What Does Gender Nonconforming Mean?

Gender nonconforming means not adhering to society's gender norms. People may describe themselves as gender nonconforming if they don't conform to the gender expression, presentation, behaviors, roles, or expectations that society sees as the norm for their gender. People of any gender identity can be gender nonconforming.

Sex is a group of biological traits linked to reproduction. This is different, however, from gender. Gender is the set of roles, expectations, and scripts (generally called "norms") that we ascribe to different sexes. Gender is socially constructed—meaning that gender roles appear when humans live in groups—and can vary from culture to culture.

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

Gender Roles

Gender roles, despite existing wherever humans live together, refer to the traditional roles that people of a certain gender are expected to serve in society. These roles dictate the behaviors, attitudes, and often even the tasks that people are expected to perform based on their gender. Such roles can vary from one culture to the next.

However, every culture has a concept of gender and gender roles. In the United States, we have two widely recognized genders: men and women. Without thinking too hard, we can think of many sentences that stereotypically describe men and women in our culture:

  • "Men are stoic."
  • "Men are strong."
  • "Men are hard workers."
  • "Men are protectors."
  • "Women are gentle."
  • "Women are passive."
  • "Women are emotional."
  • "Women are nurturing."

The idea of "gender conformity" is based on these norms. This idea contends that people with penises are men and they should be stoic, strong, hard workers, and protectors. By the same logic, people with vaginas are women and they should be gentle, passive, emotional, and nurturing.

In U.S. culture, gender roles play a role in dictating who is supposed to be the primary financial provider in a household, who is expected to care for children, who is expected to manage household duties, and who is supposed to be the one who pursues others romantically.

Not adhering to these gender roles and expectations can be a form of gender nonconformity.

Gender Identity and Expression

Gender identity and expression are related to how people experience and express their gender. 

  • Gender identity refers to a person's internal, deeply held sense of their own gender. This may correspond to biological sex, but it may also not. A person's sense of gender identity is also separate from their sexuality as well as their gender expression.
  • Gender expression refers to how a person communicates their gender through their appearance, mannerisms, and clothing. This may be a way to express sexuality or gender identity, but gender expression is not necessarily a reflection of gender identity.

It is important to recognize that anyone can be gender nonconforming. This includes people of any gender identity.

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Gender Nonconformity

Gender nonconformity is simply not conforming to gender roles. In practice, it can mean things as simple as a woman wearing a tie or something as complex and life-changing as adopting new pronouns.

There are obvious problems with using "nonconformity" as a way to describe people who don't follow gender norms. It implies that conformity is a good and desirable thing, rather than something that harms everyone.

Most of us have something nonconforming about the way we live and express our gender. Some women don't wear makeup but otherwise dress feminine. Some men prefer to be stay-at-home dads.

Living out every gender norm in our culture is an impossible task. However, researchers of gender and gender norms have known for a long time that seeing transgression of gender norms can make some people uncomfortable.

This discomfort comes from an ingrained human need to categorize people. And one of the more important categories we have for classifying humans is gender: Is this person a man or a woman? This categorization allows a lot of other judgments to be made: if this person is dangerous, if this person is a potential mate, what this person possibly does for a living, and more.

Some individuals, when they meet someone they can't categorize easily, react with discomfort and confusion.

Gender roles and expectations for gender conformity contribute to discrimination and even violence against gender non-conforming people. There are many structures, institutions, and beliefs that try to keep people in neat, separate categories based on their gender assigned at birth.

When someone breaks out of the box, they are often met with harassment that is designed to force them to conform. Gender roles limit what any person can do, and they reduce a person's life to what they "should" do. It forces people to perform what is expected of them, rather than live authentically as who they feel they are.

Recap

Gender nonconformity means not conforming to the gender roles that society expects. Anyone of any gender identity can be gender nonconforming. 

Transgender People

An important concern when it comes to gender conformity is how it applies to transgender people. Remember that "transgender" means identifying with a gender that is different from a person's assigned gender at birth. Transgender women are women who were assigned male at birth, and transgender men are men who were assigned female at birth.

People who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth are called cisgender. (Cis means "this side" and trans means "that side" or "across.") Transgender people are often required to perform their gender to an extreme in order to be accepted.

Transgender women, for example, often feel forced to be ultra-feminine in ways that cisgender women don't have to be. Despite the inherent gender nonconformity of being transgender, there is even more pressure on transgender people to perform their gender identity in very visible and obvious ways—this is so they can acceptably "join" whatever gender identity they align with. To do otherwise means to risk their acceptance as a man or a woman.

Cisgender Privilege

Looking at gender nonconformity and transgender performance of gender puts cisgender privilege into stark contrast. While transgender people are already at risk of violence simply for being transgender, they are further ostracized and oppressed if they do not perform their gender identity visibly and perfectly.

