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Identity Versus Label: Nonbinary and They

How psychological theory, thought and process are being shaped and challenged.

Key points

  • Do gender identities such as "They/Them" improve general understanding of gender?
  • The continuum between heterosexuality and homosexuality no longer suffices.
  • If gender identity is an internal state, why is it necessary that everyone else gets it?

We have come far from understanding sexuality solely from a continuum of heterosexuality to homosexuality. It took a long time for many to accept that maybe there could be homosexual leanings or longings in at least some people. After a while, western cultures got closer or more open to the notion that maybe many, if not most, people have some feeling, longing, leaning, or even experience that would be considered homosexual and that heterosexuality and homosexuality are normal, each along a continuum.

The Kinsey Scale, developed in 1948 by Alfred Kinsey’s research, determined that people did not fit into exclusive categories of heterosexuality or homosexuality and that sexual feelings change over time. Dr. Kinsey’s research was groundbreaking in that it ‘normalized’ sexual orientation and preferences beyond a binary understanding. It recognized that people do not fit into exclusive boxes of sexual identity. As a result, existing on a continuum became more reasonably understood and accepted throughout most of the world.

Now, additional possibilities of sexual identities, such as binary and non-binary identities, have extended our understanding beyond Kinsey’s scope and have replaced the heterosexual-homosexual continuum. Nevertheless, maybe we have muddied what was finally becoming comfortable. Has our culture become just as defined by the terms associated with non-binary as the binary terms used before? Changing terminology to reflect the evolution of thought is different from simply switching out old terms for new ones.

As many people now understand, assigned gender (genitalia evident at birth) is different from gender identity. Gender identity is a personal conception of oneself, and the role one incorporates as being male or female (or rarely, both or neither).

Assigned gender is specific, and there are three: female, male, intersex. There are many different ways someone can be intersex. For example, some intersex people have genitals or internal sex organs that fall outside the male/female categories, such as those with ovarian and testicular tissues. Other intersex people have combinations of chromosomes different from XY ( usually associated with males) and XX (usually associated with females), like XXY. Moreover, some people are born with external genitals that fall into the typical male/female categories, but their internal organs or hormones do not.

The current vernacular mostly centers around the term nonbinary. Nonbinary gender is an umbrella term to describe any gender identity that does not fit into the categories of male or female. Nonbinary individuals identify as either having no gender, or fall on a gender spectrum somewhere between male and female, or identify as totally outside binary gender identities.

Toward the aim of integration and inclusion, how we frame and label identity has changed as well. She/he/they are the current pronouns of choice.

The singular "they" is being used by individuals who might identify as cisgender (heterosexual), transgender, non-binary, a-gender, or intersex, and those who don’t feel like a gendered pronoun fits or is too narrowly focussed. This usage of the singular "they" can operate as a form of protest against some of the most fundamental ideas governing society today: namely, that every person can be identified as male or female in a clear-cut manner and that males and females should look and act and be referred to in certain ways.

Psychoanalytic thinking at one time viewed the use of the identity term "they" as a signal of the person being ambivalent about their self-concept or sexual orientation and were seen as typically indicative of character issues like borderline personality disorder or psychosis.

A modern psychoanalytic approach offers potential for the patient to organize, redefine, and experience sexuality as a whole, fluid, and complex process. Whether or not the term "they" will convey this is yet to be determined. Many people cannot get past their biases, existential angst, or anger at the potential politicization of the matter, or frustration that another layer has been added to the idea of gender identity.

Pragmaticism: Identity and Description

How do we handle practical descriptions of people? Perhaps the continuum has shifted from identification along the line of heterosexuality and homosexuality to a continuum between femininity and masculinity. Can the term "they" offer clarification if it is necessary?

Has the use of "they," confused people more in the pursuit of understanding and acceptance? Sexuality is complex and is processed, explored and experience throughout life. Adding labels in an attempt to further clarify gender identity may be a further fall into ambivalence and ambiguity. Does "they" connote something beyond "she" or "he"? Is "they" a blend of she and he or entirely different? An undiscovered entity or identity? Identity is ultimately an internal concept, yet some find it necessary to add an identity label on work badges or email signatories so others become aware.

The continuum developed by Kinsey three-quarters of a century ago is still relevant but has evolved. Sexual identity is not only defined from a continuum between heterosexuality and homosexuality, but through a lens of masculinity and femininity. Most significantly, identity comes from deeply held internal beliefs and awareness of one's being and oneself in relation to others. Whether or not the pronoun "they" incorporates all possibilities is yet to be determined. Figuring out what "they" represents and whether its labeling is prudent or reflects another attempt at classification that will go the way of "she" and "he" remains the task at hand.


This Is Why Singular ‘They’ Is Such a Controversial Subject BY Katy Steinmetz. December 13, 2019.

Pellegrini. A. & Saketopoulou. A. On taking sides: they/them pronouns, gender and the psychoanalyst. 2021.

What’s intersex. www.Planned parenthood. 2021