What Does It Mean to Be Nonbinary?

Nonbinary genders have come under fire recently as everyone debates they/them pronouns. Amateur grammarians get out their dictionaries and say how singular they/them is “grammatically incorrect” or “confusing,” and conservatives will try to use grammar as an excuse to be bigoted and nasty.

However, Merriam-Webster just added a new definition to the word “they” in 2019. It says that the word can “be used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” Plus, it was named the dictionary's Word of the Year. Suck it, bigots.

Despite recent press, many people don’t really understand what it means to have a nonbinary gender. And if that group includes you, that’s totally okay! Nonbinary genders can be a little bit confusing, and if you’re not part of the queer community or you live in a smaller town, you might not hear about them all that much.

But it’s important to learn about nonbinary people and how they exist in the world. Educating yourself about queer issues is a vital part of being an ally or a good part of the community. Plus, knowing more about nonbinary people helps you engage with them when you’re introduced.

What does nonbinary mean?

The nonbinary label means different things to different people. Generally, when someone is nonbinary, they’re saying their gender does not fit into masculine and feminine boxes. 

Nonbinary refers to breaking through the gender binary. This binary is created by the fact that most cultures view every person as either a boy or a girl from the moment they’re born. (Or heck, the doctor decides based on the ultrasound photos. Your gender was decided for you while you were still in the womb!)

At the end of the day, nonbinary genders challenge and threaten this binary. What does it mean to be a man or a woman? How would society function without gender roles?

Just because someone is born with a penis or a vagina doesn’t mean that little fact determines their gender. They can decide their own gender, and a lot of people really, really hate that idea.

Some people just refer to themselves as nonbinary. Another word that’s used is enby, used like you would guy or girl. (Some nonbinary people don’t like the term enby, because they think it’s a little too cutesy or infantile. We’ll use it in this article sometimes, but ask before you use it to describe a nonbinary person in your life.)

Some people have more specific gender identities that fall under the nonbinary umbrella. Here are a few examples.

  • Agender: Someone who doesn’t have any gender at all, or a completely neutral gender.
  • Bigender: Someone who has two distinct gender identities or expressions. They may present these simultaneously or at different times.
  • Demigender: People who are demigender have a weak or complicated relationship with a binary gender. However, they do not feel it represents them fully. They’re commonly referred to as demiboys and demigirls.
  • Genderfluid: A genderfluid person experiences different genders at different times. Their gender could change as often as throughout the day, but it can be much less, too. They might identify with any number of genders.
  • Genderqueer: Another word for nonbinary. Generally, it’s a bit outdated, and the preferred term is nonbinary. However, some people still use it to describe themselves, and that’s okay! 
  • Third gender: A nonbinary identity might be called third gender because of its designation on legal documents. (We’ll get to that later.) Also, some cultures have third genders, like Two-Spirits in Native American culture.

The word nonbinary can mean different things to different people, so it’s better to avoid making assumptions. If you become close to a nonbinary person, it might be okay to ask them more about their gender, but this is a pretty personal conversation. Take the information you have and go from there.

Isn’t being nonbinary just a fad?

It’s a common misconception that the concept of nonbinary genders originated on Tumblr in the 2010s. But genders that aren’t binary have been around for centuries, even if the language was a little bit different.

Don’t believe us? Here are a couple of notable examples.

Hijras

The existence of hijras has been documented in South Asia for thousands of years. Westerners might view them as trans people, eunichs, or intersex people. There are about half a million hijras and other third gender people in India today, but the numbers used to be much higher before colonization. 

Hijra is a unique blend of biological, gendered, and sexual identities. They’re usually assigned male at birth, and they often have biological modifications like castration and breast implants. They usually wear women’s clothes, put on makeup, and take feminine names. However, they’re not generally viewed as trans women, but another gender altogether.

Throughout history, hijras were revered for their sacred powers, and the Hindu religion deified them. However, when British colonists came, they were super freaked out by them, which changed how Indians felt about them.

Nowadays, hijras are gaining a resurgence. In 2014, the Supreme Court of India recognized hijra as a legal third gender. They are also regaining popularity due to social media and television programs.

Two-Spirit

Two-spirit is an umbrella term for some Native Americans who practice gender variance in their tribes. These people were often an important part of the ceremonial practices in their group. They were usually not perceived as men or women, but had an alternative, distinct gender status.

Both male and female bodied two-spirits have been documented in over 130 Native American tribes all over the continent. It’s important to note that these tribes all treated these individuals differently, and native culture in North America is not homogenous.

