While outdated social narratives might tell us we have to subscribe to one gender, the truth is there are plenty of ways one can experience gender. The idea that people can only experience one gender is simply untrue and limiting—there’s no need to put gender in a box. Specifically, the term polygender describes people who experience multiple genders, either simultaneously or varying between them. “Poly means ‘many,’ so someone who is polygender experiences multiple gender identities,” explains Elise Schuster, MPH, a non-binary sexuality educator and founder of OkaySo. Those who are polygender may also express characteristics of various genders, deliberately refuting the concept of a gender binary.
While terms like polygender offer us a label to describe someone’s gender, it’s important to remember that anyone who experiences gender has a unique view of it. “People should aim to understand each individual’s thinking of their gender versus relying on definitions of terms to understand how someone feels,” explains Dr. Samantha Busa, PsyD, clinical director of the Gender & Sexuality Service at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone. Nevertheless, understanding gender labels and diversifying our gender and sexuality dictionary is key to holding space for everyone.
Here’s what else you should know about being polygender.
- Third Gender
There's a difference between polygender, bigender, pangender, and polysexual
When it comes to talking about gender and sexuality, it’s important to recognize that they’re not the same thing. How someone experiences their gender is totally separate from who they’re romantically or sexually attracted to. “Polygender is referring to someone’s internal sense of their own gender and how they experience it, whereas polysexual is talking about someone’s attraction and interest in other people, either romantically or sexually or both,” explains Schuster. “So someone could be polygender (experiencing many genders) and polysexual (attracted to many genders) at the same time.” But, that’s not always the case, and it’s incorrect to assume someone’s sexuality based on their gender identity.
Although the terms polygender, bigender, and pangender all describe people who experience more than one gender, they don’t all necessarily mean the same thing. A great way to distinguish the difference between these gender identities is by looking at the prefix of each word. Polygender and pangender are essentially one of the same, but the main difference is that pan means “all” whereas poly means “many.” Both terms, however, describe people who are comfortable with various gender identity labels. “We think of gender identity as being a spectrum,” adds Dr. Busa. “Pangender really sort of talks about that spectrum, and it might be that their gender shifts or they might feel like multiple genders at once. But again, many of these terms are really individualized to each person’s experiences.”
While polygender and pangender may describe someone who experiences three or four different genders, on the contrary, someone who is bigender experiences two genders. “Bigender is a more specific subset within polygender, meaning attracted to two genders (bi = two),” says Schuster.
There is no one, set way that polygender people express themselves
While often conflated, gender expression and gender identity aren’t the same thing. The two ideas are related, but they don’t always overlap. There are no set criteria nor characteristics that can inform you if someone is polygender, and polygender folks don’t have to prescribe to any specific external representations for their gender identity to be valid. (You are valid regardless of how you choose to mark or express your gender!)
“As a culture, we’re taught that people who identify with certain genders express those genders in specific ways,” Schuster says. “So we might assume that someone wearing a dress identifies as female, for example, but that’s not true! Anyone can express their gender any way they wish, so there isn’t really any way to know someone is polygender unless you ask them!”
Dr. Busa adds: “Someone who says they’re polygender, that’s their gender identity. It’s as simple as that. And so what someone looks like, that’s going to vary based on how they want to be expressing their gender role in their gender identity and how they want to express that to the world.”
It’s never okay to assume someone’s gender based on how they look, so that’s why it’s important to create safe spaces where it’s possible to have judgment-free talks about gender identity and expression.
Exploring your own gender can be a journey
Finding a gender identity label that works for you is a super personal journey that will look different for everyone. There are really no set standards to determine your gender. But if you experience gender in more ways than the one you were assigned at birth, looking deeper might help you understand the label that feels right to you (if there is one—there is no rule that says you must identify with a gender label! No gender is also a gender.)
Experiencing gender dysphoria (distress because there’s a disconnect between your biological sex and your gender identity) is also a sign to look deeper, as is feeling like you identify with various genders. Gender isn’t black-and-white, so don’t feel the need to cage yourself in a box. Take your time to identify what feels right to you.
Affirming and validating your polygender friends or loved ones is crucial
If a friend or partner tells you they’re polygender, first and foremost, make sure to offer them your compassion and respect. (You don’t need to fully understand someone’s identity in order to respect it.) Make sure to affirm your friend or partner’s experience, and ask them how they want to be referred to and what pronouns they want you to use.
If you don’t know what it means to be polygender, it doesn’t hurt to do your own research. (Hey, you’re reading this!) Dr. Busa says, “We want to take some of the burden off people with non-binary identities, so they don’t feel like they need to explain their identity all the time.”
Another way to support your polygender loved one is by advocating for them in cisgender spaces. The Trevor Project has a great introductory guide for how to be a better ally to transgender and non-binary folks—it covers everything from how to best handle instances of misgendering to microaggressions.
And celebrating your own polygender experience is, too.
There are so many ways to show pride, from flying a polygender flag to simply living authentically as yourself. Additionally, “having a sense of community and community support can really benefit people in terms of their mental health and being able to live happy, fulfilling lives,” explains Dr. Busa. “Pride can mean participating in Pride Month, but it could also mean finding others who identify as polygender.”
Online spaces are great for meeting other polygender folks and finding community support. Discord and r/NonBinary are just a few spaces with thriving non-binary communities. Those who identify as polygender or another non-binary identity can also celebrate International Non-Binary People’s Day, which is observed on July 14th.
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