What does it mean to be non-binary?
Society typically presents gender as two clear-cut options: man and woman. The moment you're born, you're labeled as a girl or a boy based on the appearance of your genitals, an archaic tradition that ignores the wide spectrum of gender identities. Most people are familiar with binary transgender identities — women who were assigned male at birth or men who were assigned female at birth — thanks to high-profile celebrities like Elliot Page, Laverne Cox, and the Wachowski sisters, but what about people who don't identify as men or women?
In recent years, gender diversity has become more widely recognized. When a person doesn't identify as 100% man or 100% woman, that person is non-binary — outside the masculine/feminine binary view of gender. Non-binary people may identify with multiple genders, with a gender that doesn't fit into the traditional binary, or with no gender at all.
While some people identify as non-binary from a young age, many non-binary people go through a long process of figuring out their gender identity. If you've ever wondered if the gender you were assigned at birth is accurate, you may be non-binary.
Non-binary genders are any gender that doesn't fit within the male/female binary view of gender. Non-binary people may use other terms to more accurately describe their gender, such as:
- Agender: a person who doesn't identify with any gender
- Genderfluid: a person who moves between genders and/or doesn't have a fixed gender
- Bigender: a person who has two distinct gender identities
- Demi-gender: a person who identifies partially, but not entirely, with a binary male/female gender
Anyone who determines that their gender is outside of the male/female binary can identify as non-binary. Non-binary people may also consider themselves transgender because they don't identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
What pronouns do non-binary people use?
Many, but not all, non-binary people use they/them pronouns, the most common non-binary pronouns. Some non-binary people continue to use binary pronouns such as he/him or she/her, and some use neopronouns — pronouns that are new to the English language — such as ze/zir, fae/faer, or ey/em.
While the use of singular they has become a topic of debate, it has a long history in the English language. While they was used to refer to a single person as early as the late 1300s, you was still controversial as a singular pronoun as late as the 1700s.
Are non-binary people androgynous?
Non-binary people have a wide variety of gender expressions. Remember that even among cisgender people — people who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth — there's a vast spectrum of gender expression. Not all cisgender women are stereotypically feminine, and not all cisgender men are stereotypically masculine. Non-binary people may present as feminine, masculine, both, or neither. Like everyone, their gender expression may change over time as their preferences for hair, makeup, and clothing change.
Some non-binary people prefer to look androgynous, while many non-binary people enjoy experimenting with gender expression and choose to express themselves in ways that aren't 100% aligned with stereotypes of masculinity or femininity. Still, there's no "right" way to look non-binary.
Is being non-binary new?
Non-binary gender identities have gained more widespread recognition, but it's not a new concept. Many cultures around the world traditionally recognize more than two genders. Many Indigenous American cultures have recognized "two-spirit" transgender or non-binary identities, such as the lhamana gender among the Zuni people.
How can I find out if I'm non-binary?
No one can tell you whether or not you're non-binary. Discovering your gender can be a straightforward process, or it can take many years and a lot of experimentation. There's no "right" way or "right" time to discover that you're non-binary.
It's common for non-binary people to feel different for all or most of their lives without understanding why they felt this way before realizing they're non-binary. Exploring your gender and what gender means to you is normal and healthy at any age.
If you think you might be non-binary, here are some ideas to help you explore:
Find a supportive community.
The LGBTQ+ community is typically very open to people questioning their gender — the "Q" in LGBTQ+ is often used for "questioning," as in questioning gender or questioning sexual orientation, as well as "queer." If you live near an urban area, there's likely an LGBTQ+ resource center, meetup group, or support group in your area. If you live in a remote area, it may be easier for you to find support online. There are numerous forums, e-mail groups, and social media groups for LGBTQ+ people that welcome those who are exploring the idea that they may be part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Read about traditional non-binary identities.
Feeling like you might be outside of the male/female binary in a society that presents the binary as the only option can feel isolating. Many people find learning about traditional third genders in other cultures to be validating. If your ancestry is from a culture that traditionally recognizes non-binary genders, it can be a good way to connect with both your gender and your cultural heritage. Reading about Hijra communities in southeast Asia, Muxe in the Zapotec culture, and Two-Spirit people in Indigenous American communities may be a good starting point for exploring how gender identity and expression can vary throughout the world.
If you think you might be non-binary, you may want to explore how you express yourself and your gender. It's common to explore different haircuts, styles of clothing, pronouns, and even names to find what feels right to you. You may want to try clothing, makeup, or hairstyles that are more feminine or more masculine than how you've presented yourself in the past.
Some non-binary people choose to medically transition with procedures such as hormone replacement therapy, laser hair removal, or gender-affirming surgery, but many don't. There's no pressure to get it "right" — there's no right way to present as non-binary. You can express your gender in the way that feels most authentic and comfortable for you.
If you're exploring your gender for the first time, you may feel a mix of emotions — joy, anxiety, confusion, or relief. It's normal to experience an emotional rollercoaster, but if you experience intense anxiety or depression, or feelings of guilt or shame, it may be helpful to reach out to a gender-affirming therapist. Gender-affirming therapy can help you work through any trauma stemming from biological determinism and reductionism — the prevalent but unscientific idea that gender and biological sex are fixed and binary.
Many non-binary people are worried about how their family, friends, and co-workers will react to their gender. You are not required to come out publicly as questioning or non-binary for any reason. Even though it's often safer to come out as non-binary than it was a generation ago, there can still be serious concerns such as job security, child custody, or even physical safety, and some areas of the world have minimal legal protections for LGBTQ+ people.
However, coming out can also be a positive, freeing experience that allows people to fully embrace their authentic selves and find supportive communities.
Ultimately, no one can decide for you if and when you should disclose your gender — your journey is unique to you.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Global Citizen: "Male, Female, And Muxes: Places Where A Third Gender Is Accepted."
Human Rights Campaign: "Coming Out: Living Authentically as Transgender or Non-Binary," "Transgender and Non-Binary People FAQ"
Oxford University Press: "A brief history of singular 'they.'"
Stonewall: "10 ways to step up as an ally to non-binary people."
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