What does it mean to be nonbinary? Whether you’re involved with the mental health system, the medical system, the educational system, or simply are trying to be a more respectful and informed person, it is clear the term nonbinary is increasing in its frequency and use.
Let’s dive in and explore it below.
What is Nonbinary?
Nonbinary is a term used by people who reject the idea of a gender binary (male/female). Nonbinary people may identify as both man and woman, they may identify as genderless, or they may alternate between gender identifications over time. Personally, I identify as nonbinary, because I identify with a spectrum of gender identities.
Because nonbinary describes a person’s identity, it’s also possible that they may have a different understanding of the term altogether.
Because the term can mean so many different things to different people, the best way to approach it is to ask someone who uses it what it means to them.
Why the Term Nonbinary?
Why the term nonbinary (also written as non-binary)? Since the 1950s, the medical field has referred to two distinct genders, male and female. Contextually, binary means “consisting of two parts.” It’s a binary view, because it sees gender in black or white.
A nonbinary person, by definition, operates outside this strict view of gender.
Nonbinary is similar to, but distinct from, gender fluidity, which is a fluctuation between or a willingness to explore different gender identities.
What is Genderqueer?
Genderqueer is another term that can have varied meanings to different people. Often, it means that someone doesn’t conform to the societal expectations associated with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Genderqueer people may embrace traits of both of the traditionally assigned genders. However, they also may identify as something in-between, or as both genders, or as neither.
Most likely, although not in all cases, these people believe in a gender spectrum and understand that they fall somewhere along it.
In some cases, genderqueer people may also identify or associate with the term nonbinary.
The Difference Between Sex and Gender
In describing these terms, it’s important to note that within Western cultures, the word “sex” generally describes biological differences between males and females, while the term “gender” is a broader term that reflects in how a person lives within society (that is, their gender identity).
However, sex and gender aren’t fully separate from each other. Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender non-conforming performance artist and educator, does a beautiful job of explaining that separating gender as “cultural” and sex as “biological” neglects that biological sex is also cultural. That is, many cultures don’t perceive adornment as a supplement to the body. In other words, ‘this is not my costume, it’s my being’.
Despite the largely binary options on your Federal and State IDs, your biological sex can be variable. This is definitely true for people who are intersex , and likely, for others as well.
Intersex means that a person was born with variations in their sex characteristics, such as the gender markers described above, including but not limited to internal and external genitalia, gonads, chromosomes, hormones, brain structure, etc.
It’s unfortunate that federal and state-issued documents often use genitals to make a male/female assignment, because for many people this is either an inaccurate or incomplete description.
10 (or More) Biological Markers of Gender
As our understanding of human biology has expanded, a great deal of physical evidence has accumulated to support the notion that many, if not all, people are nonbinary. By training, I’m a scientist, having an M.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Georgetown University, which makes me highly interested in this subject.
Currently, gender gets assigned at birth based on external genitalia, but there are at least ten important (and medically accurate) markers of gender and likely many more.
These markers include:
- Chromosomes – Types of chromosomal expression.
- Gonads – Organs that produce gametes (testis or ovaries).
- Hormones –Types and level of hormone expression.
- Secondary Sex Characteristics – These are features that appear during puberty, but are not involved with reproduction.
- External Genitalia – Genitals visible outside the body.
- Internal Genitalia – Genitals present within the body.
- Skeletal Structure –Gender differences may be seen in the pelvis, jaw bone, brow, and limb length and thickness.
- Gene Expression –Levels and types of gene expression. Genes dictate the proteins made by the body.
- Brain Structure – Brain structure characteristics, including the ratio of white matter to grey matter in the brain.
- Personal Identity – How a person self-identifies. It is often a result of the other factors interacting, making it a valuable marker.
What is Nonbinary Trans (or Trans Nonbinary)?
Nonbinary Trans (also called Trans Nonbinary) is another term that is sometimes preferred by people who don’t adhere to conventional gender expectations. They may identify with being nonbinary (outside the gender binary), but have their self-expression be more aligned with the gender not assigned to them at birth.
This identity can overlap with, but is often separate from, a transgender identity.
Transgender is a term sometimes used to describe people whose gender identity doesn’t align with the “male/female” sex assigned to them at birth.
Some nonbinary trans people might choose to transition to fully identify as a man or woman through Gender Confirmation Surgery (GCS). However, physically changing one’s body is not requisite for any of these identities.
Meaning of Transfeminine and Transmasculine?
There are two other terms that are increasingly being embraced, which are transfeminine and transmasculine.
Transfeminine is a term used by people who were assigned male at birth, but whom embrace femininity more than they embrace masculinity. Masculinity is a compilation of traits that society regards as characteristic of men, so this societal expectation can vary from culture to culture.
Alok Vaid-Menon is one of my favorite examples of a transfeminine person. Alok is a gender non-conforming performance artist, educator, and writer, who prefers this identity.
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Transmasculine is a term used by some people who were assigned female at birth, but whom embrace masculinity more than they embrace femininity. Femininity is a compilation of traits that society regards as characteristic of women, so it again can vary from culture to culture.
I’m an example of a transmasculine person and embrace this identity in the same way that I embrace the identity of nonbinary.
This raises an extremely important point, which is that identities are rarely singular.
Identities can be multi-layered and multi-faceted, which is why it is valuable to ask someone about their identity and preferred pronouns.
