Gender-nonconforming or gender nonconformity (GNC) — sometimes called gender expansiveness or practicing gender creativity — is when a person’s gender expression doesn’t align with the societal expectations and norms associated with the gender they were assigned at birth.
GNC can also refer to a person’s gender expression not being easily categorized as a man or woman. It might look like a woman dressing in suits, or a man wearing dresses and nail polish, but it can also refer to behaviors like tone of voice and body language.
“Gender-nonconforming is less an identity and more of an umbrella descriptor,” explains Alex Jenny, LCSW, aka The Drag Therapist. “There are infinite ways it can look.”
If all this sounds new to you, you’ve come to the right place. Below, we delve into 12 important facts to know about GNC, including tips for how to be an ally.
What’s up with the TGNC acronym?
But it’s important to note that not all gender-nonconforming people are transgender. And not all transgender people are gender-nonconforming.
Transgender and gender-nonconforming is often abbreviated to TGNC. This serves as an umbrella term that encompasses anyone who doesn’t fall into the gender binary.
It isn’t a gender identity
First, it helps to understand that gender identity and gender expression are two different things. Your gender identity is your internal knowledge and understanding of your gender, meaning it’s not visible to others.
Gender expression is the external presentation of your gender. Generally speaking, when we talk about GNC, we’re talking about behaviors related to gender expression.
For a nonexhaustive list of gender identities and vocabulary around gender, check out GLAAD’s glossary of terms.
You can’t tell a person’s gender by looking
“A person’s gender is extremely personal. There are many trans people, for example, who don’t have access to being their authentic selves and may ‘present’ in a certain way for safety,” Jenny says.
“Making assumptions can be harmful because it doesn’t allow for this truth: that someone’s gender expression does not equate to their gender identity and vice versa.”
It isn’t the same thing as being nonbinary
Nonbinary — one of many words used to describe a person who is neither man nor woman — refers to a person’s inner-most knowledge of self. It can’t be used interchangeably with GNC, which as we said above, refers to how a person presents and expresses themselves externally.
You can watch this video for a more detailed breakdown of the difference between being nonbinary and gender-nonconforming, and why it’s so important not to think of them as the same thing.
Never “out” a person’s gender identity
Disclosing someone’s gender without their consent can put them in serious danger. Jenny says this is especially true of trans people, who face much higher rates of discrimination, hatred, and violence.
“It’s not your business or your story to tell. It is extremely personal information that no one is entitled to,” says Jenny.
It isn’t a sexual orientation
As we know, someone’s gender doesn’t determine who they’re sexually attracted to. GNC people all have different sexual orientations, just like gender-conforming people. We should also mention that being GNC doesn’t automatically make someone part of the LGBTQ+ community either.
That being said, gender nonconformity and getting creative with expression and presentation is a huge part of the LGBTQ+ community. Many queer and trans people enjoy styling themselves or behaving outside of gender norms and expectations.
Don’t make assumptions about people’s sexual orientations
It can be tempting to try to figure out who a person is into just by looking at how they dress or talk, but doing so actually reinforces the negative stereotypes.
“Trans people and gender-nonconforming people, just like all other people, do not all have the same experience,” says Jenny.
It isn’t a trend created by white people
CNN reports that Western celebrities — who are mostly white, people in smaller bodies, and nondisabled people — may get a lot of attention these days for stepping outside the gender binary.
But the Huffington Post reports that gender nonconformity isn’t a new trend of modern life — it wasn’t “invented” by white Western people.
In fact, gender nonconformity is a super important part of culture for many communities in the world, like India’s Hijras and the Two Spirit Native Americans.
De-center whiteness when you talk about GNC
“Gender nonconformity is culturally specific. So, depending on the intersections of identities and cultures, [it] can shift in meaning and understanding,” says Jenny.
“In many societies, for example, people who were deemed gender-nonconforming were treated with respect as healers and wise community leaders.”
It is a way to honor your true self
For a lot of people, gender roles — the rigidity of the gender binary and what society expects from them — are oppressive and limiting. Having the ability to be creative about dress, makeup, and behavior helps folks find release and comfort in who they are.
“Identities and labels aside, we as humans would all benefit from more room to play, explore, express, and experiment. Gender is about play. Gender is about curious exploration and the development of self,” says Jenny.
Reflect on your own experience of gender
Reflect on your own experience of gender
An important part of being an ally is to check the ways we’ve internalized cisheteronormativity in our everyday lives.
“One way to do this is by getting curious about your own gender, the expectations placed on you, and the expectations you place on others,” says Jenny.
“By reflecting on what it means for you to identify as the gender you are, you can gain more empathy for folks who experience their gender.”
GNC is pretty darn common
If you turn on the television or flip through a magazine, you’re probably not going to find many images of people outside the male or female gender binary.
But don’t let that fool you. Gender nonconformity isn’t uncommon at all: According to a survey, 12 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 38 identified as transgender or GNC.
Stop reinforcing gender stereotypes
Gender stereotypes force people into boxes they often don’t fit in. And having to mold into a shape that doesn’t align with your inner self can be painful. Here are some tips for dismantling these stereotypes:
- Avoid telling a person they should act a certain way based on their gender, e.g., telling a man not to cry, telling a woman to smile more.
