What Does It Mean to Be Genderqueer or Nonbinary?

Legs with gender symbol on asphalt, gender concept

Genderqueer is an umbrella term used to describe identities outside the gender binary. The term was first used in queer zines in the 1980s and predates the emergence of the term non-binary. Genderqueer can be used to describe a non-binary identity, but it can also encompass fluidity in gender identity or expression.

Where queer is an umbrella term that includes all sexual orientations other than heterosexual, genderqueer refers to gender identities that are not aligned with the gender binary.

Discussions of gender have come a long way over the past few decades. Just as there has been a growing understanding of the iterations of sexual identity, there has also been an increasing awareness that the historically traditional gender categories of "woman" and "man" are overly restrictive.

These days, more and more people are describing themselves as genderqueer, genderfluid, nonbinary, agender, or gender non-conforming. These terms mean different things, but they all describe people whose gender identity is something other than woman or man.

According to one GLAAD survey, one percent of people between 18 and 34 identify as genderqueeer.

This article discusses what it means to be genderqueer, how it relates to nonbinary identity and other identities, and pronouns that genderqueer people may use.

Understanding the Gender Binary

Historically, most people have identified their gender as man or woman. These identities are most often correlated with a person's assigned sex at birth. However, there have always been people who identify as a gender that isn't traditionally correlated with their assigned sex at birth. All of those people are transgender, and some of them do not identify as woman or man.

The gender binary refers to the notion that gender is an either/or proposition. In a world with binary gender, people are either women or men—a binary choice. However, some people identify as neither, a combination of woman and man, or a different gender entirely.

People with a gender identity that aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth are known as cisgender. People who have a gender identity that does not align with their sex at birth may identify as transgender, transmasculine, transfeminine, non-binary, genderqueer, or others.

Genderqueer vs. Non-binary

Genderqueer and nonbinary share several things in common. Both are LGBTQ+ identities that involve having an identity that is outside of the gender binary. 

Genderqueer and nonbinary are somewhat overlapping categories. Some people use the terms to mean the same thing.


For some people, being genderqueer means moving between different gender identities or gender expressions. For others, the term refers to having a non-cisgender identity. This might means identifying with one gender more, identifying with multiple genders, or not identifying with gender at all.

For some, a genderqueer identity is more equivalent to the sexual orientation of queer. Queer is an umbrella term that encompasses all sexual orientations other than heterosexual; queer is also a slur that is still weaponized against the LGBT community, so some members of the community are not comfortable being referred to as queer or genderqueer.

Similarly, genderqueer encompasses all genders that are not cisgender. Some individuals specifically identify as either genderqueer or nonbinary, even though both terms are also umbrella terms.

Some people identify very strongly with their gender or genders. They are very aware of their gender and are uncomfortable if misgendered (seen or referred to as a gender other than how they identify). Other people don't find gender to be as salient.

Gender Identity vs. Gender Expression

Gender presentation or gender expression is what people choose to show the world, but gender identity is who they are.


Some individuals refer to themselves being nonbinary, an identity that is also known as "enby" (pronounced like the letters N and B). However, it is important to note that "enby" is not preferred by some adults, as it sounds infantilizing to them; always make sure an individual identifies with a term before using it to describe them.

Nonbinary people have a wide range of gender expression. While nonbinary identity is often associated with androgyny, nonbinary people have a wide range of expressions. Some people are woman- and/or man-aligned and may express themselves in a masculine and/or feminine way. There is no one way to be nonbinary.

  • Embraces a non-normative, queer gender identity

  • Sometimes described as a "queering" of gender identity

  • Viewed as more political focused on challenging existing power structures

  • May feel more neutral to some people

  • Emphasizes that the identity is separate from the male/female binary

  • More familiar to many people

Other Identities

A number of other identities can also fall under the genderqueer or nonbinary umbrella. This may include:

  • Agender: When someone is agender, it means that they do not have a gender identity or that their gender identity is neutral. Agender people may also identify with genderqueer or nonbinary as umbrella terms.
  • Bigender: People who are bigender are two genders.
  • Demigender: People who are demigender tend only partially to identify with a particular gender.
  • Genderfluid: Someone who identifies as genderfluid has a gender that is not fixed over time. Their gender identity may shift over long or short periods.
  • Gender neutral: Neutrois and gender neutral are other terms that may be used by people who do not identify as having a gender or who identify as having a neutral gender.
  • Pangender: This is a non-binary identity that encompasses multiple genders.

