Study expands understanding of nonbinary identities

A recent study displays the variety, diversity and wonder of gender identity among nonbinary people. As someone who struggles to describe my own sense of gender (when I have one), it’s deeply life-affirming to see other people say a lot of the same things I’ve said.

Often when I’m trying to explain nonbinary genders to people, I have to start by explaining what binary means: “Woman/man, you have to pick from one of two categories, that’s the binary. Some people don’t fit neatly into those categories, they’re nonbinary.” After I say that, I often still get blank looks—because woman/man is so ingrained in our culture it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people (who fit inside that binary) that there are experiences outside of what feels to them like natural categories.

When I get that blank look, I do some emotional math and try to figure out if it’s even worth having the conversation continue. The real question is: do I need to show up fully here?

Seeing yourself reflected in a community signals whether or not it’s safe to show up. If there are already nonbinary people, if folks know what that means, and if the nonbinary people are being treated well, then I know I can relax about gender and show up. Otherwise I’ll tuck that part of myself away and we’ll talk about safer topics.

This study is important both because it shows that there are many ways people are describing their nonbinary gender experienes and because it gives us the actual quotes from those people! (Yes, I’m going to give you a lot of those quotes in a minute.) Published in Identity Flexibility During Adulthood, the study is “Like a Constantly Flowing River”: Gender Identity Flexibility Among Nonbinary Transgender Individuals, by M. Paz Galupo, Lexi K. Pulice-Farrow, & Johanna L. Ramirez of Towson University.

The study includes 197 adults from a larger study about transgender experience. Ages 18 to 70, the participants identified as gender variant (129 people) or agender (68 people). The researchers were looking at how these participants describe their gender identities.

Participants were from the 50 states and DC, plus “Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Norway, among others. … There was limited racial/ethnic diversity within the sample, with 70.1% identifying as White/Caucasian and 19.8% of participants identifying as a racial/ethnic minority and 10.1% providing no answer.” (All quotes are from the study.)

Multiple labels

About a quarter of participants used multiple labels to describe their gender identity. The researchers point out, “This need for adopting multiple gender labels parallels previous research on sexual minority individuals’ sexual identity labels, where those with the most marginalized / non- normative identities used multiple labels and provided more descriptions when referring to their sexuality (Galupo, Mitchell, & Davis, 2015).”

That sounds academic, but the implications are huge: the more marginalized you are, the further from cultural norms, the more you have to struggle to patch together available language to describe yourself. At least that’s my experience. Mostly these days when people ask about my gender identity and actually care about an answer, I find myself saying “It’s sort of like X and kind of like Y but there’s also some & and a bit of *.”

Major themes

“Although traditional definitions of gender identity emphasize that it is an individual’s internal sense of their gender as male, female, both, or neither (Tate, 2014; Tate, Youssef, & Bettergarcia, 2014), many of our participants describe their gender in ways that do not neatly reside within just one of those options.”

The research team, which included a researcher who identifies as queer and genderfluid, went through the various descriptions and uncovered six themes running through people’s descriptions of their gender identity. I’ve given a short list below and then a longer list that includes direct quotes from the study participants.

The researchers also caution, “These themes are not meant to be mutually exclusive and most participants’ responses exemplified more than one of the themes.”

Six themes for describing nonbinary gender identity:

  1. Using binary terms of gender/sex (e.g. woman, man, masculine, femme)
  2. Blended
  3. Fluid (e.g. fluid, gender variant, genderfluid)
  4. Non-binary (e.g. androgynous, non-binary, pangender)
  5. Transgender (e.g. trans, transgender, transmasculine)
  6. Agender (e.g. genderless, agender, non- gendered)

“58.1% of gender variant as opposed to 33.8% of agender individuals used non-binary labels while 3.9% gender variant and 76.5% agender individuals used agender labels.”

(Since the LGBTQIA+ binary (part of the) community is symbolized by a rainbow, I thought I’d go with a nebula for nonbinary communities–after all, that’s where stars are made.)

