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Before birth, society often places humans into one of two gender identities based on their assumed biological anatomy: boy or girl. Are you going to have a blue smoke bomb or pink?
Like anything with only two options, a binary outlook on gender can be limiting. Imagine a world with only two clothing sizes. Or only two ice cream flavors. Or only two political parties! (Wait…) It would be a sad and boring world, indeed.
Non-binary is a gender identity that makes room for people who don’t experience their gender as exclusively male or female.
While the term “non-binary” is relatively new to our culture, people who have rejected gender conformity have existed as part of humanity since, well, the beginning.
So what does it actually mean to be non-binary? And how can folks who are not non-binary better support the genderqueer community? Let’s start with the basics.
If you’re looking for a simple definition of what it means to identify as non-binary, don’t expect an answer as clear-cut as the cake at a gender reveal party. Identifying as non-binary is individualistic and expansive in all the ways that the gender binary is not.
For some, non-binary, also referred to as ENBY, means a mix of what is traditionally known as male and female while others reject the concept of the male and female gender identities completely.
Non-binary will not have the same meaning for every person you meet who identifies this way. It’s important to avoid assumptions because there’s no one way to look, act, or be non-binary.
If someone tells you that they identify as non-binary, ask if they are comfortable sharing what being non-binary means to them. (PSA: This does not mean you get to ask questions about someone’s genitalia.)
A non-binary person may look a way that you associate with concepts of masculinity or femininity, but this does not make them male or female. The biggest takeaway we can leave you with? Someone else’s gender identity is not up for debate. Cool? Cool.
Gender has been socially constructed to fit into the binary of one or the other. In reality, gender is a spectrum far more individual and nuanced than the binary bin could ever represent.
A helpful way to unlearn what you think you know about gender is to break it down into its components. Gender identity is how an individual chooses to identify themselves — male, female, non-binary, or another identity. You can’t see someone’s gender identity, it’s internal and unique to that person.
Gender expression is how the individual chooses to present their gender outwardly. This could encompass the way someone dresses, how they talk, their interests, and their overall appearance.
Someone who identifies as a female may choose to present masculine and a person who identifies as non-binary may choose to present feminine. Gender expression does not determine one’s gender identity.
Non-binary takes an expansive look at gender and as a result, it can be used as an umbrella term for a number of other identities that exist outside the gender binary.
Keep in mind that not everyone who uses one of these identities listed will choose to also identify as non-binary.
- Agender: Someone who does not experience gender at all.
- Androgynous: A person with a neutral gender presentation.
- Bigender: Signifies a person with two distinct gender identities.
- Demigender: A person who has a partial identity tied to a certain gender.
- Genderfluid: A person who moves between genders and can be a different gender from moment to the next.
- Gender nonconforming: This is a term that describes how someone’s outward gender expression does not match their gender assigned at birth.
- Genderqueer: Someone who doesn’t identify with a male or female gender identity; not to be confused with queer which can describe a fluid sexual orientation.
While non-binary is often used as an umbrella term, there is no one-size-fits-all term for gender. Here are 64 terms that can be used to describe gender identity and expression. And, bonus, here are some frequently used pride flags to celebrate members of the non-binary community.
Yes and no. Cisgender is the term used to describe someone whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender means that a person’s gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth.
Since non-binary folks exist outside the gender binary, they may also choose to identify as transgender.
Gender etiquette: Why you should add AMAB and AFAB to your vocab
Assigned male at birth (AMAB) and assigned female at birth (AFAB) should be used instead of “biologically male” or “born a woman.” People who identify as transgender or nonbinary at any point in their life were never the gender someone else chose for them. Using the terms AFAB or AMAB returns the ownership of one’s gender identity to the individual.
A non-binary person also identifying as transgender depends on how much they relate to the idea of gender or how much their gender identity aligns in some way with the gender they were assigned at birth.
The term intersex refers to people who have sex characteristics that do not fit within the male and female binary. These characteristics could be a combination of chromosomes, internal organs, hormones, or anatomy that are both male and female.
According to the Intersex Society of North America, roughly 1 in 1,500 to 2,000 people are born intersex, though there are other sex characteristics that may develop later in life.
