Can You Be Nonbinary in Russian?

Cecil Leigh Wilson


It’s a question I get at least once every time I teach introductory Russian, or talk about Russian in my community of nonbinary English-speakers, or disclose this part of my identity to a Russian-speaker.

Artwork by the group NEBO (Nebinarnye v obshchestve)

Contrary to the handwringing of reactionary armchair grammarians, English is a language with long-established options for gender neutral and nonbinary language. Even the “new” nonbinary pronouns like ze/hir, ey/em, and others are have been recorded for several decades already—which, at the pace of internet-age linguistic transformation, is basically forever. And in English we’re mostly dealing with pronouns. There are other gendered aspects of language (Is ‘hey guys’ gender neutral? [No]), but they’re mostly on the sociolinguistic level.

In Russian, of course, things look very different for a nonbinary person just trying to be. So much greater a proportion of the language lets us know loud and clear that there is no room for our existence, that we are not meant to be. Many undergraduate students have asked me whether it’s feasible to use the built-in neutral, оно, for oneself—but, as it’s never used for people in standardized Russian, it usually comes off as dehumanizing.

In classrooms, on forums, and in other places where the question of nonbinary Russian comes up, someone will always offer the unhelpful and invalidating answer: “It’s just not possible (so get over it).” But because binaries are created and imposed, there is always nonbinary slippage. There are always options. Here are a few:

The Switcheroo

I’ve known some nonbinary Russian-speakers to opt for ‘both/and’ in the absence of a ‘neither/nor.’ In their circle of disclosure, they feel seen and affirmed by linguistic oscillation, switching back and forth between feminine and masculine grammar day by day or hour by hour. Some undergraduates I’ve met at UW-Madison have chosen this approach as well as So*ni and Sasha, interviewed in this article from The Moscow Times.

The Royal We

Although Slavic languages do not have the same historical foundation of a singular ‘they’ that English does, employing a neutral plural is still an option. Likely modeling on the English singular they, some Russian speakers have given it a try. In texts such as this article on dysphoria, a translation from English into Russian, the verbal agreement seems to match in number to its antecedent, sometimes switching in a single sentence: “Ами говорит, что в иные дни они чувствуют себя «на сто процентов комфортно», но в другие дни они «не хотят, чтобы их даже видели».”

Get Creative

One of the most beautiful things about linguistics for my queer heart is that, no matter how deeply a language is structured to normativize, there are always speakers with the ingenuity to make it work for them. Even if these creative solutions are not widely recognized as legitimate language use (as nonbinary Engilsh often is as well), it makes an enormous difference to have even a small language community in one’s sphere of disclosure validate linguistic innovation. Here are some creative solutions I’ve seen:

  • In writing, it’s possible to combine masculine and feminine grammar in past-tense verbs, adjectives, and nouns, marked with some form of slash mark “/” or underscore “_”, as modeled in the above linked article on dysphoria:
    “С тех пор, как я узнал_а термин “небинарный”…”
    “Долж_на отметить, что я не учен_ая и моя выборка довольно маленькая…”
    “Практически все участни_цы говорят, что интенсивность дисфории зависит от обстоятельств…”
  • After getting involved with the Language Neutralization Laboratory (whose web presence is no longer active as of 2016, but remains as an excellent archive of discussion and modeling of nonbinary Russian), So*ni developed a past-tense verbal ending “-кши”—for example, “я читакши” instead of “я читал_а.”
  • There is a multitude of Reddit and other forum and blog threads working out new pronouns and grammar. One that comes up occasionally is оне (as in this thread: “Оне походиле в магазин; У неге есть кошка; Еме нравится кофе; Еге зовут Сам; Мы с ним поехал в Китаю; Мы говорили о нем.” Another is ох, included in this compilation of gender neutral terms in various languages: “ох/ех/ех/ем/их/ниx.”

“Just” Pick One

I want to discuss this option because it’s the choice* that I ended up making for myself, but I want to be clear first that this should not be the only, or even first, advice given to a student seeking solutions. But it is an option, and one that many nonbinary people take (including in English) with their own complex reasons and emotional connections to it.

