I am non-binary – that is, my experience of gender is outside of the male-female binary that is standard around me.
For those who may not be familiar with the concept of non-binary gender, or who are interested in how I experience gender, I’ve written this post to help explain things.
Note that everything I write should be seen as my perspective on things. If your experience differs, that’s absolutely fine.
What does it mean to be non-binary?
To understand non-binary gender, we need to start by discussing the concept of gender and the gender binary.
Introduction to gender
In many of the world’s cultures, including my own, there are two mental categories that people are often sorted into: One category is referred to by the terms “man”, “boy”, “male”, etc., and the other is referred to by the terms “woman”, “girl”, “female”, etc. These categories are known as “genders”.
Gender categories are associated with biological sex, but they are different from biological sex. In particular, people categorize one another using gender categories even when no information about biology is available or relevant.
Instead, gender categories primarily function as social and self-concept categories. People use them to make guesses about all manner of topics, from how one might conduct interpersonal interactions to choices of attire to choices of entertainment and thousands more guesses. These guesses are deeply ingrained in our culture. It’s hard to notice all of them, or even most of them, until you’ve had a lot of practice.
People use these categories both to make guesses about other people, and to make guesses about themselves. The gender category one uses to think about oneself is known as one’s “gender identity”. A person’s gender identity is generally the most accurate reflection of that person’s true gender. While it’s possible for a person to be mistaken about their true gender, attempts by other people to guess someone’s true gender are generally even less reliable than a person’s self-concept.
Note that a person can have a gender identity, while simultaneously not conforming to many of the guesses which are associated with that gender. They’re just guesses, and they are often wrong.
A person can also have a gender identity which differs from the gender that others might believe that person has. In particular, most people have a gender assumed for them by their parents, a doctor, or other adults, around when they are born. Babies don’t have a gender identity, as the concept has not yet formed in their minds, so this gender assumption is a guess. If the gender assumption made around when someone is born turns out to be accurate, that person is described as cisgender. If that gender assumption turns out to be incorrect, that person is described as transgender.
The gender binary and non-binary gender
In my culture, the genders “male” and “female” are the only two named, accepted, widespread gender identities. They are by far the most common gender identities for people to hold. They form the “gender binary”.
Many people assume that everyone’s gender identity falls within this binary. This assumption is incorrect. Many people, including myself, do not experience either a male or female gender self-concept. If someone does not experience a gender identity within the gender binary, they are referred to as non-binary.
There are many ways that someone could be non-binary. If someone’s gender identity shifts often, perhaps falling within male or female at some times but not others, that person is genderfluid, which is a type of non-binary gender identity. If a person has no gender identity at all, that person is agender, which is another type of non-binary gender experience. There are many more ways for people to experience non-binary gender identities.
In my case, I experience a gender identity, which is consistent from day to day. Via my gender identity, I make guesses about a variety of gendered topics, much the same as a person with a binary gender might make use of their gender identity to make such guesses. However, my gender is not one that has an established name or concept. As far as I know, I am the only person who experiences my gender.
In particular, because my gender is not one of the binary genders, I am non-binary.
Being non-binary and transgender
In my culture, almost no one is assumed to have a non-binary gender identity from birth. As a result, almost all non-binary people are transgender, using the definition of the term transgender to mean “a person whose gender differs from the gender assumed for them around when they were born”. In particular, I am trans. It’s useful to think of non-binary people as trans, because many common non-binary experiences, including the journey of gender self-discovery and breaking out of people’s assumptions about one’s gender, are shared between non-binary people and other (binary) trans people. Note however that different people may use the word to mean different things, so not all non-binary people consider themselves to be trans. However, a good default assumption is that non-binary people are trans.
It’s important that we treat non-binary people as part of the trans umbrella. For many decades, a trans person could only receive gender-affirming medicine (such as HRT) if they conformed to (or could pretend to conform to) the stereotypical gender role of the binary gender associated with the type of medicine they were receiving. The gender role required trans people to be straight (e.g. attracted to people of the opposite gender from the trans person’s true gender), engaging in professions and hobbies stereotypically associated with their true gender, and have maintained that gender role since childhood. Most of all, trans people were required to be binary, or pretend to be binary, to receive trans-affirming medicine.