This is a respectful way to engage in conversation about their experiences, preferences, and the ways they prefer to interact with the world.
What’s It Like Being Nonbinary?
Identifying as a man or woman (or all or in-between) is an internal mental process.
Society tends to give young people an ultimatum, assigning them at birth as either a boy or a girl. This forced decision happens because of government issued IDs, starting with the birth certificate, and later the Social Security Card, Passport, and Military IDs.
It is reinforced day-after-day by the English language, which unfortunately uses gendered pronouns.
Fortunately, on September 17, 2019, the Merriam-Webster dictionary added a new definition for the word “they,” defining it as a way to refer to nonbinary individuals who identify as neither male nor female.
Because nonbinary people don’t conform to the binary view of gender, language may need to be adjusted to reflect their identity.
For example, many nonbinary people go by gender neutral pronouns. Personally, I use the pronouns “they/them” over either “she/her” or “he/him.”
LGBTQ+ and Nonbinary Folks: The Role of Mental Health
Generally, LGBTQ+, nonbinary, and genderqueer people face societal pressures not experienced by their straight counterparts. Recent studies have found that LGBTQ+ students are more likely to develop mental health issues than their binary peers.
Historically, “queer” was used as a derogatory term to describe strange and abnormal people. It’s no surprise, then, that queer people can face discrimination in homophobic and transphobic societies.
As the studies explain, nonbinary people may find it challenging to explore their self-expression freely because of intolerance.
Recognition of Gender Non-conforming People
Thankfully, many educational institutions are now recognizing gender non-conforming individuals by developing healthcare programs and gender-neutral bathrooms.
It’s also getting easier for nonbinary people to change their names and gender in public records.
Coming Out as Nonbinary
Importantly, it has become much more common to “come out” as nonbinary, with more and more people becoming familiar with the term and meeting folks with this identity.
One of the best known examples of a nonbinary person is Jonathan Van Ness (JVN) of Netflix’s popular Queer Eye show. In JVN’s own words: “The older I get, the more I think that I’m non-binary — I’m gender non-conforming.”
JVN’s nonbinary traits are highlighted in the tweet below.
GAY TIMES: ISSUE 499 • JONATHAN VAN NESS
Globally adored Queer Eye star @jvn speaks to us about his journey to self-acceptance, his stand-up comedy show, and the rumours around him and Antoni Porowski being “an item”.
— GAY TIMES (@gaytimesmag) September 6, 2019
How to be an Ally to Nonbinary People
An ally is person who supports the a community, whether or not they are a part of it. Meaning, you can have the power to help nonbinary people even if you don’t identify as one.
Here’s what you can do to support nonbinary folks:
- Use the correct pronouns.
- Use the names they choose for themselves.
- Ask questions about their identity in a caring and authentic way.
- Be accepting and let them know that you support them.
- Spend time with them in non-gendered spaces.
- Allow them the freedom to explore and evolve their identity over time.
- Donate your time or money to LGBTQ+ charities and organizations.
LGBTQ+, Nonbinary and Genderqueer Celebrities on Instagram
Instagram certainly has its flaws, but it’s also an incredible platform for allowing like-minded people to connect.
The hashtag #nonbinary is also popular on Instagram, with more than 3.3 million posts.
Below are examples of nonbinary, genderqueer, and transgendered folks on Instagram:
Jonathan Van Ness, the star of Queer Eye, said they are is gender nonbinary. In their own words, JVN shares: “The older I get, the more I think that I’m non-binary — I’m gender non-conforming. Like, some days I feel like a man, but then other days I feel like a woman.”
British musician Sam Smith revealed that they identify as nonbinary and genderqueer. Smith has been gay since they were 10, but coming out as genderqueer was new to their followers. Sam experiences it as, “I am not male or female. I think I float somewhere in between.”
Teddy is one of the first openly transgender models in the fashion and beauty industry. She’s currently working with Chanel on an advertising campaign.
Bex Taylor Klaus is unapologetically nonbinary and identifies as “v gay.” They’re best known for their role as Bullet on the crime drama series The Killing. However, they also starred in Arrow (superhero drama series), House of Lies (comedy series), and Scream (horror series).
Nico is the star of the American comedy-drama series Younger, and he identifies as non-binary. They’re the author of Space between, a non-binary book that documents their journey.
Ben has a massive following on YouTube where he posted comedic makeup tutorial videos. He’s a performer, actor, and musician. Furthermore, he describes himself as genderqueer.
The Gender Spectrum
Not everything in life is black and white. Good or bad. Male or female. He or she.
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This is a truth a true of the universe. We live life in color. We exist as a spectrum of experiences.
Not everyone will align with the binary gender assigned to them by 1 human being at 1 point in time (birth) who assessed 1 sex marker (external genitalia) when there are numerous markers of sex that are scientifically important (internal genitalia, chromosomes, gonads, hormones, gene expression, secondary sex characteristics, brain structure, personal identity, and more).
Even if you fit in the gender binary, you probably don’t align with all of the expectations that society places on your gender.
If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be that regardless of how much you’ve learn, you still won’t know what a term means to another person unless you ask them.
So ask respectfully and ask often.
How do you identify and what pronouns do you prefer? Leave your answers in the comments below, because I’ll honor them 100%.
Let’s Get Connected
P.S. Above all else, I value community and connection, so let’s connect Instagram (@CadeHildreth). This will let me share in YOUR world too!