Speculative fiction writer, translator, and editor

What is gender?

“Gender” is just a way of categorizing people.

In fact, “gender” and “genre” come from the same root word, Latin genus, which means “kind, sort.” Just like books have genres, people have genders.

Many people recognize “men” and “women” as distinct, non-overlapping, mutually exclusive gender categories, and usually correlate them with certain body types. But, just like we can’t determine the genre of a book purely from the way it’s bound, we also can’t know a person’s gender just by the way they look, or what we think their body looks like.

Gender is a complex concept that includes a social element, like the roles we’re expected to take on when we’re in a group. Gender also includes a personal identity element, or how we understand ourselves. For example, some women feel strongly about being a woman, while others are indifferent.

Gender isn’t a fixed, static concept. Instead, it is constructed: gender is constantly rebuilt and renegotiated. Which means that people can change genders at will, because our understandings about ourselves may change, or because we may want people to perceive us in a different way.

There are many ways to be nonbinary.

In our world, nonbinary people exist outside of a gender binary where the only options are “man” and “woman.”

However, there are many ways to exist outside of this binary. Some people may be both men and women. Some may only partially identify as men or women. Some may have a gender that cannot be described as “man” nor “woman.” Some may not have a gender at all.

bigenderSimultaneously identifying as multiple genders.
demigenderPartly identifying as a certain gender.
agenderNot having a gender.
neutroisA specific gender that is neither male nor female.
Table 1. Examples of nonbinary genders with generalized descriptions.

Nonbinary people are of all races, ethnicities, ages, birth designations, sexual orientations, romantic orientations, intersex/non-intersex identities, sizes, colors, abilities, disabilities, nations, religions… The only requirement for someone to be nonbinary is the fact that they identify as nonbinary.

Medical factors like hormones, dysphoria, and transition can be elements of nonbinary experiences, but they are not requirements.

Additionally, any way a nonbinary person chooses to express their identity is a valid expression of nonbinary identity.

So, you can’t tell from a person’s appearance whether or not they are nonbinary. You can’t even tell whether a person is or isn’t nonbinary by the pronouns they use. Not all nonbinary people use neopronouns like “e” or “ze.” Not all nonbinary people even use gender-neutral pronouns like singular “they.” Some nonbinary people use “he” or “she.”

When it comes to writing, then, marking that someone is nonbinary can be done in subtle to obvious ways.

In our world, people who use neopronouns and gender-neutral pronouns are usually nonbinary. However, in imaginary worlds, that may not necessarily be the case.

The important thing to recognize is that nonbinary people represent a broad range of experiences. We can’t collapse those experiences into one experience by hastily making assumptions about what it means to be nonbinary, because doing so is a misrepresentation of real, lived experiences.

Nonbinary experiences have local and historical contexts.

Various historical factors have led us to our current society, which, for the most part, only recognizes a White, Western system of gender with only two options: man and woman.

However, nonbinary genders are not a new concept. Although the term “nonbinary” may be new, various cultures around the world have had people who exist outside the gender binary as we currently know it. Several cultures, including living ones, recognize a gender system with more than two genders as their main understanding of gender.

Because of the historical erasure that nonbinary people have faced, we have two main priorities when we want to write about nonbinary people sensitively:

We have to respect that nonbinary people come from specific cultural contexts and backgrounds.

“Setting” has two parts: time and place. For narrative purposes, this means that people have a temporal context they come from and a geographical context they come from. The time they exist in affects the culture they exist in, as does the geographical location they exist in, or the locations they travel between—and the very fact that they travel at all.

Therefore, it doesn’t make much sense for us to strictly apply the term “nonbinary” to a person from China who lived during 800 B.C.E., as, during their time and culture, the terms they used and the way they understood their gender simply weren’t the same as the terms we use and the way we understand our gender now.

We can recognize elements of similar experience and use the shorthand of “nonbinary” as an umbrella, but we can’t use the term “nonbinary” to erase experiences and history, or to flatten out the detail and nuance that would bring verisimilitude to our work.

In turn, we can’t use a culturally specific term like “Two-Spirit,” which is a term to describe Native American & First Nations experiences and understandings of gender and sexuality, to describe a non-Native White person who has a completely different set of experiences and understandings of gender.

Stripping away the cultural and historical context of a term like “Two-Spirit” is a form of violence, even though it is not physically tangible: it is a form of cultural destruction that takes important cultural language and removes the very cultures that make the language so meaningful in the first place.

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