Let’s Talk About “Gender-Marginalized”

[I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice! This commentary is provided for educational and entertainment purposes. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal services.]

New starting with this blog: you can find some follow-up questions and a glossary of some of the terms I use at the end of the essay! This will be a feature I implement as needed across future posts.

Hi, everyone. It’s been a bit since I last posted anything even quasi-regularly on here. I’m going to blame some of that on recovering from adjuncting, but I also have stronger supports in my personal life these days and I don’t feel like I need to fight as hard for literally anyone to understand me. I’m also trying to write at my own pace instead of forcing myself to meet arbitrary deadlines in the name of Content™. I fervently hope this will mean the things I do post are better written and generally essays I’m happy with.

That said, I’ve wanted to talk for a long time about some power structures and nuanced forms of discrimination I see in my personal and professional circles as a disabled, neurodivergent person transitioning away from womanhood. Because I want to be clear—especially for those in my audience who are (or feel) relatively inexperienced when talking about these marginalizations—this may be a discussion that unfolds over months or years. But in this era where marginalized artists are increasingly pressured to sell ourselves on our identities even as our rights are stripped day by day, I think it’s important that I start now.

Transitioning during a significant social media and IRL wave of DEI-centered pushes for diverse programming has afforded me an interesting perspective over the past several years, particularly as I’ve looked carefully at major organizations and events to determine where I am still welcome. I’ve written about this sporadically over the past several years, but I can’t emphasize enough how difficult it is to determine my own eligibility for even small opportunities. Why? Because almost all calls for submissions that (1) want to exclude cis men and (2) aren’t trans specific still say “women” in the bulk of their marketing.

Before I have a bunch of leadership teams coming for my head: I know that especially for larger or longer-established institutions, planning and executing a rebrand is time-consuming, resource-intensive, and not likely to be a top priority when things with active deadlines are rapidly approaching. I know. But even if we COMPLETELY IGNORE the names of organizations and events (which I sometimes can), I am hard-pressed to quickly and confidently determine what opportunities are applicable to my identity—particularly since my gender is far less cut-and-dried than I often professionally present it.

You see, sometimes “women” means “women” (as you’d expect). But sometimes, “women” also means “trans and nonbinary people are welcome to apply.” Oftentimes when the latter is the case, that information is nested in asterisks, footnotes, or completely separate web pages. Recently, I’ve seen more “women and nonbinary people” make it to actual discoverable, readable fonts, but many nonbinary folks have spoken at length for years about how grouping us with women portrays us as “women-lite,” to our detriment. Besides, even if we’re using “women and nonbinary people,” we’ve still got a problem: what does that even mean to a governing body (board, faculty, etc.) of almost certainly mostly cisgender men and women?

And here’s why I ask that: because as much as I know the most common answer is “anyone who feels they’re within these categories is welcome,” I am also keenly aware of the myriad ways trans people are often Othered in my professional spaces (brass and composition especially). I see how trans women and transfeminine folks can be regarded with skepticism, often by cis women. I’ve experienced firsthand the erasure and infantilization that can befall transmasculine people and other trans folks assumed to be AFAB. I’m painfully aware of the outright disregard for gender-expansive and genderless folks, especially those of us who find “nonbinary” an insufficient or outright incorrect label.

You see, the vast majority of the time, the organizers of these opportunities see only two or three shades of gender diversity where I and many others see hundreds. I don’t say this as an attack—simply a statement of assumed fact. And I assume because in many of these cases, I know at least a couple people in those leadership roles, and because I (almost universally) think highly of them, I conclude that if they understood the vastness of this topic, their organizations would take the time to clearly articulate that understanding where applicable. (Hi, beloved friends. I know some of you are reading this. Sit with me through this discomfort for just a moment.)

The fact remains, however, that the music world is just as gender-diverse as the rest of the world, and it should not be trans people’s burden to take extra steps to determine what spaces we’re welcome in on paper. Just as women should be able to quickly discern if they are eligible for an opportunity, so too should the AMAB bigender person whose identity still contains manhood and the gendernull kid who knows nonbinary doesn’t fit xem at all because it still implies the presence of a gender. So how does a modern musician accomplish this?

There’s probably never going to be a single, concrete answer there, but I’d like to offer some suggestions regarding various word choices:

  • “Women” should be used to mean women (cis and trans, in case I have any assholes reading this). Folks of other identities should not be expected to answer to this.
  • “Women and nonbinary people” (or variants such as “women and genderqueer people”) will attract some of the populations you name, but many of us are wary of being branded women-lite, particularly because this designation is often used by organizations and opportunities with “women” in the name (like the International Women’s Brass Conference or various Festivals of Women in Music). This designation does NOT include trans men, and you’ll also risk scaring off folks within your eligibility zone whose identities include at least some masculinity.
  • Wording like “people with a past or present connection to girlhood/womanhood” might get you some transmascs too, but I’d like to caution against flowery language in isolation. While poetic, it is HARD TO UNDERSTAND. And you really don’t want your attendees arguing about that meaning when they discover someone who they don’t think fits the bill!
  • “Everyone but cis men” is a lot of people, but you may still alienate people you’d like to include, like genderfluid AMAB folks who may feel in some instances that “cis man” is part of their gender identity.

To be as inclusive as possible, I recommend the following:

GENDER-MARGINALIZED PEOPLE.

