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What Does Gender Nonconforming Mean?

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published March 18, 2022

by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Gender nonconforming is when an individual’s appearance, behaviour, interests, and self-concept vary, either from the norms attributed to their biological sex, or from masculine or feminine general norms in general.

Very few people fully conform to all gender norms for their assigned gender. This may not mean that everyone is gender nonconforming. Instead, it describes someone who intentionally subverts these gender norms. 

Also Known As:

While some people who don't follow gender stereotypes use the term gender nonconforming, others prefer other terms such as: 

  • Agender

  • Androgynous

  • Bigender

  • Gender expansive

  • Differently gendered

  • Gender creative

  • Gender fluid

  • Gender diverse

  • Gender-neutral

  • Gender variant

  • Genderqueer

  • Nonbinary

There are infinite ways in which someone can be gender nonconforming. It can be expressed through hairstyles, makeup, and clothing for instance.

For example, someone who is assigned female at birth may choose to wear clothing which is marketed to men or wear androgynous clothing. Or someone who is assigned male at birth may choose to wear typically feminine clothing, grow their hair long, or wear makeup.

Gender nonconforming people may also choose to adopt new pronouns, these are words which can be substituted for a noun. Pronouns such as she/her and he/him are gendered, therefore someone who doesn’t conform to their assigned at birth gender may choose the opposite pronoun or gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them. 

Whilst this can apply to ways in which gender is expressed through appearance, gender nonconforming can extend to include attitudes, gestures, gender roles, and more.

Gender Identity and Expression

Gender identity is the internal knowledge and understand of one’s own gender, meaning it is not visible to others.

Gender expression is the external presentation of gender, so generally, gender nonconforming is about the behaviours related to gender expression. 

Gender nonconforming is more about the way in which gender is expressed, which differs from gender fluid, for instance, which is more about gender identity.

Gender nonconforming is not to be mistaken for being transgender, where people have a gender identity or gender expression which differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Transgender people can be gender conforming if they are given opportunities to affirm their gender identity. Gender nonconforming is also not the same as non-binary individuals, whose gender identity is neither male nor female.

Anybody can be gender nonconforming, such as those who are transgender, non-binary, gender fluid, or even those who are cisgender, meaning their gender identity aligns with their assigned gender at birth. 

Gender is fluid

Cisgender refers to someone whose sex assigned at birth matches their gender identity.

Whilst many individuals identify as cisgender, there are many who are not. The idea of gender is a social construct, with gender norms usually enforced by the culture one lives in.

The fact that there are multiple cultures and communities that have their own ideas of gender, shows that the idea that one person may have about gender norms can differ for someone else.

Gender is believed to be on a spectrum, with countless types of gender identities. Thus, gender is fluid and not necessarily related to the gender one is assigned at birth.

Some people may start showing gender nonconforming behaviours and attitudes at a very young age, whereas some people may become gender nonconforming in adolescence or adulthood. 

People who are gender nonconforming can face a lot of criticism or bullying from others who may have strongly established ideas about gender roles or who are uncomfortable with the idea of someone not conforming. They may find it harder to place gender nonconforming individuals into the gendered boxes of either man or woman. 

Different gender expressions and identities are not new as there is evident that they have existed throughout history. The gender assigned at birth is not always stable and people can have the opportunity to explore their gender so that they can find what they are most comfortable with. In this way, people can choose to live as their most authentic self. 

To improve the mental health and life satisfaction of people who are gender nonconforming and reduce the levels of bullying, education on gender may be necessary to increase acceptance of these individuals.

This could be implemented in schools that could use strategies to teach students about sex and gender. Schools could also implement strategies to provide safer environment for gender nonconforming students. 

Gender nonconforming in childhood

When children are very young, they often have not developed their own ideas about who they are and what gender is. Once they get to an age where they can make their own decisions, is when gender nonconforming may present itself. 

