Writing Characters Outside the Gender Binary
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!
People who exist outside the gender binary are criminally underrepresented in media, and what little representation they DO get is often uninformed, harmful, or dehumanizing. So today we’re going to learn about what existing outside the binary means, talk about what that’s like, and discuss what you should keep in mind when writing characters outside the gender binary.
What does it mean to be “outside the gender binary”?
When I say that someone is “outside the gender binary,” I mean that they hold an identity which exists apart from the standard man/woman dichotomy that our society is set up around. This can mean folx with a static nonbinary gender, as well as identities like genderfluid, demigender, agender, bigender, and many more.
Each of these identities is unique, nuanced, and distinct. You cannot assume you understand a genderfluid person’s experience just because you are well-versed in the agender experience!
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t experiences which unify these various communities, and this discussion will focus primarily on those unifying factors to help make writing characters outside the gender binary feel more approachable. However, it’s important to do research into your character’s specific identity. I’m eventually going to discuss various these individual identities, but in the meantime Gender Spectrum is an amazing resource!
What’s it like to identify outside the gender binary?
Disclaimer: I myself identify as a binary trans woman. This means that I am not speaking from personal experience here, as I have with my trans and bisexual posts, but from the information I’ve gleaned from my friends who exist outside the gender binary. This is meant as a general guideline, not a decisive statement on this experience.
There are an immense variety of different ways someone can exist outside the gender binary. Some folx have a neutral gender, which is static but distinct from man or woman. Others have more than one gender — either moving between them, as with genderfluid folx, or having multiple genders at once, as with some bi- and multigender folx. And some people have no gender at all — this would be how most agender people describe their experience.
The unifying factor for these folx, though, is that mainstream society isn’t set up for them. As I discussed in my article about binary privilege, the world is set up for there to be only two distinct genders: men and women. However, this oversimplified system does not account for the myriad ways in which an individual can experience their gender. This means that folx outside the gender binary are often misunderstood by those around them — including binary trans folx! This misunderstanding often manifests as disbelief in the identity itself, an attitude that identities outside the gender binary simply do not exist. This can lead to a significant amount of pain, frustration, and erasure for folx whose identities fall outside the gender binary.
Folx out the gender binary may identify as transgender, and may experience dysphoria, but neither of these things are requirements. Many experience distress or frustration when society constantly tries to force them into one of two restrictive boxes. A complaint that I’ve often heard is that there are very few ways to signal to the world that your identity is outside the gender binary — there are no truly gender neutral modes of expression, and so a person outside the gender binary often has to out themselves in order to be gendered correctly. This can lead to a fair amount of distress, especially in situations where coming out isn’t necessarily safe.
Writing characters outside the gender binary.
When writing characters outside the gender binary, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone experiences their gender the same way you do. Some might feel that the labels man/woman do not fit them. Others don’t think that any gender fits them — that they don’t have one at all. Still other might shift between multiple genders, which can include man/woman as well as a nonbinary gender or no gender!
The most important thing is to accept that your way of experiencing gender is not the only way that people experience their gender. Be open minded and very willing to learn.
It’s also important to remember that the set of issues folx outside the binary experience are distinct from the set of issues that binary trans folx experience. Though binary trans folx face plenty of difficulties in the world, folx outside the binary often face those difficulties and more. Not only does the world not necessarily acknowledge that they are the gender they say they are, it also insists that their gender does not exist.
Characters who exist outside of the binary, unlike binary trans characters, cannot “pass” in everyday life — unless they are interacting with particularly woke members of the queer community, they are unlikely to be gendered correctly without outing themselves. Be cognizant of this when you’re writing characters outside the gender binary — it may not always be safe for them to out themselves to someone, and it’s possible that your character will feel some distress at the potential misgendering!
Overall, when writing characters outside the gender binary, you should treat them with the same love, kindness, and respect that you do all of your queer characters. It’s okay to illustrate the struggles faced by these folx in your fiction — just PLEASE make sure that you do your research, avoid being overly brutal, and give your characters happy and safe spaces to recover from any mistreatment they might receive. Also bear in mind that a person who exists outside the gender binary is not just a binary trans person with more “complications” — they have a distinct and unique experience from binary trans people, because their paths to transition are often either completely different or nonexistent.
Better yet, if you yourself don’t identify outside the gender binary and therefore don’t have first-hand knowledge of the struggles they face, consider toning back your portrayal of this type of mistreatment or trauma. It’s really easy to stumble into something that will distress your readers, who may connect more heavily than you anticipate with your character, and without the nuance of personal experience to guide your hand you can do some real harm.
That’s all I’ve got space for this week! This, of course, is not a complete breakdown of every unifying thread within this umbrella of identities — one thing that is sorely missing here is a discussion of tropes to avoid when writing characters outside the gender binary, which I’ll be covering next week. Until then, though, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!