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What does it mean to be ‘Other?’

*This is one of a series of posts we are planning for our readers to use as a tool to help someone in their life better understand the tenets of mental health.

woman looking outside the window

I remember the first time I heard someone mention ‘other’ as a descriptor.

I was in my Queering the Renaissance class and my professor, Dr. Chess, had used the word “other” when talking about the Dark Lady in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Over the course of this pause in the lecture, she had asked if we knew what this meant and if anyone else may identify as “other.” In the moment, I did the typical college kid thing where you space out due to lack of comprehension, but on the outside you nod slightly with a furrowed brow of recognition.

As a cis-white female who grew up in the burbs, I was not familiar with this terminology. Were we talking about the spooky Nicole Kidman film? Or did she forget the word “significant” in front?

I’m ashamed to say it took me to the end of that semester to finally figure out what ‘other’ meant.

Merriam-Webster defines “otherness” as “the quality of state of being other or different,” which is not much help, but at least we get a hint it is likely left of center or not totally “normal.”

Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, an applied sociologist, writes “The idea of ‘otherness’ is central to sociological analysis of how majority and minority identities are constructed. This is because the representation of different groups within any given society is controlled by groups that have greater political power.”

“Otherness” boils down to social identities and the various categories within it, such as culture, gender, class, etc. For example, a person who identifies as a middle-class French female would be “other” to a group of people who identify as working-class Japanese men.

gender identity flag

You may have noticed my emphasis on how those individuals identify. This is a huge part of what creates our social identities because it is what we, as an individual outside of external influences, feel makes us who we are. For example, earlier in the this post I referred to myself as a “cis-white female who grew up in the burbs” because that’s how I identify.

This leads to another question though: why do you keep seeing the word “cis” on social media when some people refer to themselves? I’m glad you asked that, Karen, because this brings us to one of the biggest discussions when it comes to “otherness.”

Gender.

Gender identity is one of the most recognizable terms when discussing a person who is “other” because it can be difficult keeping track of the multiple identities people represent. 

Cis is short for “cisgender” or “a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.” As some people grow and come into themselves, they may start to feel like their gender does not match with their sex and their attractions do not match with what is “normal” and their expression may be more unique. If so, they are not “cisgender” and may connect with one of the many different gender identities. For a  list of identities, see here.

One of the best representations of the differences between a person’s gender and sex is the Genderbread Man, shown below.

gender bread identification chart

If you take anything away from this long discussion of the various ways we label ourselves, I hope it is this: you can wear your “otherness” like a badge or completely ignore it because frankly, even the smallest discrepancies society may view as different can make you “other” to them. The decision is always yours.

Emily Ridener

A few words about me

There are quite a few mottos I like to sling around including but not limited to, “Life is short, eat the cupcake,” “What would Wednesday do?” and perhaps most importantly, “What’s so great about normal?” I don’t approve of people who put others down because society has taught us they are “less” and I choose to use my words to share truth, do no harm, and combat ignorance.