Gender is a core component of human identity that influences how we interact with others and the world around us – and how others interact with us. In the Western world, unlike these six cultures, our understanding of gender has traditionally been confined to a binary perspective – male or female. This is a limited model that overlooks the complexity and diversity of human experiences, particularly those of many neurodivergent people.
This blog post aims to shed light on the concept of the gender spectrum, a framework that recognizes and respects the wide range of gender identities and expressions that exist beyond the binary. The gender spectrum acknowledges that gender is not an either-or proposition, but rather a continuum that encompasses a wide array of identities that are unique and diverse.
By understanding the gender spectrum, we take a first step toward fostering a more inclusive and empathetic society, one that respects and affirms the identities of all people. We can see and respect individuals for who they truly are, using appropriate pronouns and treating individuals in a manner consistent with their gender identity. This helps us dismantle stereotypes and prejudices that accompany a binary view of gender and begins to promote equality and non-discrimination.
Whether you are here to better understand your own identity, to better understand a loved one, or simply to broaden your knowledge, welcome.
What is Gender?
To develop a deeper understanding of the issue, let’s take a step back and define gender. There are three components to gender.
1. Birth sex: This is a label you are given at birth based on medical factors such as genitals, hormones, and chromosomes. Most people are assigned male or female. Some people are assigned intersex if their genitals, internal sex organs, or chromosomes fall outside the strict male/female categories. This is the label that goes on your birth certificate.
2. Gender role/expression: This includes the external appearance of your gender identity and is usually expressed through behavior, clothing, hair style, mannerisms, or voice. This may or may not conform to socially prescribed behaviors and traits that are typically associated with being male or female. This expression can be conscious or unconscious, and an individual’s gender expression does not automatically imply their gender identity.
3. Gender identity: This is your deeply-held core sense of self as it relates to gender. This may or may not correlate with your birth sex.
It’s important to understand that sexual orientation, which is a person’s enduring physical, romantic, or emotional attraction to other people, is separate from gender identity. This is confusing for many people who are familiar with the LGBTQIA+ acronym, which mixes these concepts.
The first three letters, LGB, plus A, refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and asexual respectively, and all refer to sexual orientation. The I stands for intersex and refers to birth sex. The T for transgender refers to gender identity, and Q for queer or questioning can refer to gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, or a combination thereof where someone is still in a process of self-discovery.
The Gender Spectrum
This brings us to the concept of the gender spectrum. This is the idea that gender identity exists beyond the binary male/female model and is actually something that exists on a continuum. Some people identify strongly with male or female aspects, some identify somewhere in the middle, and some people move fluidly along the continuum. Some do not identify with any aspect of the continuum at all!
When your birth sex and gender identity are aligned, you are cisgender. When they do not match, you are transgender, which includes anyone who identifies at any point along the gender spectrum, including:
Nonbinary: Someone whose identity does not subscribe to the binary concept of male or female gender.
Genderfluid: A person who does not consistently adhere to one fixed gender and who may move among genders.
Agender: A person who does not identify with or experience any gender. Agender is different from nonbinary because many nonbinary people do experience gender.
Bigender: Someone whose identity encompasses two genders, often male and female, but not always, or is moving between being two genders.
This great glossary from PFLAG includes more gender identities and their definitions.
Taking this a step further, there is also the concept of gender nonconformity. This term is primarily used to describe people who do not identify with their birth sex, but it also includes those who do identify with their birth sex but do not conform to the gender roles that society expects.
Gender nonconformity is part of a person’s expression rather than an insight into their gender identity or their sexuality (who they are physically, romantically, and emotionally attracted to). In American culture, examples would include a straight, cisgender male who enjoys wearing skirts, shaves his armpits, or wears makeup. He might engage in activities that are stereotypically associated with females, such as knitting or ballet. A gender nonconforming female might choose not to shave her body hair, wear suits and ties, or behave assertively.
What Does This Have to Do With Pronouns?
Gender diversity is a broad concept that encompasses a wide range of identities and expressions beyond the traditional binary of male and female. This diversity extends to the use of pronouns, which can be a crucial aspect of affirming someone's gender identity.
Traditionally, English language pronouns have been gendered. We use "he, him, his" when referring to a person who identifies as male, and "she, her, hers" when referring to a person who identifies as female. However, this binary framework doesn't accommodate those who identify outside the gender binary, or who do not strictly identify as male or female.
To respect and affirm gender diversity, it's important to use the correct pronouns for each individual. Some people may prefer gender-neutral pronouns, like "they, them, theirs," even in the singular form, while others might use neopronouns such as "ze, hir, hirs" or "ey, em, eir." Using "they, them, theirs" in the singular has been accepted by many language and style guides, including the Associated Press Stylebook and the Oxford English Dictionary.
Some people might not want to use pronouns at all and might prefer to just use their names.
In any case, it's important to ask people what their personal pronouns are and to respect their choices. Using the correct pronouns is a basic way to affirm and respect people's gender identities. It is seen as a form of respect and acknowledgment of their self-identified, true gender.
It is also important to normalize asking for someone’s personal pronouns, using them in email signatures, putting them on name tags, and so forth. Personal pronouns are generally used by cisgender people, too, like the author of this post.
It's also crucial to correct mistakes if the wrong pronoun is used, and to learn and adapt as an individual’s discovery process clarifies for them who they really are. Remember, everyone has the right to identify and express their gender in a way that feels authentic to them, and misgendering them, or using the wrong pronouns, can be an extremely distressing experience for them.
It's also important if you use the wrong pronouns to simply apologize and move on. Over-apologizing, however well-intended, draws unnecessary attention to the fact that the person may not be cisgender, and can be exhausting for them. For example, don’t say “I am so sorry. I don’t know why I keep doing that. I try so hard, but it’s just such a challenge.”
Just say, “I’m sorry,” and get it right the next time.
The concept of gender is multifaceted, one that is deeply personal and profoundly individual. As we begin to understand the complexities of the gender spectrum, we are invited to rethink our traditional understandings, challenge binary views, and embrace the rich diversity of human experiences.
In acknowledging and understanding this diversity, as well as validating people’s gender identities by using the correct pronouns, we take significant strides toward a society that is more inclusive, empathetic, and respectful.
We foster an environment where everyone is allowed and encouraged to express their true selves without fear of judgment or misunderstanding. This is not just an academic or intellectual endeavor – it is a commitment to human dignity and respect for all to feel seen, heard, and valued, wherever they may fall on the gender spectrum.
Gender: Your Guide: A Gender-Friendly Primer on What to Know, What to Say, and What to Do in the New Gender Culture by Lee Airton, PhD, June 2019
A Guide To Gender Identity Terms, NPR.org, June 2021