How Young People Are Redefining “Transgender” And “Nonbinary”

by Rory Gory

March 31 is Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual occasion dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of transgender people as well as raising awareness of and advocating for the transgender community. Created in 2009 by Rachel Crandall, Executive Director of Transgender Michigan, Transgender Day of Visibility is a time for recognizing transgender people in a positive light, rather than only centering the conversation around the significant hardships facing the community.

While not all transgender or nonbinary people can or want to be visible in society, having language to describe gender identity and expression is extremely important. It helps avoid their erasure in legislation. Language that affirms gender identity—including names, pronouns, and labels—can even be lifesaving for young people. Specific words that communicate the complexities of gender identity, such as agender, demigirl, bigender, and neutrois, can help us advocate for and protect the rights of transgender and nonbinary people.

Based on findings from The Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, these words and more were used by one in four LGBTQ youth who identified outside of the gender binary in a report.

Trevor Project

These words also show how young transgender and nonbinary people are leading the way in creating language that helps to express the nuances of their gender identity and expression. Words that expand our understanding of gender beyond a binary give us the tools to talk about our true experience of our gender identity.

While these changes in language can be intimidating, you don’t have to know every label to support gender diverse people. By educating yourself on the basics of gender identity and expression, you can unlearn common myths about gender and promote inclusivity for transgender and nonbinary people.

What is gender identity?

Gender identity describes our internal understanding and experience of our own gender. It can be influenced by culture, society, and hormonal changes, but ultimately, each person’s experience of their gender identity is unique and personal.

Many people confuse sex and gender, or make the assumption that both sex and gender are inherently binary, or limited to the categories of male and female (e.g., the inaccurate assertion that “There are only two genders!”). However, both sex and gender naturally fall on a spectrum.

Because we are used to binary thinking, people also commonly confuse gender with sexual orientation. Some people might assume, for instance, that being transgender is the same thing as being gay. Other people might assume that your gender determines your sexual orientations (e.g., if you’re a man, you’ll be attracted to women, and if you’re a woman, you’ll be attracted to men). Sexual orientation is distinct from gender identity, and also falls along a spectrum.

What is sex assigned at birth?

Sex is the classification of a person as male, female, or intersex (inter, “between, among”). Doctors typically designate female or male on a birth certificate based on external genitals. However, human biology is not strictly limited to two distinct sexes.

Intersex people are born with any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals that do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies.

Gender is complex

It is commonly assumed that your gender will match the sex you were assigned at birth. According to this assumption, if you were assigned female at birth (abbreviated as AFAB), you’re a girl, and if you were assigned male at birth (AMAB), you’re a boy. If a person’s sex assigned at birth aligns with their gender this way, they are cisgender. However, transgender and nonbinary people have a gender identity that is different than the sex to which they were assigned at birth.

Of the LGBTQ youth surveyed in The Trevor Project’s report, only 7% selected transgender male or transgender female as their only gender identity. However, 32% of the sample identified as either transgender or used labels outside of the man/woman binary.

No matter what sex a person was assigned at birth or what label they use to describe themselves, their gender is theirs and theirs only to discover and define.

What is gender expression?

Gender expression describes the way in which we present or express our gender, such as our physical appearance, clothing, hairstyles, and behavior. Gender expression can also include behavior, movement, and mannerisms, as well as pronouns or honorifics (such as Mx.) to describe oneself.

Many people are used to using the pronouns he and she (and their related forms, his/him and hers/her) to address male and female identified people, respectively. In recent years, however, the singular they pronoun has become a popular and widespread gender-neutral alternative to the traditionally gendered pronouns, he and she.

There are many other pronouns than nonbinary singular they that people outside the gender binary use. Here are some examples (listed in nominative, possessive, objective, and reflexive forms):

  • she, her/hers, herself
  • he, his, him, himself
  • they, them, their, theirs, themself
  • ze (or zie), hir/hirs, hir, hirself
  • ze (or zie), zir/zirs, zir, zirself
  • xe, xyr/xyrs, xem, and xemself
  • ve, vis, ver, and verself

For more tips on how to use pronouns respectfully, you can reference The Trevor Project’s Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth.

Gender expression can be a joyful vehicle for self-expression, and it isn’t limited to transgender and nonbinary people. Cisgender men and women also make choices as to whether they want to express their gender in ways that are feminine, masculine, or androgynous. No matter what your gender identity, you have a right to express your gender however you want!

