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Nonbinary Gender Expression

Picture a nonbinary person. Are they assigned male or female at birth? What kind of secondary sex characteristics (body hair/facial hair, breasts, etc) do they have? What do they look like? What are they wearing?

It is probable that the person you pictured is assigned female at birth with no secondary sex characteristics at all, dressed in what is traditionally considered male clothes, with short hair and no makeup. If not, great, congratulations, you are abnormal. This essay is still worth a read. If I was right, let’s examine those assumptions together.

First, their assigned gender. Because of the feminist movement, we are much more comfortable with women and AFAB people subverting expectations of gender expression; and therefore more comfortable with the idea of AFAB nonbinary people. The transphobic stereotype of “a man in a dress” has worked its way into the collective subconscious and succeeded at making us wary of or uncomfortable with AMAB nonbinary people. Just like the rest of the world, the population of nonbinary people is almost exactly 50/50 in terms of assigned gender. 

I believe that this bias towards AFAB trans people and against those who are AMAB, like many others, is rooted in classic sexism. Foundationally, men are stronger and better, women are weaker and worse. With this ingrained in our subconscious, the idea of someone who was AFAB or who we used to view as a woman transitions away from being female they are moving up. SO it is comfortable and understandable that someone would do that. Whereas if someone was AMAB and transitioned to be female or nonbinary, they are moving down, willingly chosing to be weaker than they inherently were before transitioning. 

If you are trying to accept nonbinary people as they are, as they identify, it is important to examine how you associate assigned gender and secondary sex characteristics with transition and nonbinary identity. Why is it that when picturing a nonbinary person, you don’t imagine someone with facial or body hair? Why are these characteristics tied to gender? Assigned male or female at birth, we all grow body hair. All of us have hair on our faces. When AMAB nonbinary people grow facial hair, or don’t shave their body hair, we gender them as male regardless of their identity.

The point I’m trying to get at is this: a nonbinary person’s body is a nonbinary body. Breasts aren’t intrinsically tied to gender and seeing someone with breasts should not lead you to the assumption that they are a woman. Facial hair isn’t just a characteristic of men, it can just as easily be a nonbinary characteristic. A nonbinary person does not need to keep away from these types of characteristics to validate their identity.

When it comes to clothing, hair, and makeup, the expectation placed on nonbinary people depends on their assigned gender. AFAB people are expected to dress in ”male” clothes, have short hair, and not wear makeup. AMAB people, on the other hand, are expected to wear makeup and ‘female’ clothes (not dresses). Those of us who are well versed in nonbinary and trans identity often make the claim that clothes and makeup have no gender. Yet, most of us fall into the expectation that nonbinary people won’t associate with gender expression that ‘traditionally’ aligns with their assigned gender. Why is this, if we all agree that nonbinary people are neither men or women and that clothes and makeup have no gender?

I would like to posit that this ties into one of the claims in transmedicalism, specifically that gender dysphoria is the determining factor in someone’s identity, as opposed to gender euphoria. That is, for a trans or nonbinary person, their identity is defined by discomfort and pain. In my opinion, identity should be about happiness and comfort instead.

1 comment

  • The ‘clothing has no gender’ idea doesn’t quite work for me, personally. AFAB, I identify as non-binary and I feel most comfortable dressing in clothing that triggers most people to react to me as if I were a man. If the situation calls for it, I politely point out to people that my pronouns are they, their, them. I find it hard to tolerate people talking down to me, ignoring me when I have something to say in conversation as if someone, they believe is a woman is not worth listening to. Dressed in clothing designed for a male body I also feel much safer that men never ogle my body, and they treat me as they would treat any other man.
    Identifying as non-binary I feel myself to be on the cutting edge of our culture becoming less attached to the concept of gender binarism and it is sometimes very uncomfortable. Treading this path is worthwhile, though. I have always felt myself walking down the middle path between ‘opposites’, unable to settle comfortably in one set gender identity. Having non-binary as a way to identity ‘me’, helps me stop wasting energy on worrying about gender identity. Non-binary is a more natural identifier of who I am. It allows me to move through the world and live honestly within myself
    I have lived my life knowing my body is not a man’s body but also that I have always been uncomfortable with identifying as a girl, a woman, a ‘she’ since very early childhood, as far back as I can remember. That said, though I have many times considered sex reassignment surgery to help me to deal with gender dysphoria, I have found that identifying as non-binary allows me to let go of thinking about the long, expensive struggle associated with selecting the ‘right’ gender and possibly not feeling satisfied with that decision in the long run.
    Considering the impact of identifying as non-binary, I realize that feelings I have that may usually be regarded as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ ones don’t really have any gender. It’s all human feelings and forbidding any kinds of feelings based on which gender you’ve been assigned at birth is possibly damaging to mental and emotional health, even to the point of stunting your humanity,
    Giving myself permission to use non-binary pronouns rather than struggling to adjust to or to navigate the maze of binary gender identities and expectations, permission to wear whatever I feel most comfortable wearing, ignoring the gender normative expectations that others may have of me, is all very mindboggling but in the end the efforts to be my genuine self are all worth it.
    It is worthwhile to not just know who I am but also to live it honestly, unapologetically and courageously every single day.


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