What Is Gender Non-Conforming?

People Whose Gender Presentation Defies Expectations

Hands with colorful painted nails in front of a young boy's face
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A person is considered to be gender non-conforming if their appearance or behavior is not what would be expected for someone else with their same birth-assigned gender or sex. Not every person who is gender non-conforming is transgender or gender diverse, although the two groups are often combined.

People can be cisgender and gender non-conforming. Similarly, many transgender people are highly gender conforming, if given the opportunity to affirm their gender identity socially, medically, and/or surgically.

Identity vs. Perception

People are transgender or gender diverse if their gender identity is not what would be expected for their assigned sex at birth. Their gender identity describes who they are and how they see themselves.

People are gender non-conforming if the way that they present themselves is not what would be expected for someone of their gender or assigned sex at birth. It's about how they present themselves to the world and/or how they are perceived.

Some people are both gender diverse and gender non-conforming, and some are one but not the other. Sometimes, transgender individuals present as gender non-conforming until they have the opportunity to affirm their gender. Once they have gone through a process of gender affirmation, they may or may not be gender non-conforming any longer.

The Meaning of Gender Non-Conforming

What it means to be gender non-conforming varies across time, place, and culture. A man in a skirt may be seen as gender non-conforming by some and wearing traditional garb by others. A woman with short hair may be seen as chic and fashionable or a terrifying invader into feminine space.

Gender non-conformity is culturally constructed and, depending on the culture and type of non-conformity, may be perceived in positive or negative ways.

Gender Non-Conformity in Childhood

Much of the confusion about how many gender diverse children grow up to be transgender adults reflects a misunderstanding of early studies of gender identity in children. Early studies often examined whether children were gender non-conforming rather than whether they met (modern or past) criteria for being considered transgender.

Children who are gender non-conforming will not necessarily grow up to be transgender. Some of them grow up to be gay or lesbian. Others grow up to be cisgender and heterosexual.

However, children who are insistent that they are a gender other than that associated with their assigned sex, and who are persistent in that belief, are highly likely to grow up to be transgender adults. This is in contrast to children who wish they were the other gender, who are less likely to have a transgender identity in adulthood.

Another way to think of this is that the children in the first group are worried about how they fit in their bodies, whereas the those in the second group are concerned about how they fit in the world.

The association of gender variance with sexual minority status, both in real life and in media, may also provide additional reasons why so many gender non-congruent children experience bullying and discrimination.

Measuring Childhood Gender Conformity

There are a number of different scales that scientists use to measure childhood gender conformity. In general, these scales seek to categorize whether children behave in male-typical or female-typical ways, and whether those behaviors are what would be expected for a child of that recorded sex at birth.

By definition, such scales must make assumptions about what is male-typical and what is female-typical. This can be highly problematic for children who are raised outside of mainstream expectations for gender roles, although such children also may be less likely to be in environments where the adults surrounding them are concerned about any gender atypicality.

Gender Non-Conforming Discrimination

The vast majority of children in the United States are taught about traditional gender roles and have heard negative opinions about people who do not conform to them.

This may contribute to beliefs that it is acceptable to bully or mistreat individuals who are gender non-conforming, even among individuals who have been bullied or mistreated for some level of gender non-conformity. That is why it is important to empower educators to discuss and normalize gender non-conformity from an early age.

Research suggests that gender non-conforming youth may be more likely to experience abuse and other adverse childhood events (ACEs). Numerous studies have also shown that gender non-conforming people of all ages are at increased risk of bullying, stigma, and discrimination.

Heterosexism and heteronormativity are thought to drive much of the discrimination against people who do not conform to traditional gender roles. Bullying directed at gender non-conforming people is often because of assumptions that they are sexual or gender minorities. and serves to reinforce social norms about gender and sexuality. The acceptance of such abuse has therefore been compared to the acceptance of racialized assault, or lynching.

Gender nonconformity is not a medical issue. However, exposure to bullying and discrimination is associated with an increased risk of both physical and mental health concerns.

This can be explained by the minority stress model, which looks at how being part of a stigmatized group can impact different aspects of health and well-being. Gender atypicality has also been shown to be associated with social anxiety, possibly because of the ways that social interactions have been experienced in the past.

A Word From Verywell

There is nothing wrong with being gender non-conforming. Gender role expectations are largely artificial and rely on problematic assumptions of gender essentialism.

They have also been shown to cause problems to all sorts of people, from those who are gender non-conforming to those who are trying very hard to conform to masculine expectations. A broadening of social norms to embrace a wider range of variation in gender roles, behaviors, and presentations has the potential to benefit everybody.

9 Sources
Verywell Health 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.
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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.