity is something other than simply woman or man.

Understanding the Gender Binary

Historically, most people have identified their gender as man or woman. These identities are most often correlated with a person's assigned sex at birth. However, there have always been people who identify as a gender that isn't traditionally correlated with their assigned sex at birth. All of those people are transgender, and some of them do not identify as woman or man.

The gender binary refers to the notion that gender is an either/or proposition. In a world with binary gender, people are either women or men—a binary choice. However, some people identify as neither, a combination of woman and man, or a different gender entirely.

For many years, transgender people were required by medical professionals to identify as the "opposite" gender and plan to transition to become a heterosexual member of that gender in order to qualify to start a medical or surgical transition. Those requirements have become substantially more relaxed over time, mostly thanks to the activism of the transgender community.

What Does It Mean to Be Genderqueer or Nonbinary?

Some individuals refer to themselves being nonbinary, an identity that is also known as "enby" (pronounced like the letters N and B). "Enby" is not preferred by some adults, as it sounds infantilizing to them; always make sure an individual identifies with a term before using it to describe them.

Nonbinary people have a wide range of gender expression. While nonbinary identify is often associated with thinness, whiteness, and androgyny, actual nonbinary people do not have to and don't look like that. Some people are woman- and/or man-aligned and may express themselves in a masculine and/or feminine way. There is no one way to be nonbinary.

Gender presentation or gender expression is what people choose to show the world, but gender identity is who they are.

Genderqueer and nonbinary are somewhat overlapping categories. Some people actually use the terms to mean the same thing. For others, a genderqueer identity is more equivalent to the sexual orientation of queer. Queer is an umbrella term that encompasses all sexual orientations other than heterosexual; queer is also a slur that is still weaponized against the LGBT community, so some members of the community are not comfortable being referred to as queer or genderqueer. Similarly, genderqueer encompasses all genders that are not cisgender. Some individuals specifically identify as either genderqueer and nonbinary, even though both terms are also umbrella terms.

Someone who identifies as genderfluid has a gender that is not fixed over time. Their gender identity may shift over long or short periods of time. Some people identify very strongly with their gender or genders. They are very aware of their gender and are uncomfortable if misgendered (seen or referred to as a gender other than how they identify). Other people don't find gender to be as salient.

Being Agender

When someone is agender, it means that they do not have a gender identity, or that their gender identity is neutral. People who are agender may also identify with genderqueer or nonbinary as umbrella terms. It is important to mention that just as a genderqueer person is not necessarily queer, an agender person is not necessary asexual. People of any gender can have any sexual orientation.

Neutrois and gender neutral are other terms that may be used by people who do not identify as having a gender, or who identify as having a neutral gender.

The Singular They—A Pronoun Primer

Not all genderqueer and nonbinary people use the same pronouns. Some use only "she/her/hers" and "he/him/his." However, one of the most common pronouns used by nonbinary people is the singular they. "They" is used in place of "he" or "she." "Them" is used in place of "him" or "her." Finally, "theirs" is used in place of "his" or "hers." Some nonbinary people use more than one set of pronouns with this format: "he/they." Someone with those pronouns is comfortable being referred to with he/him/his and they/them/theirs.

Some nonbinary people use neopronouns. These pronouns are those that do not exist in the nonbinary person's language like "ze/hir/hirs," "fae/faer/faers," and "xe/xem/xirs." In neopronouns, "X"s are often pronounced as "Z"s. It is best to ask a nonbinary or genderqueer individual how to pronounce or write their pronouns to make sure you gender them correctly. Pronoun dressing room is also an online resource for trans people to learn about and try out new pronouns, as well as for allies and loved ones of trans people to practice using a trans person's pronouns.

It is very possible that you will mess up a nonbinary or genderqueer person's pronouns in the future, even if you share the same identity. In such situations, it is best to give a quick apology ("Sorry!") and continue the conversation. You should not offer a drawn out apology where the trans person in question has the spotlight on them and is then forced to comfort you for misgendering them.

If you don't know what pronouns someone uses, it's alright to ask. In fact, it's far more polite to ask than it is to guess. All you have to do is say, "what pronouns do you use?" You can also set a clear example when you're introducing yourself by giving your pronouns. For example, you might say "Hello! I'm Elizabeth, and I use she/her/hers pronouns."

That said, if you're in a group where you're going to ask about one person's pronouns, you should ask about everyone's pronouns. It is inappropriate to single out one person to question, as that can feel like you're targeting them. Instead, you might say something like, "Can we all give our pronouns? I use they/them/theirs."

A Word From Verywell

The words used to refer to gender are constantly changing. Therefore, it's important to be aware that one person's self-definition may be very different from another's, even if they use the same words to describe their gender identity. The important thing is to respect people's declared gender identities. That means reflecting the words they use to describe themselves, rather than choosing your own. It also means respecting and using their pronouns. After all, every person is an expert in their own life and gets to share who they are with the world. Others are merely observers, not nearly as qualified to describe that person's experience.

If you are seeking support for issues with coming out, relationships, bullying, self-harm, and more, contact the LGBT National Hotline at 1-888-843-4564 for one-to-one peer support.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.