Beyond the Binary: But What Does It All Mean? I Don’t Get It!

People starting to learn about nonbinary gender often struggle with it. It’s hard to adjust to many of the ideas involved, to the impression of instability created through nonbinary genders, to the reality that some people are not only not the genders they were assigned at birth, but they don’t fall into the familiar M/F divide people know and comprehend, are familiar with because of the world around them.

In spaces where people are encouraged to ask questions, one that comes up over and over again is ‘but what does it mean to be genderqueer, or some other nonbinary identity?’ Closely followed by the related ‘but I just don’t get it.’ These two questions follow naturally on each other because they are closely intertwined; people want to know, to understand, to grapple with  something that doesn’t make sense to them, and they appeal for some kind of explanation that will make the world stable again. If there’s a narrow meaning that can be assigned to gender and what it means, gender can be safely confined again, as it was before, when the only genders you knew were female and male and everyone kindly identified with one or the other. People long for rules and logic and a metric they can use.

I always struggle with responses to this question because I know it comes from a genuine desire to understand, and I don’t want to be mean to people who are trying to learn, but at the same time, I also find it a really baffling question. I want to flip it around, to ask what people mean by asking this question, what the goal is. To some extent, I know what outcome people want; they want rules again. They want things to be tidy and clean and orderly, because discussions about gender instability create an inherent threat to cis people who think of gender as stable, fixed, and immovable.

What does it mean, I want to ask cis people, to be a cis woman, or a cis man? What does it mean? How do you know that you are a woman, or a man? Is it a conscious choice? Do you wake up in the morning every day and decide to do that? How do you express your gender? What things do you do or not do as markers to signal your gender to the world? What does ‘woman’ mean to you? People have also been grappling with these questions for a long time, in larger discussions about masculinity and femininity, in discussions, for example, about cis women who are challenged on their gender because they’re too butch.

People want a smooth, flawless, easy definition of what it means to be genderqueer, but I look at cis women who have never encountered challenges about their gender and have never stopped to think about what it means to them to be a cis woman, and defy people to come up with a single neat definition of what it means to be a cis woman. Is it how someone looks? Dresses? Behaves? Is it about chromosomes and phenotype and endocrinology? Is it about reproductive capability? What is it? How do people define ‘woman’? Many of these questions sound offensive and intrusive and ridiculous because they are, and I use them illustratively to demonstrate how some nonbinary trans people feel in discussions where cis people are trying to ‘get’ their gender.

I know cis women with hourglass figures who dress in vintage clothes and swear like sailors. I know cis women who are heavyset with buzzcuts, who wear flannels, who are tenderhearted and sweet and work in animal rescue, and who get asked if they’re boys or girls all the time. I know cis women who perform femininity and very much feel it as drag, as a performance, as artificiality, and I know others who very naturally and happily slip into that. I know cis women with children and huge families and I know others who live alone and have no interest in relationships. I look at all these expressions of gender, of identity, of lives lived, and I wonder: What does it mean to be a cis woman?

Gender is something deeper, something that cannot be neatly and categorically defined. Is it more about what someone feels, what someone believes? Is it, perhaps, something slipperier that cannot be pinned down and described in a few words, that may not even be articulated, because you just know it? This is the reality of gender, and it’s a reality that frightens and upsets people. Gender is not simple, it doesn’t follow rules, it scoffs at boundaries.

Is gender something people need to get? Is it something that can be quantified and assigned values and easily described? Cis people struggle to grasp what it means to be trans—not just nonbinary, but trans in general—and I’m not sure they really need to. The question for me isn’t whether people ‘understand’ gender, but whether they can be respectful about it, whether they can interact with people who are trans without treating us as something abnormal and broken and wrong. I don’t need people to ‘get’ being genderqueer to treat me with respect, to not misgender me, after all.

What does it all mean? It means everything, but it also means nothing. It means that gender is not stable, but that doesn’t mean your gender isn’t stable. And that’s something that people don’t need to get, something that may be impossible to ever get. There is a saying that you need to stand in someone’s shoes sometimes to get things, but gender is not a pair of heels you can slip on and off; this, perhaps, is the most frightening thing of all to cis people, that this is an experience they will never get because it is not their experience, and that means it is something they can never truly know.

Not knowing is frightening. But it’s also okay, I promise.