- Buy nongendered gifts, especially for the little ones in your life. Girls like Legos too!
The increased acceptance of TGNC people is allowing folks to explore their true selves
The same survey above found that roughly twice as many millennials and Gen Zers identify as TGNC than the previous generation.
This increase is likely due to increased visibility, representation, and acceptance of TGNC people, which allows folks to find the language, lifestyles, and forms of expression that are most true to their identities.
Stop thinking gender is binary
Gender and gender expression are fluid. “There are an infinite number of ways for humans to express ourselves, and we are not born into the world knowing what it means to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman,’” says Jenny.
Violence and discrimination against TGNC folks is at crisis levels
A research review done by the World Health Organization found that sexual and gender minorities are more likely to be victims of physical and sexual violence than the general population.
Transgender people are targeted at especially high rates. A large survey — over 27,000 transgender people participated — found “disturbing patterns of mistreatment and discrimination” against transgender people.
In the survey above, 46 percent of respondents said they’d been verbally harassed in the previous year, while 9 percent said they’d been physically attacked. Additionally, 24 percent of children participants who identified as TGNC reported that they were physically attacked.
And according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) TGNC people are six times more likely to experience police violence compared to white cisgender people.
How to find help
If you, or a TGNC person you know, is in danger of being or has been harmed, visit the National Center for Transgender Equality’s list of resources and helpline here.
GNC folks use a variety of pronouns
GNC encompasses people with all kinds of gender identities and pronouns, so there’s no correct pronoun for all gender-nonconforming people.
“Pronouns also don’t equal gender identity. Pronouns don’t need to correlate with specific genders or gendered perceptions,” adds Jenny.
Here’s a nonexhaustive list of pronouns a GNC person might use.
- She, her, her, hers, and herself
- He, him, his, his, and himself
- They, them, their, theirs, and themself
- Ze/zie, hir, hir, hirs, and hirself
- Xe, xem, xyr, xyrs, and xemself
- Ve, ver, vis, vis, and verself
Take care to learn a person’s pronoun
A person — especially someone you’re meeting for the first time — might feel singled out if you ask them point blank what their pronouns are.
So, first try listening to how other people refer to that person. If you need to ask, start by introducing yourself and yours, then politely ask them what theirs are.
Using a person’s chosen name might help save their life
TGNC people often change the name they were given at birth — their “dead name” — to a “chosen name.”
One study showed that using their chosen name is associated with a reduction in depression and suicidality, which is especially prevalent in TGNC people, according to a research review.
Helping to protect TGNC folks from death by suicide involves us as a society honoring their full humanity, which includes using their correct pronouns, and referring to their gender correctly.
If you mess up a pronoun, correct it and move on
Don’t make a big deal out of it — apologize and thank the person who corrected you. “Then practice on your own time and commit to not doing it again,” says Jenny.
Cisgender people have more privilege to practice gender nonconformity
Cisgender refers to a person who’s gender identity reflects their birth sex.
Many transgender folks face serious pressure to “pass” as cisgender or to conform to rigid gender rules and stereotypes. They don’t have the same liberties cisgender people do to express their genders creatively because it can put them in danger of discrimination and violence.
If you’re cisgender, it’s important to keep in mind that the way you express your gender and move through the world is much more free and that cisnormative gendered expectations often weigh the heaviest on TGNC people.
There is no “correct” way to practice gender nonconformity.
“We are trying to build a world that is beyond gender and allows for exploration without the pressure of having all of these expectations placed on a child before they’ve even had the chance to play,” says Jenny.
If you’re not GNC, recognizing your own privileges cultivates empathy
According to Sam Killermann, there are lots of privileges for cisgender or gender-conforming people. People probably get your pronoun and gender right when they meet you.
You can also use public restrooms and public facilities without fear of verbal abuse, physical intimidation, or arrest. Strangers don’t assume it’s OK to constantly ask what your genitals look like and how you have sex.
Check your privilege on a regular basis
Ask yourself, what would it feel like to not have these privileges? How would your life be different if you didn’t have the freedom and sense of safety you have? Thinking in these terms is how we truly become allies to TGNC people.
There’s a lot to know about gender nonconformity, much more than we can fit in one article. But these 12 facts are a good start for understanding GNC people.
- It isn’t a gender identity, but it relates to how a person expresses their gender.
- It isn’t the same thing as being nonbinary, which is an internal understanding of one’s gender.
- It isn’t a sexual orientation. Like gender-conforming folks, GNC people have a range of sexualities.
- It isn’t a trend created by white people. There have been GNC people throughout history and in all parts of the world.
- It is a way to honor your true self.
- It’s pretty darn common. 12 percent of people 18 to 38 years old identify as trans or gender-nonconforming.
- The increased acceptance of GNC people allows folks to explore their true selves. The world is changing for the better.
- Violence and discrimination against TGNC folks is at crisis levels. It’s still extremely dangerous to be TGNC in many parts of the world.
- GNC folks use a variety of pronouns.
- Using a person’s chosen name might help save their life, according to a study.
- Cisgender people have more privilege to practice gender nonconformity.
- If you’re not GNC, recognizing your own privileges cultivates empathy.