Here are excerpts from my interview with Nick Moran, LMHC, a psychotherapist who identifies as gender non-binary. We talked about their own experience and those of their gender non-binary clients.
Can you tell us a little about your own gender journey?
Since I was very little I knew I was different. I did not operate like other little boys. While I wanted to fulfill stereotypical female gender roles such as preferring to play mother in the game of house or wanting to be a princess, I didn’t want a female body.
I was bullied in school for being a sissy or too sensitive. I tried to fade into the crowd by wearing baggy clothing but that didn’t stop the attacks and bullying.
One day I decided to lean into my difference as a source of strength.
I went to school in a complete gender-bending outfit. It infused the masculine and feminine energies that I hold within me. I wore platform heels, a tie—the total range.
During a full day of classes, no one said anything harmful. In fact, people told me I looked radiant and happy. That I embodied life. That I looked like I was enjoying the process of living.
It was one of the most powerful moments I ever experienced. I had finally affirmed my gender identity.
This experience inspired me to help other people find themselves as gender beings and to feel confident and affirmed in that identity.
This is such a great story of empowerment. What are some common challenges that gender non-binary clients are bringing up with you in therapy?
My clients feel that they are not enough. This is pervasive. They don’t have a concrete sense of who they are in terms of gender and they often feel that they are not deserving of a space to explore it.
There is a great deal of fear of coming out. They are also concerned about losing a piece of themselves. They have identified as one gender for many years and are anxious about losing that.
Gender non-binary people may worry that they will lose their sexual identity as well. For example, when I was cis gay man I was attached to the term “gay.” But when I moved into my gender expansive expression, the definition no longer fit. So by coming out as gender non-binary, I lost the label of gay.
I want to add that I could have held on to that gay label. However queer is a term that I have come to embrace for my sexual orientation. We have so many choices when it comes to the labels we select or connect with.
Some clients have expressed deep sadness about “betraying” parts of the queer and gender expansive community that they care about. They fear perpetuating the harmful narrative that gender and sexuality are a choice, and therefore undeserving of rights and protections. They worry that others will weaponize or question their lived experience, or call them liars and not respect their transition.
Sometimes clients are in committed cisgender relationships when they begin to explore their gender identify and expression. What will coming out mean for their relationship? Will their partner still be attracted to them?
Fears of physical attack, constant experiences of being misgendered, and having to educate people are also common concerns that can be really exhausting.
Pronouns can be a painful issue, yes?
Yes, microaggressions occur when clients have experiences of being misgendered in society.
The common pronouns he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/their don’t always fit. A new set of pronouns have been created called neopronouns. They are gender neutral. The most common are xe/xem/xyr, ey/em/eir, or zie/zim/zir. They follow the grammatical structure of she/her or he/him. (Here’s full list: https://www.unf.edu/lgbtqcenter/Pronouns.aspx)
What happens when clients get to the other side of these challenges?
There is affirmation and validation. There is fulfillment, there is nourishment, and people generally feel better.
What do you know about the history of gender non-binary folks?
We gender expansive individuals have been here for centuries. Indigenous cultures have particularly rich histories of accepting gender non-binary people. A modern term for these vast Indigenous genders is “two spirit.” In India there are Hijras, who are officially recognized as a third gender. And I recently learned that Judaism recognizes six genders.
Many Indigenous cultures lost access to gender diverse traditions with the expansion of European colonization and the spread of Christianity. Politically speaking it is easier to control people when there is restriction to only two categories: male (powerful) and female (no power).
What are you noticing about the gender non-binary movement?
I’m seeing a rapid increase in engagement. I have a hunch that the Covid crisis has forced more people to pause, to be alone in their homes, and to no longer have to perform gender every day. They have been left to consider questions they didn’t know they had.
Many famous people are publicity expressing their gender journey. We tend to look up to them and so more people are giving themselves permission to do the same. And social media spreads ideas so quickly.
I’m often asked what the difference is between gender non-binary and gender fluid.
Gender non-binary is an umbrella term that covers any person who exists outside of the gender binary.
Gender fluid is someone who moves between two or more gender identities and/or expressions at different times or in different situations.
And what is gender non-binary femme?
Gender non-binary femme is someone whose internal sense of gender is non-binary but their external gender expression—how they externally present—is feminine.
What is gender non-binary butch?
Gender non-binary butch is someone whose internal sense of gender is non-binary but their external gender expression is masculine.
What are some of the books you commonly suggest for your gender non-binary clients?
The literature on non-binary gender is currently slim. I hope that changes. Here are some of my favorites:
Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity, by Micah Rajunov and A. Scott Duane
Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution, by Susan Stryker.
You and Your Gender Identity: A Guide to Discovery, by Dara Hoffman-Fox.
The Queer and Transgender Resilience Workbook, by Anneliese Singh, PhD, LPC.
Why does this topic of non-binary gender trigger so many people?
We fear that which we don’t understand. Expansiveness in gender can feel overwhelming because we haven’t been taught the language of gender expansiveness.
Gender is a social construct. There are no right answers. And that can be scary.