"If I say that I am trans, is it a show of unity or am I just taking up space that should more rightfully belong to someone else?"
At this point, everyone knows a nonbinary person or ten. We are seemingly everywhere, destroying the rules of grammar and irritatingly butting in at every well-intentioned gender assumption. Most people know that they should ask about pronouns. What most people don't know, including many nonbinary people themselves, is whether nonbinary people are trans or not. The question, if someone dares to ask me — "Are you trans?" — is whispered with hushed reverence, as though I will be infinitely different if I take on this even more marginalized identity.
Honestly, I identify most strongly as ooloi — a fictional alien race discovered by Octavia Butler — and secondarily as David Bowie, and I really only play the gender identity game for your entertainment and convenience, so for me personally, the question is largely meaningless. But it has led me to wonder: Should I identify as trans?
If I am not sure that I “feel trans,” is that evidence that I am not trans? Socially, if I say that I am trans, is it a show of unity or am I just taking up space that should more rightfully belong to someone else? I asked LGBTQ+ activists and psychologists to help me answer, for once and for all: Are nonbinary people trans?
Usually, I would start here by defining terms, but there’s seemingly no consensus on what transgender means, only how it shows up or manifests. For many psychologists, transgender identity is characterized by “dysphoria” — an individual’s experience of incongruence between body and mind. “A trans person is someone whose physiological body does not align with their gender identity or desired presentation,” explains says Stefani Goerlich, a Detroit-based psychologist who works with people with marginalized sexual and gender identities. In other words, a person may feel themselves to be a certain gender, and their body doesn’t match.
But while having a nonbinary gender identity generally means that a person doesn’t identify strictly with being either male or female, nonbinary people don’t necessarily feel the kind of incongruence that Goerlich describes. “Nonbinary people are not necessarily trans, although some nonbinary folks may pursue medical procedures — such as top surgery or hormones — that help their bodies align with their self-perception,” she says. In other words, some nonbinary people are trans and some are not, and it does us all a disservice to assume.
Most of the psychologists I spoke with for this article agree with Goerlich’s definition, but a few noted that a trans person is anyone who doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, which would include nonbinary people by default. This is a more widely used definition of trans and perhaps a more inclusive one. Some activists feel like using this more expansive definition of what transgender means is not just a way to include nonbinary and other gender non-confirming people, but also a political boon.
“As an activist, I believe we should own this as it brings more nuance and gives more voices to the trans experience,” says Sophie Mona Pagès, an queer organizer in London. In other words, if the definition of trans includes more of us, we have more power to fight for change. But, as Pagès notes, it’s really important not to use a more inclusive definition of trans as a way to talk over others. “Whatever our identity, it’s key to check our privilege and present our experience through an intersectional lens,” says Pagès. “Identifying as a trans person doesn’t mean that you’re becoming a spokesperson of the trans experience.”
It is tempting to want there to be one definition of trans and one way of deciding who belongs inside that definition, but for me, the fight to embrace the reality of nuance and difference is actually the crux of the matter. It seems both more compassionate and revolutionary to find solidarity across differences. In that sense, it is perhaps an importantly queer strategy to resist strict definitions and allow identities and the ways we talk about them to remain in flux instead of trying to nail them down.
“To me, the fluidity of our language is part of the beauty of our community. It allows us validity without the boxes of heteronormative society,” says Thurston. Thurston goes on to explain, though, that allowing the terms “trans” and “nonbinary” to stay fluid does not mean that we should use them as though they mean exactly the same thing. “To use them interchangeably is how it could be harmful to the trans community,” says Thurston. “That would invalidate the trans experience which is exactly what language should not be doing.”
Basically, there is no single answer to the question of whether nonbinary people are trans. It is a question that can only be answered by trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) individuals within their own respective TGNC communities. “Collective consensus is only helpful in connection within the community,” says Thurston. “Collective consensus is not required for an individual to own their identity with whatever words feel right to them. To believe that consensus is required for individual use, is to operate within binary thinking, which is what our community is transcending beyond.”
This topic can be complicated because identities can be complicated, explains Carol Queen, co-founder of the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco. The important thing is not to come to a conclusion, but instead to seek to understand. “We need to understand the gender spectrum well enough to address us and others who aren't just like us to others,” she says. That understanding requires not definitive answers, but curiosity. Instead of lumping all trans people or all nonbinary into neatly tucked boxes then, it is up to us to get educated about the fact of gender diversity and invite each indivudal to tell the story of their unique gender journey.