A person who is intersex may identify as non-binary because their gender also exists outside the male or female categories. However, being intersex refers specifically to one’s biological sex, not their gender.
If you’ve never spoken with a non-binary person, you may be feeling anxious about how to do so respectfully. But here’s the secret: They’re just people.
Talk to them the way you would anyone else! If you’d like to ask them questions about their gender identity, simply ask if they’d be comfortable discussing it. If not, pick another subject and move on.
Here are some other things to consider:
1. Un-gender your language
While there are many societal barriers in place for non-binary people, individuals can do their part to be allies. One way to do this is to examine the gendered language you use.
For example, instead of addressing a group as “ladies and gentlemen,” use “distinguished guests.” Say “folks,” in place of “guys.”
You don’t have to know someone’s identity to incorporate these changes to your language but rather, if you make them a habit, you’re more likely to be inclusive of a range of gender identities most of the time.
2. Ask someone’s pronouns
The pronouns that you use to refer to a person are another important way to be an ally through language.
Though there are a range of pronoun options, the most common are:
- they/them (referring to one singular person)
Non-binary people can choose to identify with any of those pronouns and with more than one. Much like gender expression, someone’s pronouns may change over time.
It’s always a good idea to check in with someone and ask what their pronouns are. When you ask about someone’s pronouns, do not use the phrase, “preferred pronouns,” as this implies that using one’s pronouns are a choice rather than a requirement of honoring their gender identity.
Being an ally to non-binary folks means not making assumptions about anyone’s gender despite what their gender expression may be. Don’t assume that because someone looks like what you perceive to be a woman that they use she/her pronouns. If you don’t know, ask.
It’s always better to ask “what are your pronouns,” than to cause harm and misgender someone.
3. Use the name you are told
When you’re assigned a gender at birth, you’re parents may think they finally found a way to bring Gertrude back. For non-binary people, the name they were given at birth may not match their gender identity.
Some non-binary folks may not feel comfortable using a name commonly associated with one specific gender. Someone named Samantha or Samuel at birth may choose to go by Sam. A non-binary person may also choose to go by Samantha or Samuel and they are still non-binary.
Much like pronouns, someone’s name can change from moment to moment. They can use more than one name. Follow their direction and use the name you’re told. Ask if you don’t know and do not ask for their deadname (aka name at birth).
The legal system is another barrier for non-binary people. A 2015 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality revealed that 67 percent of people don’t have any ID with their affirmed gender identity. This means the name you see on someone’s ID may not to be the same they use.
4. Be an advocate of change
If you notice someone else misgendering a non-binary person, speak up.
Talk to the management at local restaurants about making their bathrooms gender-neutral. Research the laws in your state for name changes and gender markers on IDs. Contact your representatives if those laws don’t exist where you live.
Ask a non-binary person about their lived experiences and most importantly, listen to them!
The bottom line
Start with these basic do’s and don’ts to be a better ally:
- Do call them by their desired pronoun and name.
- Don’t assume you can ask them about their sexuality or genitalia.
- Do educate yourself about the everyday struggles non-binary folks face. This includes having to request (or be denied) a birth certificate and license that reflects their chosen gender; having to correct people when they’re called an incorrect pronoun; shopping for clothes; and choosing which public restrooms to use.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
- Do accept corrections.
You may not think you know anyone who is non-binary but the reality is you’ve seen them on your television screens, heard them on the radio, and cheered for them as they crossed the marathon finish line.
Some non-binary celebrities include:
- Jaden Smith
- Actor Amandla Stenberg
- Jonathan Van Ness of “Queer Eye”
- Singer Sam Smith
- Athlete Lauren Lubin
- Indya Moore of “Pose”
- Actor Ruby Rose
There isn’t only one representation of what it means to be non-binary and each non-binary person’s gender identity is unique to the individual.
The easiest way to practice being an ally is to incorporate gender-neutral language into everyday conversation. Don’t make assumptions about someone’s gender identity based on their perceived gender expression. Normalize asking everyone you meet: “what are your pronouns?”
Understanding the spectrum of gender can help honor a more inclusive idea of what it means to be yourself.