Generally, two-spirits were (and are) distinct from men and women by their temperament, dress, lifestyle, and social roles. However, each tribe varied, and it’s important not to lump them all together.

So while, yes, the internet has helped bring attention to trans and nonbinary communities, this doesn’t mean they didn’t exist before then. The internet helping people realize how to be their authentic selves is definitely a good thing. If people have a community they feel they can be a part of, they’re more likely to be out and open.

Even famous people can be nonbinary!

Even if you don’t know someone IRL who’s nonbinary, you probably like, or at least know of, a celebrity who is. When a famous person comes out, it usually is a big deal but then dies down, so a lot of the general public doesn’t even know their new gender identity. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the nonbinary celebrities who have come out recently.

Sam Smith

Sam Smith is basically the nonbinary Adele. Their songs include “Stay with Me,” “How Do You Sleep?,” and “Dancing with a Stranger.”

Sam was out as gay before they came out as nonbinary in early 2019. They continued to use “he” pronouns until asking fans to use “they” pronouns later in the year.

They wrote in a Tweet, “After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out…. I understand there will be many mistakes and mis-gendering, but all I ask is you please please try. I hope you can see me like I see myself now.”

Amandla Stenberg

Amandla has been in so many box office hits recently, including The Hunger Games, The Hate U Give, and Everything, Everything

They’ve been out as nonbinary since 2016, when they were only 17 years old. In an interview, they said they didn’t feel like a woman all the time, which sparked speculation about how they identified. Then in 2017, they came out saying that they “don’t necessarily always subscribe to female pronouns.” It seems like Amandla uses both they and she pronouns.

“I tend to believe that gender as we’ve set it up in current-day society doesn’t actually exist,” they told an interviewer.

Jonathan Van Ness

If you haven’t been watching Queer Eye on Netflix, you’re missing out. It’s refreshing to see a makeover show that doesn’t shame people and helps people from all walks of life.

Jonathan Van Ness steals basically every episode. He’s funny, glamorous, and heartwarming...and he’s also nonbinary.

He came out during the middle of 2019 to much fanfare. (He continues to use he/him pronouns.) 

Van Ness said to a reporter at Out Magazine:

“The older I get, the more I think that I’m nonbinary. I’m gender nonconforming. Like, some days I feel like a man, but then other days I feel like a woman. I’ve been wearing heels and wearing makeup and wearing skirts and stuff for a minute, honey. I just didn’t know that that meant that I had a title.”

Nonbinary vs. Trans

So if you’re nonbinary, does that make you trans?

The answer to that question is a little complex.

First, let’s define trans. Trans people are individuals whose gender doesn’t align with the the sex they were assigned at birth. People usually associate this term with binary trans women and men, but since it’s not really possible for your sex to be nonbinary at birth, enbies are welcome to identify as trans. 

PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 01: Valentina Sampaio walks the runway during Le Defile L'Oreal Paris as part of Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2018 at Avenue Des Champs Elysees on October 1, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images for L'Oreal Paris)

The white stripe in the trans pride flag is actually meant to represent nonbinary people. The trans community can be a great place for nonbinary individuals to seek refuge and meet new friends.

However, some nonbinary people don’t feel comfortable identifying as trans for a variety of reasons. If someone is bigender or demigender with the gender they were assigned at birth, they might not feel like they qualify. They might also feel that they don’t experience enough hardships to be part of the community.

Again, nonbinary people can be trans! But don’t assume that a nonbinary person you know identifies that way. If you need to know for some reason and you’re close to them, just ask!

Pronouns

Nonbinary people can go by any pronoun they want. The flexibility of the term allows for people to choose what truly feels comfortable for them. 

It’s important to remember that you can’t know someone’s pronouns just based on how they look. Try to be as inclusive as possible, and don’t guess pronouns for new people you meet.

Some nonbinary people go by he or she pronouns. That doesn’t make them any less nonbinary! It just means that they feel more comfortable when people use these words to describe them. 

Probably the most popular gender neutral pronouns in English are they/them. They/them pronouns have gotten a lot of attention recently, and they’re really pissing off some conservative people and grammar snobs. But now that the nonbinary usage is in the dictionary, there’s not really an excuse to avoid getting comfortable with them.

Using they/them for a single person is pretty easy, and you probably do it all the time. Let’s say your friend was going to pick up coffee, and you said, “Don’t forget to ask them for extra caramel.” This would be an example of using a gender neutral pronoun without even thinking about it.

So all you really have to do is think of the pronouns like that. There’s no grammatical trip wires. “They are going to the grocery store.” “I really like them.” “That pillow is theirs.” It might take a little getting used to, but you can do it, promise.

