What It Means To Be Non-Binary
Whether you’re a member of the queer community or a straight ally, it’s not always easy to keep up with all the terms and identities that make up the beautiful and colorful LGTBQIA2S+ world.
Heck, it’s hard to even remember all the letters (and numbers and symbols) that go into the growing acronym. (For the record it stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Two-Spirit, and anything else.)
Educating yourself is the first step to using more affirming language, and helping people feel safe and supported in their identity.
These days, the term “non-binary” is becoming more common in everyday language. From Queer Eye’s beloved Jonathan Van Ness to grammy winning songstress Sam Smith, representation of non-binary people in the media is bigger than ever. Still, for those of us who didn’t major in gender studies, it can be helpful to break down what non-binary actually means. So let’s get down to it.
Gender vs. Sexuality
The best way to begin to understand non-binary is to understand the difference between one’s gender identity and their sexual identity. Your gender identity is that way that you see yourself, i.e. male, female, non-binary, etc. It means what you are. Your sexuality is about who you’re attracted to, i.e. straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc. While your gender and sexual identity may be connected, (i.e. a lesbian is a woman that’s attracted to women) they operate differently. So a non-binary person isn’t necessarily gay, (unless of course they identify as gay!)
Assigned X At Birth
When talking about gender identity, two common phrases are “assigned male at birth” or AMAB and “assigned female at birth” or AFAB. In the simplest terms, this generally refers to what genitalia someone is born with. This “assignment” isn’t a choice, it’s a societal standard, and can be incredibly limiting for intersex people, or babies born with reproductive/sexual anatomy that doesn’t perfectly fit in either category.
People that align with their assigned gender identity, (i.e. people with penises that identify as men or people with vaginas that identify as women) are cisgender. People that don’t align with their assigned gender at birth are transgender. Cis and trans is kind of like the gender version of straight and gay. They certainly aren’t “opposites” but they generally show two different identities.
So, what is non-binary ?
Apart from the language that computers speak, a “binary” means something with two defined sides. Think of a soft serve ice cream machine with chocolate and vanilla, but no swirl. A binary question has a strict “yes” or “no” answer. It’s a fork in the road with only two distinct paths.
Historically, gender is thought of as a binary system, with male on one side and female on the other. We see evidence of this everywhere. It’s at gender reveal parties, toy stores with “girl sections” and “boy sections”, and different colored baby clothes.
So, in its simplest terms, “non-binary”, is saying “no” to the gender binary. It’s is a gender identity that rejects that idea that gender is binary at all. It means identifying as neither fully male nor fully female. Some non-binary people identify as both male and female. Some feel like they don’t have a gender. There are endless ways to navigate being non-binary. It’s imperative to point out that these terms, like all labels are subjective, and people can use them however they want to. There are even non-binary women and non-binary men.
Non-binary people may use the singular they pronoun. This means that they ask to be referred to as a “they” rather than “he” or “she.” They may also prefer gender neutral language in other ways. They may prefer to say “partner” instead of girlfriend or boyfriend, or “parent” instead of mom or dad. Of course, not all non-binary people use the singular “they” pronoun. So it’s important to ask people what pronouns they use, and normalize the use of different pronouns.
Is non-binary the same as transgender?
Transgender identity is often understood as someone that was born male that transitions to female, or vice-versa. Sometimes, trans people undergo medical treatments like hormone therapy and affirming surgeries. Transgender usually refers to someone is changing from one gender to another. But it can also mean someone that’s non-binary or otherwise gender nonconforming, such as agender, genderqueer, or gender variant.
Like “queer,” the word “transgender” is an umbrella term which means that many different identities fall under it. Under the “trans” umbrella there are limitless options of what one’s gender could be.
Non-binary is a popular way to define genders that fall outside of the gender binary (male or female). Many non-binary people may also identify as transgender, but many may not. The key is to let people use whatever words they feel good using to define themselves, and then using that language when talking about them.
Griffin Wynne is a non-binary writer, artist, and plain seltzer drinker. When they’re not discussing sex in the ~digital era~ or crying to the Dixie Chicks, Griffin enjoys camping, reading, used clothes, and documentaries about cults. They’re a Capricorn King, a genderless cowgirl, and a ’70s mama who is always down for dollar oysters and road trips. Griffin uses they/them pronouns and has the same birthday as Kyle Richards.