Children may non-conform to their assigned gender at birth through wanting to play with toys which are more typical of the opposite gender. For instance, girls may want to play with toy cars or play football, whereas boys may want to play with dolls.

They may want to wear clothing that is typical of the opposite gender or dress more androgynous. They may also prefer to play with other children of the opposite assigned gender or engage in types of play that are not typical of their gender e.g., girls opting for more rough-and-tumble play, or boys opting for roleplaying games. 

Children who are gender nonconforming will not necessarily grow up to realise they are transgender.

However, children who are insistent that they are a gender other than that associated with their assigned sex, and persistent in this belief are highly likely to grow up to be transgender adults. 

Issues that gender nonconforming people face

Whilst gender nonconforming individuals may be living their most authentic life through choosing to non-conform to certain gender roles, there are some issues they may face as a result of not conforming. 

A lot of people who believe in adhering to strict gender roles may become abusive to those who gender non-conform. This can be in the form of offensive language or even violence in the most extreme cases.

A lot of people may have been taught about traditional gender roles and have heard negative options about those who do not conform to them. This may contribute to beliefs that it is acceptable to bully or mistreat these individuals.

Research on gender nonconforming youth found that they may be more likely to experience abuse with a potential impact on their mental health (Craig et al., 2020). 

Any individual which is seen as not conforming to their assigned gender at birth norms can be a victim of abuse. This can include transgender people who have known to be assaulted or even killed, simply for being transgender.

Likewise, gay men and lesbians have been victims of violence because they are not attracted to the gender they are supposed to be attracted to, according to their gender norms.

Even young people who are perceived to be of a gender nonconforming status, even if not accurate, can experience school victimization (Toomey et al., 2013).

Those who are gender nonconforming can also face issues with their mental health as a result of the abuse they face. It was found that youth who were victims of bullying due to being perceived as gender nonconforming had poorer life satisfaction and may suffer with depression (Toomey et al., 2013).

Likewise, results from a study showed that gender nonconforming predicted higher levels of self-reported social interaction anxiety (Jacobson, Cohen, & Diamond, 2016). This may make sense if those who are gender nonconforming are apprehensive of the reaction, they may get from others for being gender nonconforming. 

Childhood gender nonconforming has been associated with poorer relationships with parents and may be an indicator of children at increased risk of abuse and possibly posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if they grow up with family members who are less accepting (Roberts et al., 2012).

Gender nonconforming has also been related to elevated behavioural and emotional challenges. This association was stronger for those who experienced poor peer relations as well as for those whose parents or guardians endorsed gender-stereotype attitudes and were less willing to serve as a secure base for their child (MacMullin et al., 2021).

Moreover, gender nonconforming in adolescence was significantly associated with a higher likelihood of reports of suicidal ideation, suicide plans, and suicide attempts (Spivey & Prinstein, 2018). 

All these issues that gender nonconforming people can face reveal how harmful gender norms and expectations can be, and why it is important to encourage educators and parents to discuss and normalise gender nonconforming from an early age. 

History of gender nonconforming

Gender nonconforming is often thought of as being a relatively new way to express gender. However, gender nonconforming individuals have existed throughout history. Below are some famous examples of gender nonconforming individuals. 

Elagabalus – 222 AD

Elagabalus was a Roman emperor who insisted on being referred to as Lady or Empress. They wore feminine make up and was known to disguise themselves as a female sex worker. 

Eleanor Rykener – 1400s

Eleanor Rykener was a key figure of gender and sexuality in mediaeval England. Born with a male body, they were arrested after living as a woman and working as a prostitute.

Rykener was believed to have had sexual relationships with both men and women and at different times fulfilled more masculine and feminine roles. 

Thomas/Thomasine Hall – 1600s

Hall was raised as a girl before presenting himself as a man in order to enter the military. However, this turned out to not be a one-off case of disguising one’s gender.