It is important to mention that just as a genderqueer person is not necessarily queer, an agender person is not necessarily asexual. People of any gender can have any sexual orientation.

Pronouns Genderqueer People Use

Not all genderqueer and nonbinary people use the same pronouns. Some pronouns that people might use include:

Gender Neutral Pronouns

One of the most common pronouns used by nonbinary people is the singular they. "They" is used in place of "he" or "she." "Them" is used in place of "him" or "her." Finally, "theirs" is used in place of "his" or "hers."

Some nonbinary people use more than one set of pronouns with this format: "he/they." Someone with those pronouns is comfortable being referred to with he/him/his and they/them/theirs.

Gendered Pronouns

Some genderqueer people use only "she/her/hers" and "he/him/his." These pronouns might stay the same but may also change depending on a person's current identity or expression.


Some nonbinary people use neopronouns. These pronouns are those that do not exist in the nonbinary person's language like "ze/hir/hirs," "fae/faer/faers," and "xe/xem/xirs." In neopronouns, "X"s are often pronounced as "Z"s. It is best to ask a nonbinary or genderqueer individual how to pronounce or write their pronouns to make sure you gender them correctly.

Pronoun dressing room is also an online resource for trans people to learn about and try out new pronouns, as well as for allies and loved ones of trans people to practice using a trans person's pronouns.

How to Support Genderqueer People

Genderqueer people often experience discrimination, which may include bias and physical violence. It is important for genderqueer and other LGBTQ+ people to have supportive and caring people in their lives. According to a report by the Trevor Project, having just one accepting adult can reduce the risk of suicide among LGBTQ+ youth by 40%.

Some things that you can do to be a supportive ally include:

Don't Make Assumptions

If you don't know what pronouns someone uses, it's alright to ask. In fact, it's far more polite to ask than it is to guess. Avoid making assumptions about people's gender identity or sexual orientation based on how they look or act.

You should also respect people's privacy. Don't ask invasive questions about people's orientation, expression, identity, or bodies. The only time you should ask such questions is if someone has given you permission to do so.

Ask People's Pronouns

All you have to do is say, "what pronouns do you use?" You can also set a clear example by introducing yourself by using your pronouns. For example, you might say "Hello! I'm Elizabeth, and I use she/her/hers pronouns."

If you're in a group where you're going to ask about one person's pronouns, you should ask about everyone's pronouns. It is inappropriate to single out one person to question, as that can feel like you're targeting them. Instead, you might say, "Can we all give our pronouns? I use they/them/theirs."

Apologize If You Make a Mistake

It is very possible that you will mess up a nonbinary or genderqueer person's pronouns in the future, even if you share the same identity. It is best to apologize quickly ("Sorry!") and continue the conversation in such situations.

You should not offer a drawn-out apology where the individual in question has the spotlight on them and is then forced to comfort you for misgendering them.

A Word From Verywell

The words used to refer to gender are constantly changing. Therefore, it's important to be aware that one person's self-definition may be very different from another's, even if they use the same words to describe their gender identity.

The important thing is to respect people's declared gender identities. That means reflecting the words they use to describe themselves, rather than choosing your own. It also means respecting and using their pronouns. After all, every person is an expert in their own life and gets to share who they are with the world. Others are merely observers, not nearly as qualified to describe that person's experience.

If you are seeking support for issues with coming out, relationships, bullying, self-harm, and more, contact the LGBT National Hotline at 1-888-843-4564 for one-to-one peer support.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

3 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. GLAAD. Accelerating Acceptance 2017: A Harris Poll survey of Americans' acceptance of LGBTQ people.

  2. Harrison J, Grant J, Herman JL. A gender not listed here: genderqueers, gender rebels, and otherwise in the national transgender discrimination surveyLGBTQ Public Policy Journal at the Harvard Kennedy School. 2012;2(1):13.

  3. The Trevor Project. Accepting adults reduce suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth.

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.