What’s the difference between being nonbinary and being trans?

It’s the elf ears for me!

All children are great teachers if we’re only open to listen and learn.

My kiddo is for sure constantly teaching me things. In particular, as both a highly sensitive child (HSC) and an out nonbinary and queer person, they have so many life lessons to teach me. I try to welcome it all with an open heart and mind.

This week, Z told me that being nonbinary is basically the same as being transgender. In both cases, you are not the gender you were assigned at birth.

The nonbinary gender identity may not seem as “extreme” as being trans in some ways, but it is still a form of trans identity. Z is indeed transitioning from one gender expression (female) to another (nonbinary), and in that way, it’s the same.

This blew my mind way open. I realized that I had mentally evaluated being nonbinary as being a gentler, somehow “easier” thing than if they had come out as trans and told me they’re a boy.

But I now see that this way of thinking is not fair to their full nonbinary identity. Nonbinary identities are real, valid, and have existed for millennia. The earliest records of nonbinary identities date back to ancient Mesopotamian times (1700 BCE). Nonbinary folks are not expressing their identities for attention or because it seems trendy or “cool.” This is not something that a young person would ever undertake lightly.

Upon further reflection, I realized that erroneously thinking of being nonbinary as a form of “trans light” is really similar to how bisexuality as an identity gets erased by people thinking it’s just “gay light.” Bisexuality is not some halfway point before a person comes out as fully gay or lesbian. While that may be true for some individuals, that’s certainly not the case for all. Bisexuality is its own valid identity and sexuality, not a halfway or “lesser” version of some other real thing.

Being nonbinary stands on its own as a full and whole form of gender expression. Just because being nonbinary is new or unfamiliar to some of us – heck, most of us reading this, I’d bet – that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

This all became really clear to me as our family has been discussing officially, formally changing Z’s name. While we all love the name Zoe, Xage feels it’s a bit too feminine for them. Z has chosen the name “Xage” to better represent who they are as a person. We’re now calling them “Xage” all the time; I do still use the nickname Z, and they’re fine with that because Xage has a “Z” sound to it. I may ultimately switch to X as a nickname; Z says they’re fine with either.

Although E and I are 110% supportive of Xage, we were still somewhat resistant to changing Z’s name officially through the courts. It involves paperwork and the hassle of changing their passport, which can literally take months. We wondered, what if Z decides to change back to Zoe someday? Or decides to change their name to something else? Is 11 old enough to make a formal, official name change? Should we just call them Xage unofficially for a few years before we ultimately make the legal name change?

But then I realized that if Xage had come out as trans and was now identifying as a boy, we would of course make the legal name change happen right away. We wouldn’t want our son to be saddled with a girl’s name. In that instance, it would be a no-brainer for us.

So why weren’t we immediately willing to make the same concession for our nonbinary child? Is it because nonbinary feels closer to female, so it doesn’t feel as unfair to keep the name Zoe? Or is it because nonbinary doesn’t seem as serious and “extreme” as a transition to the other binary gender (male) would?

I’m not sure, but thinking all this through made me realize that we do need to respect Xage’s wishes and make the name change now. If they end up wanting to change their name again at age 16 or 20, it’s fine – they can do that. It’s only paperwork.

We love our child no matter the name they want to be called. We adore our nonbinary kiddo just as we loved our daughter – nothing can ever change that. And changing their name is an important step for Xage.

If you’ve read this far, I guess my ultimate point is that being nonbinary is a legitimate gender expression, just as being binary or being transgender are. Most LGBTQIA+ organizations include nonbinary individuals within the definition of trans. Some transgender individuals are binary trans, meaning they identify as a trans man or trans woman. Other transgender individuals identify as nonbinary, meaning between or beyond the traditional binary genders.

If this is a whole new world to you, you’re not alone. Good thing we have amazing young people like our sweet Xage to help lead the way and educate us. They certainly helped me with this post.

Got questions about gender expression or sexuality? Send them my way. If there’s enough interest, we’ll answer them in future posts – with Xage’s help, of course.

About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat, snake and guinea pig mom. Travel nut. Writer since birth. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.

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