After serving in the military, Hall regularly alternated between masculine and feminine clothing and went by both names of Thomas and Thomasine. They claimed to feel no preference towards either gender before there was the language to describe this kind of nonconforming. 

Jack Garland – late 1800s to mid-1900s

Although being assigned female at birth, Garland presented themselves as male such as dressing in masculine clothing and refusing to speak aloud to prevent people using their voice to make inferences on their gender.

After serving in the U.S. military was when he adopted the name Jack garland. He worked as a male nurse and got heavily tattooed, which was considered masculine at the time. 

Cultural differences 

Gender norms are not the same for every culture and society around the world, in fact these can differ vastly. What may be considered gender nonconforming in one culture might not be in another.

Throughout history and still to this day, there have been communities who reject the idea of the two-gender binary or who recognise additional genders. Below will describe some of the communities who see gender differently. 

Hijra

Hijra has been recognised in South Asian cultures including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as a third gender for 1000s of years. Hijras are biologically males who adopt feminine norms such as wearing feminine clothing and taking on other feminine gender roles.

Many do not consider themselves to be men or women but a distinct third gender. 

Two-spirited people

The ‘two-spirited people’ are recognised by at least 155 Native American tribes. These individuals are believed to literally have the spirit of both a man and a woman.

They encompass a wide range of gender expressions ranging from more feminine, more masculine, or androgynous. 

Burrnesha

Burrnesha are a community in Albania first documented in the 1800s but can be traced back to the 1400s. The Burrnesha are biological women who take a vow of chastity and wear male clothing in order to be viewed as men in the highly patriarchal society. 

Sekrata

Based in Madagascar, Sekrata are boys who are thought to have a feminine appearance and so were raised as girls. They wear their hair long and in decorative knots, have silver coins inserted into their pierced early and wore many bracelets.

They society thought their efforts to be female natural and believed that they have supernatural protection which punished anyone who attempted to do them harm. 

Mahu

In Hawaii, a multiple gender tradition existed among the Kanaka Maoli indigenous society. The mahu could be biologically male or female inhabiting a gender role somewhere in between.

Their social role is thought to be sacred as educators and advocates of ancient traditions and rituals. 

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About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

How to reference this article:

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, March 18. What Does Gender Nonconforming Mean?. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/gender-nonconforming-definition.html

APA Style References

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Craig, S. L., Austin, A., Levenson, J., Leung, V. W., Eaton, A. D., & D’Souza, S. A. (2020). Frequencies and patterns of adverse childhood events in LGBTQ+ youth. Child abuse & neglect, 107, 104623.

Ferguson, S. (2021, January 13). What Does It Mean to Be Gender Nonconforming? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/gender-nonconforming

Jacobson, R., Cohen, H., & Diamond, G. M. (2016). Gender atypicality and anxiety response to social interaction stress in homosexual and heterosexual men. Archives of sexual behavior, 45(3), 713-723.

MacMullin, L. N., Bokeloh, L. M., Nabbijohn, A. N., Santarossa, A., van der Miesen, A. I., Peragine, D. E., & VanderLaan, D. P. (2021). Examining the Relation Between Gender Nonconformity and Psychological Well-Being in Children: The Roles of Peers and Parents. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50(3), 823-841.

PBS. (2015, August 11). A Map of Gender-Diverse Cultures. https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/two-spirits_map-html/ 

Roberts, A. L., Rosario, M., Corliss, H. L., Koenen, K. C., & Austin, S. B. (2012). Childhood gender nonconformity: A risk indicator for childhood abuse and posttraumatic stress in youth. Pediatrics, 129(3), 410-417. 

Spivey, L. A., & Prinstein, M. J. (2019). A preliminary examination of the association between adolescent gender nonconformity and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 47(4), 707-716.

Toomey, R. B., Ryan, C., Diaz, R. M., Card, N. A., & Russell, S. T. (2013). Gender-nonconforming lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth: school victimization and young adult psychosocial adjustment.

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