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A Beginner’s Guide to Nonbinary Identities

I am not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand.

Prince

According to Google Trends, the word ‘nonbinary’ is searched for about 100 times more frequently than it was in 2004. More and more people are curious about this identity than ever before. Although nonbinary identities have been around for centuries, if not millennia, the internet has allowed us to become more aware of each other, enabled us to connect, and has brought our identities into public view.

People who did not feel at home identifying as male or female have been able to find the language to describe themselves and have found community while doing so. As a result, more people have come out as nonbinary than ever before, including Miley Cyrus, Noelle Stevenson (of She-Ra fame), Eddie Izzard, Sam Smith, and Sara Ramirez. Several states, including Pennsylvania, now include nonbinary gender options when obtaining official identification documents such as driver’s licenses.

But what does this term mean, exactly? First, let’s look at the term ‘binary’. Basically, it refers to a system with two modes: either on or off, 1 or 0, and in this case, male or female. Throughout history, however, human gender expression has been a bit  more complex. Some cultures have acknowledged the existence of other genders beyond male and female. In others, individuals have broken gender rules and paid a steep social price. Gender expression is socially constructed, so opportunities to express an identity beyond the binary have varied based on the rules of a given society.

People are complicated. And messy. Seems too convenient that we’d all fit inside some multiple-choice question.

Riley Cavanaugh

It is difficult to know how many people identify as nonbinary today. The US Census, for example, does not give gender options beyond male or female. Many other surveys and forms do not include third options for gender. Nonbinary people are forced to choose or to leave questions blank. The Gender Census, an annual survey of self-selected participants “whose genders or lack thereof are not fully described by the gender binary” had 11,242 responses during its last iteration. The US Transgender Survey is a survey of 27,715 trans people living in the United States, 31% of whom identified themselves as nonbinary. However, there may be some nonbinary potential participants who would not have identified as trans, and thus not participated. Until data collectors commit to adding more options for gender on their research instruments, we will never know.

Although many view nonbinary identities as being under the trans umbrella, including 81% of the nonbinary respondents to the US Transgender Survey, others see the word ‘trans’ as a crossing from one part of a binary to the other. Nonbinary identities, then, would be somewhere in the middle, or not part of the system at all. Nonbinary people may not feel that they have transitioned from one state of being to another. They may medically transition, or they may not. They may or may not experience gender dysphoria.

“Are you a man or a woman?!?”

– People yelling from a car at the author

“No.”

– the author

Nonbinary people are diverse. As instagram user @misslucyfleur put it, “there are infinite ways to be nonbinary”. According to The Gender Census, 66.6% of survey respondents described themselves using the word ‘nonbinary’, but there are many people who do not fit into the binary but use different terms to identify themselves. In fact, most respondents used more than one term to describe their gender identities. We will go over a few examples here.

Gender nonconforming can describe anyone who does not conform to their culture or society’s idea of how to perform their gender or the gender assigned to them at birth (AGAB). An agender person may not feel they have any gender at all. Genderfluidity acknowledges that gender and gender presentation can shift over a lifetime, or even moment to moment. Genderqueer people may feel that they are both genders or neither. Many cultures acknowledge a third or nonbinary gender. For example, some indigenous Americans use two-spirit, a recently coined term to acknowledge the various nonbinary or two gender identities traditionally acknowledged for centuries. Autistic communities have begun to use the term gendervague to describe the effects of neurodivergence on gender identity. These are just a few of the words that people use to describe life beyond the binary.

Pronouns

So here it is. My friends call me he, or they. The government and most of my family call me she. The media calls me she, because I don’t trust them enough to request that they do anything else. My lovers call me sweetheart. Or baby. Somewhere in all of that I find myself.

Ivan Coyote

Pronouns are simply words we use to refer to people without using their names. ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘she’, and ‘he’ are all pronouns. The only pronouns in English that are gender-specific are third person pronouns, which means that gender comes into play only when we are talking about people, not addressing them.

A number of solutions are available to avoid misgendering nonbinary people when talking about them. While English does have a gender-neutral third person pronoun, it, the word has objectifying connotations and most nonbinary people do not feel it is appropriate. The most popular choice currently is to use the singular ‘they’, which has been used for centuries to refer to people whose gender the speaker does not know. Other proposed solutions include neopronouns, such as ze and xe.

SubjectObjectReflexive
theythemthemself
zezirzirself
xexemxemself

To find out which pronouns someone uses, there are many ways to politely invite them to share. For example, sharing your own pronouns is a respectful way to introduce yourself. Gently asking can also be appropriate. You can help normalize sharing pronouns by putting your own in the signature of emails, adding them to nametags and office door signs, etc. 

While the singular ‘they’ has been present in English for a long time, it has been mostly used when discussing a person who is unknown to the speaker. For example, one might say “Someone left their jacket behind.” It may take practice to use it automatically for someone you do know, but it shows respect and kindness to do so. The phrase “preferred pronouns” is often used when discussing someone’s pronouns. However, many people feel this trivializes using the correct pronouns. It is not a mere preference, anymore than a person’s name, gender identity, or sexual orientation is a preference, but an important part of who they are. If you are clearly well-intentioned, most people will forgive the occasional slip-up. These things happen, even to those of us who use ‘they’ or neopronouns. Gently correct yourself, without a disruptive apology. A simple ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’, followed by the correct pronoun, will generally do the job, especially if you continue to try your best. 

Titles are another area in English where gender is specified. Ms. and Mr., for example, specify the gender of the person referred to. ‘Mx.’, pronounced mix or mux, is one solution to refer to people not on the gender binary, although some people may prefer no title at all.

i’ll be okay

even if i don’t understand

how i don’t want to be a girl, but also don’t want to be a man

Courtney Carola, Have Some Pride: A Collection of LGBTQ+ Inspired Poetry

Chances are, if you are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, you have met someone who identifies as nonbinary, even if you do not know it. We do not all look particularly androgynous. Some of us wear clothes that society associates with our AGAB, and some of us do not. Many of us are still finding the language to describe ourselves or are in the long process of coming out. It is reasonable to expect, as knowledge and acceptance of nonbinary identities becomes more widespread, that more people will take this step in the future.

Rachel Lange
Rachel Lange is a freelance writer and editor, a parent, an artist, and a "boomerang" Pittsburgher.