Although they/them is the most common, there are many other nonbinary pronouns that people use. Here’s a quick breakdown, including how they’re used grammatically:

  • they/them. I’m going to cook dinner with them at their house.
  • ze/hir. Ze is letting me borrow hir book.
  • ze/zir. Ze likes cranberries, and I like zir mashed potatoes.
  • xe/xyr. Xe is letting me borrow xyr car tomorrow.

This isn’t even an exhaustive list. Language is fluid, and you can even make up your own pronouns if you want to!

It’s totally normal if these pronouns are new to you, and the people who use them won’t be surprised if you’re a little clunky with them at first. But the right attitude goes a long way. As long as you’re using the right pronouns and being respectful, it’s okay if you take a little extra time remembering that you should use “zir” in this part of the sentence. What’s most important is that you try.

If you mess up, don’t make a huge deal out of it, basically flogging yourself for your mistakes in front of them. This basically makes you the victim, and puts the nonbinary person in a position where they have to reassure you that everything’s okay. And that’s shitty.

If you mess up, just quickly apologize, say the right pronoun instead, and move on. For example, “He—er, sorry, ze—is meeting us at 8.”

This is cleaner and shows that you’re trying. As long as you put in the effort, you’ll get into the habit of using their pronouns correctly in no time.

What it looks like to be nonbinary

There’s a stereotypical image that many people have of a nonbinary person in their heads. They’re AFAB, young, and thin. They wear masculine-of-center clothes like ties and button-downs. Sometimes they have dyed hair or piercings. Did that match your vision of an enby?

This stereotype is a little off-base. Of course, someone can look exactly like that and be nonbinary. However, this is not the only way to “look nonbinary.”

Some nonbinary people will just look like cis people. Not every nonbinary person spends time making sure cisgender people will recognize that they’re playing around with the gender binary (especially since most people won’t realize they’re nonbinary no matter what they wear). AFAB people can have long hair, and AMB people can have a beard. They can even just wear regular t-shirts and jeans!

Unless someone is wearing a shirt that says, “I’M NONBINARY!”, there’s no way to know whether someone is nonbinary or not simply based on their clothes they’re wearing or how they do their hair. This is an important reason to avoid assuming someone’s gender.

Do nonbinary people transition?

Just like some binary trans people choose to medically transition, it’s possible for nonbinary people to transition, too. This just—say it with me now—means different things to different people.

Often, nonbinary people transition because they have feelings of dysphoria. Dysphoria can be defined as “discomfort or distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth.”

So basically, a nonbinary person might decide to start hormone therapy because they think their voice is too high and it makes them dysphoric. Or they might get top surgery to remove their breasts because having them makes their gender feel invalidated.

It can be difficult for nonbinary people to get their doctors agree to HRT or top/bottom surgery. Binary trans people are just starting to be understood by the medical establishment. Many doctors, especially in more conservative areas, are extremely clueless about nonbinary genders.

There are ways that nonbinary people socially transition as well. Coming out and using new pronouns or a new name is one example. Someone might also bind their chest, grow out their body hair, start wearing makeup, or cut their hair.

Having a nonbinary transition doesn’t have to mean an AFAB person starts doing all sorts of things to make themselves appear more masculine, or vice versa. A nonbinary transition is about what each person wants to do. 

Start weightlifting and buy glitter nail polish? Rad!

Watch The Bachelor and grow out your leg hair? Dope!

Just basically keep doing the same stuff you were already doing, but this time with a label to it? Super cool!

There are no rules here, so play with your gender however you see fit.

Struggles nonbinary people face

In order to be a good ally to nonbinary people, you should know some of the issues that nonbinary people face in our society. Most people have a low opinion of people who exist outside of the gender binary, and this can put nonbinary people in a bad position.

Mental health problems

In a survey of over 900 trans youth (ages 14-25), nonbinary kids reported having more mental health issues than binary trans people and many more than the average population. This echoes another study of LGBTQ people, which found that bisexual people were more likely to have suicidal thoughts than people with other sexualities. It’s just no fun in the middle.

More research has to be done to figure out why nonbinary people are struggling mentally, but probably getting rid of some of the problems that are later on on this list wouldn’t hurt.

Gender on identification documents

One major thing that can cause dysphoria is having the wrong gender on all of your identification documents like your driver’s license, passport, and even marriage license. This makes enbies feel nervous about doing simple things like ordering a drink at a bar or renting an apartment.

