Recently, gender identity has been widely discussed with public figures such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, bravely speaking out about their own gender identity.

For some people, gender is more ambiguous or sometimes not at all aligned with the genders they were assigned at birth.

Gender Nonconformity in Modern Society

Traditionally, gender has been dictated by the genitalia of a person and their secondary sex characteristics such as an Adam’s apple, or breast tissue. Gender has been synonymous with a person’s sex. This has been the accepted view, especially for those who identify with (or feel aligned with) the gender they were born, or cisgender people.

For some people, gender is more ambiguous or sometimes not at all aligned with the genders they were assigned at birth.  The umbrella term “gender nonconforming” encompasses many variations on the gender spectrum.

Someone may identify as transgender, where they identify with a gender different than their sex; bigender, where they have more than one gender depending on their current feelings; genderfluid, meaning somewhere in the middle of the two typical genders; or agender which means having no sense of gender at all.  For gender nonconforming people a better analogy is that a person’s sex is determined at birth by the doctor looking at a baby’s body and declaring them male or female, whereas gender is just the pink or blue blanket the doctor chooses for the baby based on their sex.

Over the years, the idea of gender has developed in such a way, that certain activities, jobs, or personality traits have been prescribed feminine or masculine identities. These ideals change throughout the years, such as computer programming now being considered a more masculine profession, whereas when computers were first being invented women did nearly all of the programming. These constrictions are particularly harsh for gender nonconforming people.

Gender Presentation and Acceptance

Gender nonconformity in itself does not need to be a struggle, or lead to mental and physical repercussions.  However, society’s focus on traditional gender roles within the male/female gender binary can be harmful to those who identify outside the “norm”,  especially in their youth. This pressure to conform can seriously hurt both cisgender and transgender children, limiting their personal expression and teaching them that who they are is not okay. For trans and nonbinary people, youth most prominently suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, low self-esteem and other problems associated with the pressures of non-acceptance.

Gender nonconforming minors with the acceptance from their families had a significantly lower rate of suicide.

A 2014 study called the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTD Survey) reported that 41% of trans or nonconforming youth attempt suicide. This pattern is so prevalent that some states are creating dedicated suicide hotlines specifically for trans/nonconforming youth. In the NTD Survey, two thirds of the respondents who reported suicidal tendencies had been rejected by their family. Gender nonconforming minors with the acceptance from their families had a significantly lower rate of suicide. Trans teens in therapy are also less likely to take their own lives than their trans peers who feel that they have no one to talk to, or that no one understands.

The easiest way to combat this painful cycle is to not make any assumptions about someone’s gender. Try to be open to the possibility that a person’s assigned sex may not align with their gender. It is important to remember that the way a person expresses themselves does not make them male or female. It is also helpful to validate a gender nonconforming person by accepting the gray areas involved with gender expression and identity.  Affirming family members and appropriate counseling services can have a life-saving impact on gender nonconforming youth.

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