Gender nonconforming is when an individual’s appearance, behavior, interests, and self-concept vary, either from the norms attributed to their biological sex or from masculine or feminine general norms in general.
Very few people fully conform to all gender norms for their assigned gender. This may not mean that everyone is gender non-conforming. Instead, it describes someone who intentionally subverts these gender norms.
Also Known As:
While some people who don’t follow gender stereotypes use the term gender nonconforming, others prefer other terms such as:
There are infinite ways in which someone can be gender nonconforming. It can be expressed through hairstyles, makeup, and clothing, for instance.
For example, someone who is assigned female at birth may choose to wear clothing that is marketed to men or wear androgynous clothing. Or someone assigned male at birth may choose to wear typically feminine clothing, grow their hair long, or wear makeup.
Gender-nonconforming people may also choose to adopt new pronouns; these are words that can be substituted for a noun. Pronouns such as she/her and he/him are gendered. Therefore, someone who doesn’t conform to their assigned at birth gender may choose the opposite pronoun or gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them.
While this can apply to how gender is expressed through appearance, gender nonconforming can extend to include attitudes, gestures, gender roles, and more.
In This Article
Gender Identity and Expression
Gender identity is the internal knowledge and understanding of one’s own gender, meaning it is not visible to others.
Gender expression is the external presentation of gender, so generally, gender nonconforming is about the behaviors related to gender expression.
Gender nonconforming is more about how gender is expressed, which differs from gender fluid, for instance, which is more about gender identity.
Gender nonconforming is not to be mistaken for being transgender, where people have a gender identity or gender expression which differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Transgender people can be gender-conforming if they are given opportunities to affirm their gender identity. Gender nonconforming is also not the same as non-binary individuals, whose gender identity is neither male nor female.
Anybody can be gender nonconforming, such as those who are transgender, non-binary, gender fluid, or even those who are cisgender, meaning their gender identity aligns with their assigned gender at birth.
Gender is fluid
Cisgender refers to someone whose sex assigned at birth matches their gender identity.
While many individuals identify as cisgender, many are not. The idea of gender is a social construct, with gender norms usually enforced by the culture one lives in.
The fact that there are multiple cultures and communities that have their own ideas of gender shows that the idea that one person may have about gender norms can differ from someone else.
Gender is believed to be on a spectrum, with countless types of gender identities. Thus, gender is fluid and not necessarily related to the gender assigned at birth.
Some people may start showing gender-nonconforming behaviors and attitudes at a very young age, whereas others may become gender nonconforming in adolescence or adulthood.
People who are gender nonconforming can face a lot of criticism or bullying from others who may have strongly established ideas about gender roles or are uncomfortable with the idea of someone not conforming. They may find it harder to place gender nonconforming individuals into the gendered boxes of either man or woman.
Different gender expressions and identities are not new, as there is evidence that they have existed throughout history. The gender assigned at birth is not always stable, and people can have the opportunity to explore their gender so that they can find what they are most comfortable with. In this way, people can live as their most authentic selves.
To improve the mental health and life satisfaction of people who are gender nonconforming and reduce the levels of bullying, education on gender may be necessary to increase the acceptance of these individuals.
This could be implemented in schools that could use strategies to teach students about sex and gender. Schools could also implement strategies to provide a safer environment for gender-nonconforming students.
Gender nonconforming in childhood
When children are very young, they often have not developed their own ideas about who they are and what gender is. Once they get to an age where they can make their own decisions, is when gender nonconforming may present itself.
Children may non-conform to their assigned gender at birth by wanting to play with toys that are more typical of the opposite gender. For instance, girls may want to play with toy cars or play football, whereas boys may want to play with dolls.
They may want to wear clothing typical of the opposite gender or dress more androgynous. They may also prefer to play with other children of the opposite assigned gender or engage in types of play that are not typical of their gender, e.g., girls opting for more rough-and-tumble play or boys opting for roleplaying games.
Children who are gender nonconforming will not necessarily grow up to realize they are transgender.
However, children who are insistent that they are a gender other than that associated with their assigned sex and persistent in this belief are highly likely to grow up to be transgender adults.
While gender-nonconforming individuals may be living their most authentic life by choosing to non-conform to certain gender roles, there are some issues they may face due to not conforming.
Many people who believe in adhering to strict gender roles may become abusive to those who gender non-conform. This can be in the form of offensive language or even violence in extreme cases.
A lot of people may have been taught about traditional gender roles and have heard negative opinions about those who do not conform to them. This may contribute to beliefs that it is acceptable to bully or mistreat these individuals.
Research on gender-nonconforming youth found that they may be more likely to experience abuse with a potential impact on their mental health (Craig et al., 2020).
Any individual seen as not conforming to their assigned gender at birth norms can be a victim of abuse. This can include transgender people who have been known to be assaulted or even killed simply for being transgender.
Likewise, gay men and lesbians have been victims of violence because they are not attracted to the gender they are supposed to be attracted to, according to their gender norms.
Even young people who are perceived to be of a gender-nonconforming status, even if not accurate, can experience school victimization (Toomey et al., 2013).
Those who are gender nonconforming can also face issues with their mental health as a result of the abuse they face. It was found that youth who were victims of bullying due to being perceived as gender nonconforming had poorer life satisfaction and may suffer from depression (Toomey et al., 2013).
Likewise, results from a study showed that gender nonconforming predicted higher levels of self-reported social interaction anxiety (Jacobson, Cohen, & Diamond, 2016). This may make sense if those who are gender nonconforming are apprehensive of the reaction they may get from others for being gender nonconforming.
