Challenging the Cisgender / Transgender Binary

Photo provided by author, Dr. Helana Darwin

People are starting to realize that not everyone identifies as either a man or a woman. Merriam Webster Dictionary’s word of the year for 2019 was “they,” reflecting increased attention to the need for a gender-neutral pronoun. Meanwhile, more and more celebrities have announced that they identify as neither men nor women, but rather as non-binary.  But what is non-binary gender? And how is it the same as—or different from—transgender? On Reddit, members of a popular genderqueer community hotly debate the meanings of these various labels and the criteria for group membership. However, there is no consensus about what any of these labels mean.

I set out to learn more about these labels by asking 44 non-binary people whether or not they identify as transgender. I present and analyze my interviewees’ answers in my new Gender & Society article “Challenging the Cisgender/Transgender Binary.” It is quite apparent that non-binary gender is not automatically a transgender subcategory, according to non-binary people themselves. Some identify as transgender since they do not identify as the gender they were assigned as birth (in other words, they are not “cisgender”). Others feel inauthentic claiming the transgender label, however, because they do not feel “trans enough.” Still others insist that they haven’t transitioned their gender at all; rather, they have always been non-binary, even if they didn’t always know the term.  And finally, half of the people I interviewed could not be classified as a simple “yes or no.”

These responses are so varied because there are multiple meanings of “transgender” in circulation. Some people believe that anyone who has changed their gender (from the one that was assigned to them at birth) is transgender by default—this expansive understanding of transgender is often referred to as the “transgender umbrella” model. However, some do not want to take up space under the umbrella that other people might need more than them. Others struggled with my question because they both do and do not identify as transgender. Some of these interviewees created hybrid labels including “non-binary transgender,” “trans spectrum,” “trans-ish,” “trans but not transgender,” or “trans*.”

It is clear that just as race evades a black/white framework, so too does gender require more sophisticated methods of measurement than either/or man/woman. Even the question “Are you cisgender or transgender?” is itself too binary.  Such categories invalidate the self-labels and experiences of many non-binary people, while also obscuring the diversity that actually exists under the “transgender umbrella.” Binary gender frameworks are inaccurate as they erase gender diversity while preserving the illusion of a neat black-and-white reality. But gender is not black-and-white. Gender is a rainbow with infinite color spectrums. Gender is as complicated as sexuality and race. Society is finally taking note of this complexity, though the adjustment period may be awkward for quite some time.

Want to hear more? Listen to our podcast with Dr. Helana Darwin here.

Helana Darwin is a doctoral candidate on the market, in the Department of Sociology at SUNY Stony Brook. Her research focuses on the reproduction of social inequality. Previous research on gender inequality has been published by Gender & Society, Symbolic Interaction, Social Currents, Sociology of Religion, Gender, Place, & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, Feminist Media Studies,and Contemporary Jewry. To learn more about Helana Darwin’s research or teaching, please visit her website at HelanaDarwin.com or follow Helana on Twitter at @HelanaDarwin.