Non-binary: What does it mean?
Most people – including most transgender people – are either male or female. But some people don't neatly fit into the categories of "man" or "woman," or “male” or “female,” according to the US-based National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) - a nonprofit social equality organization.
For example, some people have a gender that blends elements of being a man or a woman, or a gender that is different than either male or female. Some people don't identify with any gender. Some people's gender changes over time.
The NCTE definition adds that people whose gender is not male or female use different terms to describe themselves. In addition to “non-binary”, other terms include “genderqueer”, “agender” and “bigender”, and there are many more. None of these terms have precisely the same meaning, “but all speak to an experience of gender that is not simply male or female”. While non-binary people are generally regarded as being within the “T” community of the LGBT+ acronym, some of them choose not to use “transgender” as a descriptor because it has connotations with the binary model.
As one of the less well-understood communities under the LGBT+ umbrella, non-binary individuals may be particularly vulnerable to discrimination - including from within the LGBT+ community itself. According to Stonewall’s LGBT in Britain Work Report in 2018, over a third of non-binary people (37%) were not out at work. By way of comparison, the report found that just 4% of lesbians and 7% of gay men were not out at work.
It's important to remember that if someone is transgender, it does not necessarily mean that they have a "third gender." Most transgender people do have a gender identity that is either male or female, and they should be treated like any other man or woman.
Some societies – like ours – tend to recognize just two genders, male and female. The idea that there are only two genders is sometimes called a “gender binary,” because binary means “having two parts” (male and female). Therefore, “non-binary” is one term people use to describe genders that don’t fall into one of these two categories, male or female.
Basic Facts about Non-Binary People
Non-binary people are nothing new. Non-binary people aren’t confused about their gender identity or following a new fad – non-binary identities have been recognized for millennia by cultures and societies around the world.
Countries such as Canada, Australia, Germany, Nepal, the Netherlands and India already allow citizens to state a non-binary gender category on their passports. Facebook now has 71 different gender options.
International Non-Binary People’s Day is observed each year on July 14.
Some, but not all, non-binary people undergo medical procedures to make their bodies more congruent with their gender identity. While not all non-binary people need medical care to live a fulfilling life, it’s critical and even life-saving for many.
Most transgender people are not non-binary. While some transgender people are non-binary, most transgender people have a gender identity that is either male or female, and should be treated like any other man or woman.
Being non-binary is not the same thing as being intersex. Intersex people have anatomy or genes that don’t fit typical definitions of male and female. Most intersex people identify as either men or women. Non-binary people are usually not intersex: they’re usually born with bodies that may fit typical definitions of male and female, but their innate gender identity is something other than male or female.
How to Be Respectful and Supportive of Non-Binary People
It isn’t as hard as you might think to be supportive and respectful of non-binary people, even if you have just started to learn about them.
You don’t have to understand what it means for someone to be non-binary to respect them. Some people haven’t heard a lot about non-binary genders or have trouble understanding them, and that’s okay. But identities that some people don’t understand still deserve respect.
Use the name a person asks you to use. This is one of the most critical aspects of being respectful of a non-binary person, as the name you may have been using may not reflect their gender identity. Don’t ask someone what their old name was.
Try not to make any assumptions about people’s gender. You can’t tell if someone is non-binary simply by looking at them, just like how you can’t tell if someone is transgender just by how they look.
If you’re not sure what pronouns someone uses, ask. Different non-binary people may use different pronouns. Many non-binary people use “they” while others use “he” or “she,” and still others use other pronouns. Asking whether someone should be referred to as “he,” “she,” “they,” or another pronoun may feel awkward at first, but is one of the simplest and most important ways to show respect for someone’s identity.
Advocate for non-binary friendly policies. It’s important for non-binary people to be able to live, dress and have their gender respected at work, at school and in public spaces.
Understand that, for many non-binary people, figuring out which bathroom to use can be challenging. For many non-binary people, using either the women’s or the men’s room might feel unsafe, because others may verbally harass them or even physically attack them. Non-binary people should be supported by being able to use the restroom that they believe they will be safest in.
Talk to non-binary people to learn more about who they are. There’s no one way to be non-binary. The best way to understand what it’s like to be non-binary is to talk with non-binary people and listen to their stories.