We’re fortunate to be living in a far more accepting time than the generations who came before us, although we still have a long way to go. Those of us in the LGBTQ+ community are much more likely to be able to live openly and authentically, and to have the same rights as everyone else. Members of the LGBTQ+ community can also now find allies among those who are not part of that community, and these allies can help in the fight for rights and acceptance.
But while there are many more people who are supportive of the LGBTQ+ community nowadays, that doesn’t mean that all allies are totally up on all the terms, and that they know all of the definitions that have emerged to embody the emotions and experiences of queer people. If you are someone who isn’t totally absorbed in LGBTQ+ culture or the rainbow community, you might not have a feel for all the lesser-known sexual orientations and gender identities that are being talked about, most of which have a lack of representation in mainstream media.
One of these terms related to gender identity is “polygender,” which might sometimes be confused with the term “polysexual.” But they are very different, so we want to take some time to talk a little about what it means to be polygender, since diversifying our gender and sexuality dictionary is one key to making sure everyone is included.
Gender Vs. Sexuality
The first thing that it’s important to note when talking about terms related to gender and sexuality is that gender and sexuality are NOT the same thing. How someone experiences gender is different from how they experience romantic or sexual attraction. So, since “poly” means “many,” “polysexual” refers to being attracted to many genders, but “polygender” refers to experiencing many genders.
According to Elise Schuster, MPH, a non-binary sexuality educator and founder of OkaySo, “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. 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 anything about someone’s sexuality based on their gender identity.
Next, to be fully accepting of everyone’s experience of gender, we have to be fully accepting of the fact that there is such a thing as “poly” when it comes to genders. That means accepting that there are more than just the two binary genders that most of us have been told everyone fits into. The idea of two genders that are expressed and experienced in certain, set ways is an outdated social narrative. The truth is there are plenty of ways one can experience gender, and the idea that people can only experience one gender is simply untrue and limiting.
So what does it mean then to be polygender? Simply put, again according to Schuster, “Poly means ‘many,’ so someone who is polygender experiences multiple gender identities.” In other words, polygender people experience several gender identities, often in a mix at the same time. But being polygender can also mean that someone’s gender changes from one to another at different times or in different situations, which can also be described as being “genderfluid.” Polygender people may have two genders (bigender), three genders (trigender), or more genders, and could also identify with other nonbinary identities such as transgender, nonbinary, and multigender.
Finally, just as we need to be careful about confusing gender with sexuality, we also need to remember that when we talk about gender identity, we’re talking about something separate from gender expression, although they might overlap. You can experience more than one gender identity, and you can also express those gender identities in multiple ways – and those ways don’t necessarily have to look a certain way. No matter what your gender identity or identities, you don’t have to conform to any outward expression of it for it to be valid!
According to Schuster, “As a culture, we’re taught that people who identify with certain genders express those genders in specific ways. 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!”
In other words, if someone says they’re polygender, or if you feel that is the term that best applies to how you experience gender, they or you shouldn’t have to look a certain way, and no one should assume anything about anyone else’s gender identity. After all, how anyone, especially people who experience multiple genders, expresses their gender can change based on the situation and how they want to express their gender identity and role within it to the world.
Being an Ally
So, if you’re not someone who identifies as polygender, or somehow who is a part of the LGBTQ+ community, knowing terms like polygender and the meaning behind them can be an important step toward being an ally. But remember that these terms are just labels, and, as Dr. Samantha Busa, PsyD, clinical director of the Gender & Sexuality Service at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, points out, “People should aim to understand each individual’s thinking of their gender versus relying on definitions of terms to understand how someone feels.”
How else can you be an ally, other than educating yourself (like you’re doing now by reading up on gender identity!)?
- Believe someone when they tell you about their experience of gender identity, and affirm them. You can’t know how someone else feels, and sometimes understanding someone else means challenging your own notions of gender, sex, and sexuality – and challenging those notions might make you more ready to stand with others. And remember, you don’t need to fully understand someone’s identity in order to respect it.
- If you want to understand more, though, you can do your own research. As 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.”
- Listen to how others talk about themselves so you can use the right pronouns. If you’re not sure, introduce yourself with your pronouns, and if you make a mistake, apologize, correct yourself, and move on, so you don’t make them uncomfortable by making a big deal out of it.
- If you’re speaking to someone who is polygender and transgender, don’t ask their “real” name, or “deadname” them by using their former name.
- Respect and be patient with people’s choices. It might take some people a little bit of time to figure out the terminology that suits them, or the pronoun or name they want to use, so be considerate and allow them the space and time to self-define.
- Challenge jokes about polygender and transgender people in all spaces.
- Show support for all-gender bathrooms at your workplace or in other spaces in your community, so everyone can feel like they have spaces that apply to them.
Find a Community
If you’re still exploring your gender identity, and you feel like 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. Take your time, and if you feel like polygender might describe your experience of gender identity, try to live authentically as yourself.
One way to help you do that (and it can be tough, since, as we said, we still have a long way to go in terms of acceptance) is to try and find a community. As Dr. Busa explains, “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. Pride can mean participating in Pride Month, but it could also mean finding others who identify as polygender.”
Recognizing that gender is a spectrum and that we all experience it in different ways is a very big step to making everyone feel seen. There’s no need to put gender in a box, and expect that everyone can “fit” into some narrow definitions of it. Rather, it’s about time we simply celebrate the diversity of experience that exists all around us.