Everything You Need to Know About What It Means to Be Non-Binary

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As we know by now, we live in a world that is not so definitively black and white. And even though some people may assume someone is female or male merely based off of what they look like, there’s so much more grey area when it comes to gender identity.

In other words, in the same way someone can be female or male, they can also be non-binary. According to the Human Rights Campaign, this means they no do not identify exclusively as a man or a woman. “Non-binary people may identify as being both a man and a woman, somewhere in between, or as falling completely outside these categories,” the website states.

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The word was created as a reaction to the societal standard that divides human beings into only males and females. People who identify as non-binary reject that belief entirely, says Courtney D’Allaird, assistant director of the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at the University of Albany. “They’re like, ‘Whoa, I’m way more complicated than that. Don’t box me in!’”

The term has since gained lots and lots of traction, as representation of non-binary characters in TV shows, movies, etc. have become more prevalent, and celebs like Demi Lovato and Sam Smith have even come out as non-binary too.

It’s also important to note that non-binary is a bit of an umbrella term, so there are many other gender identities like agender, genderqueer, and gender-fluid that fall underneath it. Let’s dive deeper into its definition and how it’s different than other terms.

The difference between non-binary, transgender, genderqueer, gender fluid, and gender nonconforming

Some terms you’ll often hear alongside non-binary are genderqueer, gender fluid, and gender nonconforming. If someone identifies as genderqueer, D’Allaird explains it means they acknowledge that their gender is different. (This term tends to be synonymous with non-binary, but not always.)

If someone identifies as gender fluid, D’Allaird says they mean gender is a construct, and at any point could shift between being masculine and feminine.

Then there’s gender nonconforming, which D’Allaird explains means that “I don’t conform to societal expectations for gender” meaning they dress and behave how they want, regardless of traditional gender roles or stereotypes.

All these identities could absolutely fall under the umbrella of non-binary, but they don’t have to. For example, D’Allaird explains that a gender nonconforming person “could still identify as a gender and not conform to its societal expectations,” making them gender nonconforming but also not non-binary.

As for what it means to be transgender versus non-binary, The Human Rights Campaign says this that “while many non-binary people also identify as transgender, not all non-binary people do.”

The biggest difference is that non-binary people reject the entire gender binary system as a whole, while many transgender people still identify with being either “male” or “female,” says D’Allaird.

Related terms:

Gender nonconforming
Genderqueer
Transgender
Gender Fluid

What identifying as non-binary looks like

There is no one way to look non-binary. “Non-binary doesn’t have to ‘look’ like anything. We think we see gender because we have stereotypes about what male and female people look like, and so often who we see as trans or non-binary are also based on those stereotypes,” explains D’Allaird. “Non-binary people are everywhere—many stand out because they are not worried about challenging and drawing other people’s attention to the societal boundaries we create for ourselves. Others are sitting next to us every day.”

That being said, we’re lucky to have some great non-binary role models readily accessible to us today. In fact, gender-fluid clothing and/or androgynous makeup and fashion looks are “seemingly on the rise,” says D’Allaird.

Some examples of non-binary celebs include: Demi Lovato, Willow and Jaden Smith, Alok Vaid-Menon, and Jonathan Van Ness.

Non-binary folks are even making appearances in lots of our favorite movies and TV shows. D’Allaird notes that the Netflix movie Another Life featured the non-binary character Zayn Petrossian. “It was totally just a thing in the movie—like they didn’t backstory their struggle or acceptance, they just were a human who was respected and was sexually desirable, but not hyper-sexualized, and had a relationship,” says D’Allaird. They also suggest Mo from Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist as another non-binary character to pay attention to.

How to be a proud non-binary person

Just like there’s a honorary rainbow flag that represents the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, there is also a flag dedicated specifically for those who are non-binary. The flag was created by Kye Rowan in 2014, and includes the colors yellow, white, purple, and black.

According to Robert Deam Tobin, PhD, a professor who teaches courses in gay and lesbian studies and queer theory at Clark University, this particular flag is meant to “represent people outside the traditional gender binary, people with multiple genders, people with mixed genders, and people with no genders.”

There are also lots of ways for you to connect with other people who are non-binary, including Reddit threads, social channels, and tapping into resources at GLAAD and Human Rights Campaign.

How to support friends or partners who are non-binary

There are a few ways D’Allaird suggests you go about supporting your non-binary friends and partners. First, and most importantly, believe them when they come out to you. Then do your own research on what it means to be non-binary (reading this article is a great start!)

The point of educating yourself is to relieve the non-binary person in your life from being forced into the role of educator. “Non-binary people are more often than not processing all this meaning in their own life, let alone your life,” confirms D’Allaird.

Next, D’Allaird says you can support non-binary people by being mindful of the language you use. For example, go with a more neutral adjective like “hi everyone” instead of “hi ladies!” or “hi guys!” both of which are more traditionally gendered terms.

Something else you can do is be sure to ask people what name and pronouns they prefer and then actually use those pronouns in reference to them. Oftentimes, you’ll see non-binary people using they/them pronouns.

Finally, D’Allaird suggests doing your part to lift up the voices and experiences of non-binary people. An easy way to start is by following some non-binary people on Instagram (like the celebs mentioned earlier) or @BreakTheBinary’s and @Kai_Wes’s (who was also a contestant on MTV’s Are You the One) accounts to continue understanding.

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