The pitfalls of perceived gender

People perceive gender based on a variety of visual and social cues, for example, a person’s gender expression, their secondary sex characteristics (such as the development of breasts or a beard), or the social role they are playing relative to expected gender roles. Many people commonly make assumptions about a person’s gender identity or pronouns based on their perceived gender, but you can’t tell a person’s gender just by looking at them.

Many cisgender people take for granted that their gender will be correctly perceived, but many binary transgender people struggle with microaggressions based on their perceived gender. Snap judgments can result in misgendering, or using pronouns or forms of address that do not correspond with a person’s gender. By using gender-neutral language and introducing yourself with your pronouns, you can make sure that you’re addressing others respectfully.

Passing is a controversial term used to describe whether or not a person is perceived as a certain gender (e.g., passing as a woman or passing as a man). On the one hand, for many transgender people, being able to “pass” as the gender they align with is important for a sense of self, and what’s called passing privilege can allow one to move safely through environments where being perceived as transgender is a danger.

On the other hand, passing can be considered problematic because the word passing can imply that a person has to “convince” others of their gender, rather than being able to simply express their true self. Implying that transgender people are lying, tricking, or deceiving other people by expressing their gender is inaccurate and stigmatizing.

The trans community is diverse

Many transgender and nonbinary teens are lumped under a single “transgender” category regardless of gender, which includes anyone who isn’t cisgender: trans men, trans women, nonbinary people, and anyone with a label that identifies them outside the gender binary.

But, LGBTQ youth surveyed in The Trevor Project’s report identified with more than 100 gender identities that otherwise popularly get grouped together under the transgender umbrella. The transgender community is not a monolith, and the category of transgender represents an extremely diverse group.

Nonbinary is a specific identity label and a broad adjective used to describe people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as outside of the traditional male/female gender binary, but many other words may be used to describe identities outside the traditional categories of man and woman, too. These identities, while similar, are not necessarily interchangeable or synonymous.

For example, neutrois and agender people identify without a gender, or experience their gender as gender-neutral. People who identify as genderqueer, gender-fluid, or genderflux, on the other hand, may experience a fluid or fluctuating gender between a variety of identities and expressions.

Other people who do not identify as strictly male or female may still express and identify their gender in masculine, feminine, or androgynous ways. Bigender people (bi, “two”) often experience two gender identities, either simultaneously or varying between the two. Demigender (demi, “half”) describes nonbinary gender identities that have a partial connection to a certain gender, such as demigirl, or someone who partially identifies as a woman or with feminine characteristics.

Labels are personal …

Labels can be an exciting way to express your true self to others, and to communicate with those who relate to your experiences. Using more specific labels can help to filter through millions of search results on the internet to find, connect with, and build community with other people who share your identity.

It’s OK if you don’t understand all the words that exist to describe gender identity, but avoid invalidating others for using labels that are unfamiliar to you. At the same time, be careful not to tell others how you think they should or shouldn’t label their gender. It’s OK not to label yourself, too. There is no right or wrong way to define your gender.

… and using respectful language can save lives

Discovering so many new words to describe one’s gender identity can feel overwhelming for those who have spent most of their lives operating on the assumption that male and female are the only genders. At times, there can be resistance to discovering the descriptions of gender identity and expression that young people are discussing.

If you’re wondering whether all this new language is necessary, keep in mind that affirming a young person’s gender identity can literally be lifesaving. In a recent study, the usage of the chosen names of transgender and nonbinary youth resulted in a 29% decrease in suicidal ideation and a 56% decrease in suicidal behavior for each additional context in which it was used. By encouraging young people to express themselves, and modeling the language they use to describe themselves, you can support positive mental health outcomes for transgender and nonbinary youth.

You don’t have to be an expert or memorize all the words in this article to be supportive. Simply listening and practicing empathy goes a long way to helping others. Language is always changing, and no matter what your age, we’re all continually learning new words to describe and communicate our experience of gender.

Rory Gory is the Digital Marketing Manager for The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people. If you or anyone you know is in crisis, reach out to The Trevor Project for support at:

If you’re concerned about creating safe and supportive environments for youth of all genders, you can refer to The Trevor Project’s Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth.

Read more from Rory Gory on in their articles: “What Does It Mean To Be ‘Asexual’?” | “How The Letter ‘X’ Creates More Gender-Neutral Language” | “Why Is ‘Bisexual’ Such A Charged Word?”

Broaden your vocabulary by exploring the term "nonbinary" and other words for nonbinary gender identities.

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