This term is a catchall: it includes all women, plus every trans, nonbinary, genderqueer, gender-expansive, and genderless identity I currently know of. It accounts for folks with multiple genders stacked on top of each other, folks whose genders move around, folks whose genders don’t exist (as in they don’t experience any at all), and folks who deal with one static gender. It leaves room for people whose identities are best defined with terminology that hasn’t yet been coined. And like any other term you use to talk about gender-based eligibility, you can define it in more depth so people can understand it!

A few of you might be suspicious: “Hang on, Eris. Didn’t you just say women should be able to quickly discern if they’re eligible? How is this fair to them?” I implore you to consider why you ask this question, because in some cases, it’s rooted in the same logic as those cis women who don’t like terms like “birthing parent” or “people who menstruate” which, like this use of “gender-marginalized people,” are used to acknowledge that “women” is not an accurate term for the group being described.

Although some folks will very understandably have complicated feelings about being categorized by our marginalized status (I do too!), the fact of the matter is that in almost every one of these situations, these opportunities are being presented the way they are because we have spent Western European music history being marginalized by cisgender men. They are opportunities to build kinship and solidarity spurred on by the political ramifications of our historic treatment in our field. Thus, it is not only reasonable but worthwhile to use “gender-marginalized”—because we name the injustice for what it is. And if we don’t, if trans and other non-cis gender-marginalized people continue to be separated from or homogenized under “women,” you continue the long historical tradition of cisgender men and cisgender women marginalizing anyone whose gender identity is not one of those two options.

So many of my friends and colleagues volunteer their time to musical organizations hoping to become more inclusive spaces. Each of you has the power to help shape how trans people are regarded and treated in our industry—and moving toward appropriately inclusive language is something you can start today. Make your identity terms clear. Offer elaboration proactively and display it prominently (I’d suggest right below the words you use, regardless of what those words are). Make our acknowledgment and inclusion a priority from the first moment we should be mentioned.

You may never learn to see us in all our glory if you don’t.


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Lingering questions? Check here:

What if I’m running an opportunity that’s genuinely only for women—not nonbinary people or other gender-marginalized people?
Then be specific! You can say “women.” (If you’re running something only for cisgender women, you should also specify that—although I’m pretty squinty-eyed about why you would be.) However, because many of our colleagues have used “women” to mean more than just that, I’d still recommend going out of your way to be clear. Please also note that some nonbinary identities include a lot of womanhood but aren’t only womanhood (demigirl/demiwoman is an excellent example)—are you going to include those folks? What about bigender people who are both women and something else?
An eligibility statement that takes this into account might look something like “This opportunity is open to women and anyone who considers womanhood a significant part of their gender identity,” or “This opportunity is open only to women. At this time, we are not accepting submissions from those whose gender identities include other components, even if womanhood is the most dominant portion.” Yes, the second one is pretty brutal, but my point here is that even if you think you know you’re doing something “just for women,” you need to have a clearly-articulated line of where that definition stops for your organization. (And good luck with that….)

What if I agree that my organization needs to change its terminology but I’m struggling to make headway with leadership?
I’m of the opinion that coalition-building is always the way to go—and a lot of that starts on the individual level. Many of the most impactful changes I’ve made in any kind of group setting have started with me talking about the relevant issue with a few of my most trusted friends, one at a time, and strategizing about how to handle getting more people on board. Some folks will not respond to calls for entire groups to do better, but they may react more positively if they’re made to feel as though their input is valued and specifically sought. (Besides, all our friends deserve to feel that way, right?)

Can you come talk to my leadership group about this?
Yup. I’m available for virtual visits and a select few in-person presentations. Go check out my Services page and drop me a line.

Quick definitions (for more depth, look elsewhere)

AFAB: stands for Assigned (or Assumed) Female At Birth. [Eris’ note: this should be used sparingly, and only when birth assignment specifically is the relevant marker.]

AMAB: stands for Assigned (or Assumed) Male At Birth. [Eris’ note: this should be used sparingly, and only when birth assignment specifically is the relevant marker.]

Bigender: a gender identity in which someone experiences two specific genders, either concurrently or sequentially. Read more about “bigender” here.

Cisgender: a gender modality (like “trans” and sometimes “nonbinary”) that refers to anyone whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth. Abbreviated “cis.” [Eris’ note: contrary to what some transphobic lines of thinking would like you to believe, “cis” is not a slur.]

Gender-expansive: a term used by some for gender identities that go beyond masculinity and femininity, often by using new or unexpected concepts to describe those genders. [Eris’ note: this definition is extremely clunky. I may update it in the future.]

Genderfluid: a gender identity that involves moving from one gender (or lack thereof) to another. Read more about “genderfluid” here.

Gendernull: a gender identity used when one’s gender is absent, but perhaps still tangible in some way. Also called nullgender. Read more about “gendernull” here.

Genderqueer: an identity term describing both non-normative gender identity and gender expression. An umbrella term. Read more about “genderqueer” here.

Nonbinary: any gender identity that is not strictly “man” or “woman” all the time. Although this is an extremely broad umbrella term, note there are some people whose identities may fit under the definition who nonetheless do not claim the label. Read more about “nonbinary” here.

Xe/xem/xyr/xyrs/xemself: a neopronoun set. Note to readers: “xe”-based pronoun sets sometimes conjugate in different ways!