On the other hand, cisgender people are allowed much more leeway in their gender presentation.

Non-Binary People

Another topic to address when speaking about gender nonconformity is those who fall under the umbrella of non-binary: agender (who do not identify with any gender), gender fluid (whose gender changes across time), bi+gender (who have more than one gender), and other-gendered (whose gender is not part of the man/woman categories).

Many cultures have some concept of a third gender or of non-binary gender identities. These people often occupy special or sacred roles in their societies.

Being gender non-binary does not mean not ever performing gender in typical ways. Many non-binary people have more feminine or masculine presentations, while others prefer a gender-neutral appearance. Appearing feminine or masculine does not, however, cancel out their identity as non-binary.

Again, we see cisgenger privilege at play—a cisgender person can make more neutral appearance choices without having their gender identity dismissed, but a non-binary person often faces comments such as "If you prefer feminine clothing, why don't you identify as a woman?"

How to Support Gender Nonconforming People

There are steps you can take to support others who are gender nonconforming or to seek support if you are gender nonconforming. 

  • Use the correct pronouns, titles, names, and other identifiers: You can support others by using a person's pronouns and other titles.
  • Challenge stereotypes and judgments that you encounter: Speak up if you hear someone being unsupportive or judgmental of someone who does not conform to gender norms. 
  • Provide acceptance and a listening ear: You can also be an ally by showing your support and listening to what others have to say about their experience of gender, identity, and expression.
  • Avoid the perpetuation of gender stereotypes: Pay attention to how gender stereotypes shape expectations for how people should look and behave. Start working on letting go of these stereotypes and avoid perpetuating them in your own life.

Other strategies that can help include seeking out supportive resources, talking to a therapist, and creating a strong social support network. Having friends, mentors, and other supportive people in your life can help you focus on living authentically according to how your feel without having your gender expression and identity dictated by societal expectations.

Taking care of yourself is also vital. Research suggests that practicing mindfulness and self-compassion can help improve psychological health in gender nonconforming people.

A Word From Verywell

Gender is flexible and not necessarily related to biology. While the majority of the population has a cisgender identity, there are many who do not. The relaxing of gender roles since the 1960s has allowed a variety of different gender identities to "come out."

These identities have always existed, but social and cultural conditions often made them dangerous to express. Violence and oppression related to gender nonconformity is the most pressing problem related to this issue.

We need to learn that gender is not a prescription for life, but rather a stage where people can experiment and express their authentic selves.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What’s the difference between gender nonconformity and gender dysphoria?

    Gender dysphoria involves feelings of discomfort, distress, and conflict between a person's assigned-at-birth gender and their gender identity. People who experience gender dysphoria may also be gender non-conforming, gender fluid, or transgender. However, not everyone who is gender nonconforming experiences gender dysphoria.

  • What is the difference between nonbinary and gender fluid?

    Nonbinary is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity is not restricted to the gender binary. It encompasses a number of gender identities, including gender fluidity. People who are gender fluid do not have a fixed gender identity or expression. Other nonbinary identities include agender, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming.

  • How many trans and gender nonconforming people are there?

    A 2016 study found that at least 0.5% of Americans, or around two million people, identify as either transgender or gender nonconforming.

  • How many gender nonconforming people experience intimate partner violence?

    A 2021 study of transgender/gender nonconforming adults found that 72% reported experiencing at least one form of intimate partner violence and some point during their life. Psychological intimate partner violence was the most common, but physical and sexual violence were also frequently reported. The study found that intimate partner violence was linked to increased rates of anxiety.

  • Why do we use “they” when talking to gender nonconforming people?

    They/them is often used by gender nonconforming, gender nonbinary, and genderqueer people in place of the gendered pronouns he/his and she/hers. Using the correct pronouns is an important way to show respect, acceptance, and validation for a person's gender identity. If you are not sure about someone's pronouns, share your own and then ask which pronouns they use.

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7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Guidelines for psychological practice with transgender and gender nonconforming peopleAm Psychol. 2015;70(9):832-864. doi:10.1037/a0039906

  2. World Health Organization. Gender and health.

  3. PFLAG. PFLAG national glossary of terms.

  4. The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project research brief: Accepting adults reduce suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth.

  5. Keng SL, Liew KWL. Trait mindfulness and self-compassion as moderators of the association between gender nonconformity and psychological health. Mindfulness. 2017;8(3):615-626. doi:10.1007/s12671-016-0639-0

  6. Williams Institute. How many adults identify as transgender in the United States?

  7. Henry RS, Perrin PB, Coston BM, Calton JM. Intimate partner violence and mental health among transgender/gender nonconforming adults. J Interpers Violence. 2021;36(7-8):3374-3399. doi:10.1177/0886260518775148

Additional Reading
  • Herdt GH. Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. New York, NY: Zone Books; 1994.