I started learning Russian long before I started my process of self-acceptance—for years my grammar was that of my assigned gender, because why wouldn’t it be? It was actually my experience living in Russia immersed in what I experienced to be a binary system not actually all that much more restrictive than that of the U.S., just restrictive in different ways, that pushed me to socially transition back home. “At least you get to go home,” a Muscovite trans friend told me, so I left the closet at customs.

My decision came down to this: between the grammar of my assigned gender, which completely invalidates all the work I put in to accept and disclose my transness, and the grammar of the other binary gender, which… isn’t accurate, but at least isn’t that… I settled for the latter and hoped I would grow into it.

And I did, in a way. Flamboyance and camp come through my Russian masculinity much more strongly than they do in English—in tone, gesture, posture, and other paralinguistic performances—as if on balance, as if queerness demands to be written on my body in one way or another.

If you know other nonbinary Russian possibilities, I would be so grateful to hear about it in the comments. I’ll leave you with the parting words of Loki, interviewed for this article by the Center for Human Rights Information:

“Прежде всего, к любому человеку стоит обращаться на “вы”. Во-первых, это свидетельствует об уважении и культуре, во-вторых – предупреждает оскорбительное восприятие. Следует задать вопрос “В каком роде мне стоит к вам обращаться?” Если общение уже началось и человек поправляет вас, то стоит прислушаться и использовать то обращение, о котором он просит, даже если вам кажется, что внешность или голос этому не соответствуют.”

Cecil Leigh Wilson is a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hir pronouns are ze/hir (Eng), on (Cz), and он (Rus).

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7 thoughts on “Can You Be Nonbinary in Russian?

  1. I love this! Thank you so much for writing it. Although I am comfortable using female pronouns, my gender experience in Russia also fundamentally altered the way I encounter gender here in the US. If you’re open to it, I would love to discuss this more with you. Feel free to find me on Facebook – and I’ll be at AATSEEL this February as well. – Michelle Ort

  2. I’m a native Russian speaker and I deal with misgendering all the time as people here are accustomed to treat as they see you, not as you see you yourself. And I have actually made quite a few rules to create non binary language in Russian… I would like you to see it as I’m not sure if those rules are very convient to use.

  3. Thanks for this post! I am a native speaker and my stepkid (US-born and not Russian-speaking) is non-binary (they/them). I have been struggling with how to talk about them with my parents with whom I communicate largely in Russian. They don’t really get the non-binary thing, so they misgender my stepkid all the time, both in English and Russian, which makes it even worse. I wind up just switching to English so as to not misgender my stepkid ot using their name over and over instead of a pronoun. Yes, the verb endings etc is messy too…Really wish there was a good solution. Seems like the plural form makes it the most consistent as far as all that is concerned. I recently realized I also prefer they/them but also kind of ok with she/her, so that makes it easier for me personally.

  4. This essay is extremely helpful. As a professor of Russian, I am committed to supporting and respecting ALL my students and this exploration of the options thus far available for non-binary students of Russian is a terrific resource for me and my students

  5. I am a 77 year young Englishman living in Russia I have no idea if we have this err nonsense in Russia it is well going on in the UK, at my age there are only 2 genders male or female man woman you are what you were born. Sorry but you are what you were born anything else is nonsense. What is nonbinary not man not woman then what are you? You are what you were born, no wonder the kids are confused.

  6. I am new to learning Russian (to speak to my immigrant students, in US) and only quietly out as nonbinary, so I have been struggling with my study on account of not knowing how to both hold true to my nonbinaryness with my students as best I can without confusing or misleading my students, or giving them the wrong impression of nonbinary people. When I learned German, which spanned pre-realization to post-realization, I ended up “just picking one” (er / masculine pronoun) to assert with others. But it never felt quite right – not as wrong as sie / feminine pronoun, but still not completely accurate. Your article has given me some direction to go in that regard, so thank you for it. Hopefully as time goes on and things change, deviations from gender binaries will be more accessible and permitted in other languages.

  7. I appreciate how many people have been working towards non-binary inclusion in Russian)) I am nonbinary and would like to use neutral pronouns, but because they do not exist formally I use “он” because it is the pronoun for человек) я не ни мужчины ни женщины; я просто человек

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