Writing Bigender Characters

Writing Bigender Characters

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative! This week, we’re talking about writing bigender characters.

Bigender, unfortunately, is not a particularly widely utilized identity in a lot of media — if it does exist in practice, usually it’s named or experienced as a nonbinary or genderfluid identity. While these are not necessarily wrong, thanks to the beautiful nesting and overlapping umbrellas of gender expansiveness, it does not quite capture what it specifically means to be bigender.

That does mean, however, that there isn’t a wealth of information to draw upon for a Tropes to Avoid or Art of Introductions post — which means that this week’s deep-dive into writing bigender characters is unlikely to become the first installment in a series, as is my normal plan.

However, if you find yourself struggling to introduce your bigender character, or worrying that you might be falling into harmful tropes, I highly recommend reading what I’ve written previously about genderfluid and nonbinary characters. The information might not be perfect, and you should seek out more information from those who identify as bigender as well, but those are some other great resources!

What is Bigender?

Bigender refers to a non-binary gender identity in which an individual has two distinct genders. These genders could be experienced simultaneously, or one might switch or flow between them. When the genders are not static, the individual may also identify as genderfluid.

A man-woman genderfluid symbol, a plain black circle featuring both an arrow on the upper right (man) and cross on the bottom (woman)
The man-woman bigender symbol. Note that any two gender symbols could be put on the circle!

Notably, these two genders do not have to be man/woman. A bigender person may be both a man and agender, or a woman and neutrois. The two genders may also overlap in some ways — a bigender person does not necessarily have to “lightswitch” between them, and may embody aspects of both genders at the same time.

The primary distinction for bigender individuals is that they experience exactly two genders, and those genders are distinct even if they are experienced or expressed at the same time. A bigender person might identify certain aspects of their appearance as masculine and others as feminine, and therefore have an internal understanding of which part of their identity they are expressing with those distinct aspects.

It’s possible for someone to experience more than two distinct genders, but this ceases to be “bigender” and expands into a wider “multigender” label. This is notably distinct from “bisexual,” which is defined as attraction to one’s own gender and others. In this case, “bigender” literally means two genders — though which two is entirely up to the individual!

What’s it like to be Bigender?

When writing bigender characters, try to bear in mind the inherent duality of their experience. Bear in mind how your character might sort different aspects of themself into their two gender identities, and how that changes how they interact with the world.

It’s also important to recognize that bigender people tend to have a somewhat frustrating experience in our cisnormative world, which can go beyond even the broader frustrations of the trans experience. This is because bigender people often have trouble explaining their gender identities. A lot of people only ever experience a single, solid gender identity. Some, like genderfluid folx, might find that their identity shifts or drifts overtime, or comes and goes in intensity, but often the movement is an integral part of their identity, and doesn’t have to be tied to distinct, identifiable genders. 

Bigender people, however, do have that distinct quality. They may indeed flow or switch between their genders — again, bigender people may also choose to identify as genderfluid — or they may experience them simultaneously. Especially the simultaneous experience can be difficult to grasp for cis and binary folx, and the fluidity of gender itself is an aspect a lot of people have trouble with in the first place. Trying to explain to someone that “I am a boy but also a girl” can be frustrating and upsetting.

Moreover, it can be nearly impossible to satisfy all aspects of a bigender person’s dysphoria at once, especially if they experience their genders simultaneously — they may draw euphoria from certain aspects of feminine expression while also being made dysphoric by parts of their bodies that are perceived as inherently female. Here’s a great video which describes this experience.

Writing Bigender Characters

When writing bigender characters, be sure to bear this inherent duality in mind. Bigender people may struggle to conceptualize or explain their gender identity, especially when they are young or before they find the language for it. A bigender character likely went through part of their life thinking that they were binary trans, static nonbinary, or “just” a feminine man or masculine woman.

image of the cover of the book "The Symptoms of Being Human" by Jeff Garvin
This book probably is more accurate to a bigender person, though the main character isn’t named as such

But, because these labels don’t actually capture the dual nature of a bigender person’s identity, they can be invalidating and frustrating. When writing bigender characters, consider how this affects their current or historical struggle with identity.

Unlike with other genderfluid characters, “lightswitching” may be appropriate for writing bigender characters who shift between distinct genders. I’ve talked about lightswitching previously, but basically the term describes when a gender identity shifts suddenly. This can lead to experiences when people have different pronouns and names depending on their expression on a given day, as that expression is tied to their distinct genders.

And finally, writing bigender characters requires a fundamentally non-cis understanding of gender. I’m sorry, but it’s true — you do really have to know your gender shit, and be open to ideas of self and identity far outside the Western binaries, to authentically portray a bigender person, fluid or no. That’s not necessarily to say that a cis writer CAN’T write a bigender character, but I’d make sure you really do your research, talk to bigender people, and be open to the idea that how you perceive gender may not jive with how they do.

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