What Is Gender Nonconformity?

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As noted in another post, sex and gender are not the same thing. Sex is typically seen as a binary trait that flows from reproductive function whether that be regarded as genital, chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal, or structural. There are, of course, biologically intersex persons born with karyotype disorders, androgen insensitivity disorders, and/or genital dysgenesis disorders. According to the U.N. World Health Organization, as much as 1% to 2% of persons are born intersex worldwide. Gender, however, is more complex and is not a monolithic construct.

In short, gender is the perceived sex of a person and this can be both internal and external. Societies generally construct gender norms around sex such that the gender of individuals is typically presumed to be congruent with sex. As an extremely broad umbrella concept, gender nonconformity means that the person’s gender identity and/or expression does not match a given societal expectation. As a consequence, it is possible for a person to be gender nonconforming in one country but not in another. Gender norms are also not fixed in time. Fifty years ago, a woman who wore pants would have been gender nonconforming, but that is no longer the case today.

According to the National Institute of Medicine and the American Psychological Association, gender nonconformity is defined as “the extent to which a person’s gender identity, role, or expression differs from the cultural norms prescribed for people of a particular sex.” A gender nonconforming person does not necessarily see himself or herself as the opposite sex and might or might not be attracted to her or his same sex.

However, because nonconformity can be a middle ground, the fact of a person’s gender nonconformity might cause him or her to prefer to associate with what she or he perceives as the more tolerant sex or as the more congruent sex relative to her or his gender expression. Gender expansive is another commonly used term to refer to gender nonconforming persons.

Beyond nonconformity lies a myriad of gender flavors that is very challenging to name exhaustively, in part because a nonconforming gender defies a social label and falls to the nonconforming individual to descriptively name it. Even then, terms like gynephilic and androphilic are not unambiguous as they could refer to sexual orientation or to gender disposition.

Gender nonconformity is also different from being feminine or masculine. For example, effeminate men and butch women are not automatically gender nonconforming. Gender nonconformity is also not determinative of sexual orientation and should not be a basis for discrimination with respect to public accommodations. In terms of public restrooms, for example, there is little difference between a woman who is attracted to women and a man who is attracted to women yet one goes unnoticed and the other is shunned. Adults are expected to behave lawfully and different does not signify dangerous.

America is in a period of transition and education when it comes to understanding gender diversity. Keeping an open mind ensures not only that nonconforming persons are respected, but also that conforming persons experience personal growth.

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