Childhood gender nonconforming has been associated with poorer relationships with parents. It may indicate children are at increased risk of abuse and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if they grow up with less accepting family members (Roberts et al., 2012).
Gender nonconforming has also been related to elevated behavioral and emotional challenges. This association was stronger for those who experienced poor peer relations and those whose parents or guardians endorsed gender-stereotype attitudes and were less willing to serve as a secure base for their child (MacMullin et al., 2021).
Moreover, gender nonconforming in adolescence was significantly associated with a higher likelihood of reports of suicidal ideation, suicide plans, and suicide attempts (Spivey & Prinstein, 2018).
All these issues that gender nonconforming people can face reveal how harmful gender norms and expectations can be and why it is important to encourage educators and parents to discuss and normalize gender nonconforming from an early age.
History of gender nonconforming
Gender nonconforming is often considered a relatively new way to express gender. However, gender-nonconforming individuals have existed throughout history. Below are some famous examples of gender-nonconforming individuals.
Elagabalus – 222 AD
Elagabalus was a Roman emperor who insisted on being referred to as Lady or Empress. They wore feminine makeup and was known to disguise themselves as a female sex worker.
Eleanor Rykener – 1400s
Eleanor Rykener was a key figure of gender and sexuality in medieval England. Born with a male body, they were arrested after living as a woman and working as a prostitute.
Rykener was believed to have had sexual relationships with men and women and, at different times, fulfilled more masculine and feminine roles.
Thomas/Thomasine Hall – 1600s
Hall was raised as a girl before presenting himself as a man in order to enter the military. However, this turned out not to be a one-off case of disguising one’s gender.
After serving in the military, Hall regularly alternated between masculine and feminine clothing and went by both names of Thomas and Thomasine. They claimed to feel no preference towards either gender before there was the language to describe this kind of non-conforming.
Jack Garland – late 1800s to mid-1900s
Although being assigned female at birth, Garland presented themselves as male, such as dressing in masculine clothing and refusing to speak aloud to prevent people from using their voice to make inferences about their gender.
After serving in the U.S. military was when he adopted the name Jack garland. He worked as a male nurse and got heavily tattooed, which was considered masculine at the time.
Gender norms are not the same for every culture and society around the world; in fact, these can differ vastly. What may be considered gender nonconforming in one culture might not be in another.
Throughout history and still to this day, there have been communities that reject the idea of the two-gender binary or who recognize additional genders. Below will describe some of the communities that see gender differently.
Hijra has been recognized in South Asian cultures, including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as a third gender for 1000s of years. Hijras are biological males who adopt feminine norms such as wearing feminine clothing and taking on other feminine gender roles.
Many do not consider themselves men or women but a distinct third gender.
The ‘two-spirited people’ are recognized by at least 155 Native American tribes. These individuals are believed to literally have the spirit of both a man and a woman.
They encompass a wide range of gender expressions ranging from more feminine, more masculine, or androgynous.
Burrnesha is a community in Albania first documented in the 1800s but can be traced back to the 1400s. The Burrnesha are biological women who take a vow of chastity and wear male clothing in order to be viewed as men in the highly patriarchal society.
Based in Madagascar, Sekrata are boys who are thought to have a feminine appearance and so were raised as girls. They wear their hair long and in decorative knots, have silver coins inserted into their pierced ear,s and wear many bracelets.
Their society thought their efforts to be female natural and believed that they have supernatural protection, which punished anyone who attempted to do them harm.
In Hawaii, a multiple-gender tradition existed among the Kanaka Maoli indigenous society. The Mahu could be biologically male or female, inhabiting a gender role somewhere in between.
Their social role is considered sacred as educators and advocates of ancient traditions and rituals.
American Psychological Association. (2015). Guidelines for psychological practice with transgender and gender nonconforming people . American Psychologist, 70(9), 832-864.
Craig, S. L., Austin, A., Levenson, J., Leung, V. W., Eaton, A. D., & D’Souza, S. A. (2020). Frequencies and patterns of adverse childhood events in LGBTQ+ youth. Child abuse & neglect, 107, 104623.
Jacobson, R., Cohen, H., & Diamond, G. M. (2016). Gender atypicality and anxiety response to social interaction stress in homosexual and heterosexual men. Archives of sexual behavior, 45(3), 713-723.
MacMullin, L. N., Bokeloh, L. M., Nabbijohn, A. N., Santarossa, A., van der Miesen, A. I., Peragine, D. E., & VanderLaan, D. P. (2021). Examining the Relation Between Gender Nonconformity and Psychological Well-Being in Children: The Roles of Peers and Parents. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50(3), 823-841.
PBS. (2015, August 11). A Map of Gender-Diverse Cultures. https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/two-spirits_map-html/
Roberts, A. L., Rosario, M., Corliss, H. L., Koenen, K. C., & Austin, S. B. (2012). Childhood gender nonconformity: A risk indicator for childhood abuse and posttraumatic stress in youth. Pediatrics, 129(3), 410-417.
Spivey, L. A., & Prinstein, M. J. (2019). A preliminary examination of the association between adolescent gender nonconformity and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 47(4), 707-716.
Toomey, R. B., Ryan, C., Diaz, R. M., Card, N. A., & Russell, S. T. (2013). Gender-nonconforming lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth: school victimization and young adult psychosocial adjustment.
Warnes, O. (2019, December 3). Not just a trend: A brief history of gender non-conforming. Her Campus. https://www.hercampus.com/school/exeter/not-just-trend-brief-history-gender-non-conforming/