Major themes with examples

Here are the six themes explored with quotes from the study participants:

1) Using binary terms of gender/sex

“Half male and half female, without being fully one or the other.” (genderqueer/genderfluid)

“Not comfortably fitting into male or female” (agender)

“Shifting between masculine, feminine, androgynous” (genderfluid)

2) Blended

“A blend of male and female characteristics.” (androgynous, agender)

“I describe myself as somewhere in between male and female, or mixing male and

female” (“androgyne,” I also use the terms “transgender, nonbinary, and genderqueer)

“I am someone who is neither man nor woman but something else entirely I am a fabulous mix of feminine and masculine. I currently see myself as a femme boi.” (genderqueer)

3) Fluid

“I have a gender that is ‘fluid’, that shifts and changes like a constantly flowing river. I am never ‘just one’ gender as my identity is constantly changing.” (genderfluid under the nonbinary umbrella)

“I see myself as a fluid individual who experiences attributes that are feminine or masculine. These feelings cannot be defined by my sex” (genderqueer)

“My gender feelings/presentation change consistently” (genderfluid)

“I slosh about between male, female, neither, and both.” (genderfluid)

“I can switch in between a variety of genders (man, woman, androgyne, agender, third gender, polygender, etc.) day by day.” (genderfluid)

4) Non-binary

“I don’t conform to the gender binary” (agender)

“I am beyond the binary genders and do not identify as either female or male.” (genderqueer/non binary)

5) Transgender

“I identify as both nonbinary and trans because of the nature of having an identity that cannot easily be described by combining concepts related to “man” and “woman.” Because I am somewhere beyond rather than between these concepts I am continually having to define myself as both trans and nonbinary in order to come close to having my gender viewed in a way that feels authentic to me. Other terms that are sometimes useful to describe my gender are queer and fluid.” (nonbinary trans person)

“I don’t identify within the gender binary. I mostly identify as genderqueer, which to me means I’m not a boy or a girl but some mix of the two, with other stuff thrown in. However, I identified as a trans man for a few years and took T during that time, so I feel being a trans* guy is still a significant part of my identity for now.” (genderqueer trans* guy)

6) Agender

“In the end I feel that categorization by gender is absurd and my identity is not modified by gender. Hence non-gendered or agender.” (genderqueer/non-gendered/gender non- conforming)

“I feel mostly genderless but occasionally I feel closer to female, and I feel like I fit in between female and agender.” (bigender)

“neutral dress. neutral pronouns. neutral appearance. no makeup.” (agender)

“My gender identity is basically that of a shapeshifting being.”

“I do not have an internal gender. It is not androgynous; it is not fluid; it is non- existent.” (agender)

“I don’t feel connected to femininity or masculinity respectively. I don’t attach gender to things I do or understand why people do. I think of myself as a person not a “woman” or “man.” (agender).


Descriptions I was immensely relieved to see because they reflect me:

  • My gender identity is basically that of a shapeshifting being.
  • I’m not a boy or a girl but some mix of the two, with other stuff thrown in.
  • Shifting between masculine, feminine, androgynous
  • I slosh about between male, female, neither, and both.
  • I see myself as a fluid individual who experiences attributes that are feminine or masculine. These feelings cannot be defined by my sex

Though for the sake of space I’m going to continue to call myself a “nonbinary lesbian,” or if there’s a little more room: “nonbinary person committed to frequently being a woman because women are valuable.” 

I’m excited that there are studies reflecting nonbinary and agender experiences and hope to see more!

What are you experiences of gender? Do you describe yourself in some of the ways represented here or other ways?

1 Comment
  • Raven

    October 20, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    Always happy to see agender represented, because I often feel like the only one, and not having a gender is so completely weird that I’m probably making it up 🙁 I have no sense of my gender – I’m not female (even though everyone thinks I am), I’m not male, I’m not even anything in between. It’s just… not there.