Nonbinary, what does it really mean? Whether you’re involved with the mental health system, the medical system, the educational system, or aspiring to be a more informed person, the term nonbinary is unquestionably increasing in its frequency and use.
You might see this term written as “nonbinary” (one word) or as “non-binary” (hyphenated). Either way, it means the same thing.
Given the rapid rise of this gender identity in recent years, let’s dive into its meaning.
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.
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Because nonbinary describes a person’s identity, the term can (and will) mean different things to different people.
Why the Term Nonbinary?
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.
In contrast, 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.
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 female, male, and intersex people.
In contrast, the term “gender” is a broader term that is used to describe in how a person lives within society— that is, their gender identity.
However, sex and gender aren’t fully separate from each other.
As Alok Vaid-Menon, author of the book Beyond the Gender Binary reminds us, labelling gender as “cultural” and sex as “biological” neglects that biological sex is also cultural. For example, many cultures don’t perceive adornment as a supplement to the body, but as part of its being.
Nonbinary vs. Genderqueer
Genderqueer is a term that people often confuse with nonbinary, but it has a separate and distinct meaning.
Typically, genderqueer means that someone doesn’t conform to the societal expectations associated with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Genderqueer people may embrace traits from both of the traditionally assigned genders or or they may embrace neither. They also may identify as something in-between.
Most, although not all, genderqueer people embrace the gender spectrum.
Because identities are multi-faceted, some nonbinary people may also identify as genderqueer.
Transfeminine and Transmasculine
These are two more terms that are rising in usage.
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.
Mentioned above, Alok Vaid-Menon 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 who embraces this identity alongside the identity of being nonbinary. This raises an extremely important point, which is that identities are rarely singular.
Identities are frequently multi-faceted, which is why it is valuable to ask other people about their identity and 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 process.
Society tends to give young people an ultimatum, assigning them at birth as either a boy or a girl. This ultimatum happens because of government issued IDs, such as the birth certificate, Driver’s License, Social Security Card, Passport, and Military IDs.
This decision is then reinforced day-after-day by the English language, which unfortunately uses gendered pronouns.
Because nonbinary people don’t conform to the binary view of gender, language is having to evolve. Many nonbinary people go by gender neutral pronouns.
Personally, I use the pronouns “they/them” because they best capture my life experience.
Thankfully, on September 17, 2019, the Merriam-Webster dictionary added this new definition for the word “they,” defining it as a way to refer to nonbinary individuals who identify as neither male nor female.
Today, it’s getting easier for nonbinary people to change their names and gender in public records.
And, many educational institutions are now recognizing gender non-conforming individuals by developing healthcare programs and gender-neutral bathrooms.
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:
- Ask what pronouns they use.
- Ask what name they use.
- 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.
- Patron places with gender-neutral washrooms.
- Allow them the freedom to explore and evolve their identity over time.
- Donate your time or money to organizations that support nonbinary people (for example, LGBTQ+ charities).
Life as a Nonbinary Adult
As a nonbinary adult, if I could leave you with one piece of advice, it would be this: Regardless of how much you learn, you still won’t know what a specific identity means to another person unless you ask them.
So, ask respectfully and ask often.