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What's the Difference Between Non-Binary, Genderqueer and Gender-Nonconforming?

A beginner's guide to the differences and similarities between three of the most common terms with which people outside the gender binary identify.

by Mary Retta
16 September 2019, 8:26am

Photo by Zackary Drucker, via the Gender Spectrum Collection.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

As language evolves and our understanding of gender continues to expand, people are identifying with an ever-growing and increasingly fluid group of labels. “Genderqueer,” “gender non-conforming,” “non-binary”––all of these words refer to people who identify outside of the male-female gender binary. But what do all of these terms mean, and what is the difference between them?

Are “non-binary,” “genderqueer,” and “gender-nonconforming” all the same?

“These are all terms that have come out of personal experience,” said Lou Himes, a non-binary Psy-D and Liscenced Clinical psychologist based in New York City. That means there are no concrete definitions to go by. Plus, these terms are relatively new to academia, medicine, and mainstream discourse. The beauty of that: Each person can interpret their differences for themselves and identify with the one that resonates most with them.

There are many people who identify with all of these terms and use them interchangeably. Still, many people primarily or solely identify with only one of these terms. Interpretations about the specific differences between them vary. But one thing always remains true: If you are going to refer to someone’s identity, you should always ask what label they prefer, and stick to that one.

What does “non-binary” mean?

The dictionary defines “non-binary” as something that is “not consisting of, indicating, or involving two.” While the term most commonly refers to someone’s gender identity, it can also be applied to many other things. Non-binary or gender-neutral clothing, for instance, is a growing industry appreciated by many, including cisgender folks.

But the term “non-binary” is most commonly used to describe someone’s gender identity when they do not identify within traditional categories of male or female. “The term ‘non-binary’ directly references the gender binary, or the idea that there are only two categories of gender experience,” said Himes. “But non-binary individuals do not operate within that socially constructed reality.”

“I identify as non-binary because I do not identify with either gender,” said Rui, a 19-year-old non-binary college student in New Jersey.

What does “genderqueer” mean?

According to a history of the term published in them., “genderqueer” originated in activist circles in the 1990s and grew in commonality over the last three or so decades.

“To me, ‘genderqueer’ represents a queering of gender, so to speak,” said Laura A. Jacobs, a psychotherapist who specializes in trans and gender non-binary issues, LGBTQ issues, and other forms of gender and sexual diversity. “It’s a deliberate playing with gender in a very political sense, and being provocative around gender norms to highlight the gender stereotypes of our culture. It is also how I identify.”

Cyrus Cohen, who lives in New York City and identifies as non-binary, considers their identity to be a form of genderqueerness. “I define ‘genderqueer’ as an umbrella term that just means ‘not cisgender,'” they said.

But Rui sees it differently: “I don’t use the term ‘genderqueer’ because, to me, that implies more of an oscillation between genders.”

What does “gender non-conforming” mean?

Broadly, “gender non-conforming” defines people who have a gender expression that does not conform to traditional gender norms. Similar to both “non-binary” and “genderqueer,” “gender non-conforming” is also often used as an umbrella term—although it is sometimes also used to refer to people who identify as cis-gender but who dress or behave in ways that defy gender stereotypes.

“The term says, ‘I am expected to be in this box, but I am not going to be in the box because I’m not going to conform to the expectations that are set for me,’” Himes said.

Others interpret it with added nuance. “In contrast [to ‘genderqueer’], I conceptualize being gender non-conforming as more rooted in how you’re perceived by others,” Cohen added, “and I tend to use that word mostly in cis spaces, as it invites less questions and is easier for people to understand.”

“Non-binary,” “genderqueer,” and “gender non-conforming” are just three of many words with which people outside of the gender binary identify. Others include “third-gender,” “genderfluid,” “two-spirit,” “pangender,” and “agender”—each with their own inflections of meaning.

Some last names have been excluded from this article for privacy.