Some states allow nonbinary people to request an “X” on their driver’s license instead of “M” or “F”. These include Arkansas, California, Colorado, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and D.C. This is an important victory, but other states need to get on board. Plus, passports are handled by the U.S. government, so this would require a nationwide change.

Dating

Dating while you’re nonbinary adds another level of difficulty to the Tinder game.

Because there are so many misconceptions about nonbinary people, many cis people won’t even give them a shot in the first place. Or, even if a nonbinary person puts their gender on their profile, someone won’t read it and then will be surprised or freaked out later.

There’s been some research that shows that romantic partners like to try to put their nonbinary partners in boxes during their relationship. A study of 400 nonbinary people found that literally all of them had been subjected to experiences within a relationship where their partner tried to invalidate their gender identity. Some people even said that their partner just viewed them as the gender they were assigned at birth instead of their actual gender.

That’s super yikes. If you’re going to date someone, you need to accept all of them. Nonbinary people deserve better.

Workplace discrimination

Just one more bummer thing. It probably won’t surprise you at this point, but nonbinary people are discriminated against in the workplace, too. 

According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, almost all nonbinary people have experienced workplace discrimination. (What the hell is with these stats? How often do you see stats this high?)

Nonbinary people aren’t just more likely to get fired from their jobs. They also have to deal with garbage like misgendering from coworkers, bathroom debates, and lots of nosy questions. Unless cishets want to give nonbinary people a stipend and let them stay at home in peace, this needs to stop now.

Some tips for respecting and lifting up nonbinary people

If you’re not nonbinary, you can help make the world better for nonbinary people everywhere. Even though you might be a little nervous at first, there are some things you can do that are pretty small.

Try your best, even though you’re not an expert.

Sometimes people are so nervous about screwing up that they don’t try at all. You don’t need to have expert level knowledge on every part of being nonbinary to lift people up. (Although, if you’ve read this article, you probably know more than the average person.)

Mostly, just respect the pronouns people tell you. Don’t make fun of them, and stop anyone who’s trying to make fun of them in front of you. You don’t need to know someone’s entire life story to respect them.

Use their name and pronouns.

If someone tells you their name and pronouns, USE THEM! They trusted you enough to feel comfortable telling you, so don’t betray their trust.

Use these pronouns for them all the time, even when they’re not around. For one thing, it helps you get in the habit and make new pronouns second-nature. For another, how would you feel if someone was pulling shit like that behind your back? Pronouns are a part of who someone is, not just a way to validate them when they’re in the room.

(One quick note: a nonbinary person might not be fully out, so they might not want you to use their pronouns all the time, like in front of their family or coworkers. Respect these boundaries. Outing someone is a shitty thing to do.)

Ask what pronouns to use if you don’t know.

Many groups and institutions have gotten better about asking for peoples’ names and pronouns during introductions. However, what if you meet someone at a party and they didn’t tell you their pronouns?

It never hurts to ask, because there are only three scenarios.

  • You ask for their pronouns, and they tell you that they’re nonbinary and they use they/them, and they’re glad you asked. 
  • You ask and they tell you they’re she/her and they’re cis, and you move on with your conversation.
  • You ask and they go on a gross rant about liberals these days and their fake pronouns, and then you get to know that you definitely didn’t actually want to talk to that person at the party, anyway.

See? Win-win.

Use your pronouns more often.

A great way to get to know other peoples’ pronouns is to be more up-front about your own. If you introduce yourself using your pronouns (“Hi, I’m Anna, she/her”), you’re creating an opening for a nonbinary person who might be too nervous to open up the conversation. Plus, it just normalizes this interaction and makes it a little less awkward every time.

A great way to practice this is to put your pronouns in your online bios like Twitter and Instagram. This lets people know how to talk about you, but it also is a signal to trans and nonbinary people that you’re accepting.

Try to use more gender-inclusive language.

You probably haven’t noticed how much gendered language exists in English. A lot of it, like “bro” or “dude,” slip through the radar.

See if you can tone down some of this gendered language. This is especially important if you’ll be speaking to a group of people. Try something other than “ladies and gentlemen,” like “folks” or just simply “everyone.”

Plus, if you’re writing a document for work or online, don’t use he/she, like “When the mail arrives, he/she will go collect it.” 

Instead, just use they! It’s cleaner, easier, and doesn’t completely erase nonbinary people.

Being outside the gender binary isn’t weird. It’s not jumping on a new trend. It’s just a way for people to express their true, authentic selves. You might feel that way about being a kinkster or being ethically non-monogamous, and you wouldn’t want people to judge you for that, either.