Only recently, since the adoption of the WPATH Standards of Care 7 in 2012 and even more so the WPATH Standards of Care 8 in 2022, has the medical field shifted to acknowledge that many trans people are not hyper-binary-conforming, and that a wide variety of trans people can benefit from gender-affirming medical care, including both binary and non-binary trans people. I am non-binary and am pursuing gender-affirming medical care, which only became possible after people began to understand that non-binary people are trans. It is vital that we maintain this accurate understanding of the non-binary experience.
In particular, many people I’ve talked to have the misimpression that “trans people” and “nonbinary people” are best thought of as separate categories, and are surprised when I mention that I place myself in both categories. For the reasons outlined above, I think it’s best to think of “trans” and “nonbinary” as heavily overlapping categories, regardless of whether one thinks of all nonbinary people as trans.
Of course, nonbinary people have a wide variety of different ways of thinking of themselves and talking about themselves, and I am only an authority on my own experience. Some nonbinary people don’t identify with the trans category or label. Some people who are neither men nor women don’t identify with the nonbinary category or label. While categories and labels can be useful for some people, they are always secondary to people’s personal experiences.
My overall point is: Binary trans people and nonbinary people have a lot of shared, overlapping experiences. It’s best to keep this in mind when thinking about us, building community, and sharing stories. For this reason, I use the category of trans people to encompass all of us.
Non-binary pronouns: They
In the English language, when we refer to someone in the third person, we use gendered pronouns. That is, our choice of pronouns for someone is based on the gender category that we mentally place them in.
For this grammatical choice to be accurate, the associated choice of gender category must also be accurate. Using “he” to refer to a woman, or “she” to refer to a man, is inaccurate. Similarly, as I am neither a woman nor a man, using either “he” or “she” to refer to me is inaccurate. Note that for some other nonbinary people, this may differ – I’m just talking about myself.
Instead of “he” or “she”, the accurate third-person pronoun to use for me is “they”.
For instance, one might say “Isaac wrote a blog post about their gender. They wrote it to help people understand them better.”
Notice that this usage of “they” to refer to me is closely related to another grammatical concept in the English language, the “generic singular they”. When using the generic singular they, one might say “Someone wrote a blog post about their gender. They wrote it to help people understand them better.”
Notice that in both cases, when referring to me and when referring to a generic person, one always says “They are writing this sentence”, and never “They is writing this sentence”. The word “they” is always associated with a plural verb, regardless of whether it is used in a plural or singular fashion. This usage matches the word “you”, which is always used as “You are a person” and not “You is a person”, at least in my General American dialect.
The generic singular they is extremely well established in the English language. I’ve been using it throughout this post, and it’s standard in my dialect of English. The generic singular they has been standard in English for centuries, being found in Hamlet and as far back as the year 1375, in the poem William and the Werewolf, back in the days of Middle English, before the Modern English language existed.
The use of “they” and its conjugates to refer to me and many other non-binary people is chosen by analogy to this closely related third-person singular use of “they”.
They/them is the most common non-binary pronoun set that non-binary people use for themselves, according to the Gender Census. 75% of non-binary people specified they/them as an accurate pronoun set for them. Next most popular were “it/its” at 19%, avoiding pronouns altogether at 13%, and “xe/xem” at 11%. Note that many non-binary people use multiple pronoun sets, which was an option in this survey.
I personally find “they/them” most accurate and prefer it, but neopronoun sets such as “ey/em”, “ae/aer”, and “xe/xyr” are also fine.
Difficulty producing accurate non-binary pronouns
Many people have difficulty with using non-binary pronouns to refer to specific individuals, such as myself. While people often describe this as difficulty with “singular they”, this is rarely the true source of the difficulty. In particular, many people have this difficulty while also using and understanding the generic singular they without any trouble. Amusingly, one sometimes finds people doing both at the same time, with sentences such as: “If a man looks like a man I’m going to refer to them as such”, in reference to a nonbinary person.
Instead, people’s difficulty usually lies in conceptualizing people whose gender is neither male nor female. The strict version of the gender binary, the assumption that everyone can be classified as exactly one of male and female, is a deep-rooted assumption in many people’s minds. For some people, this is a conscious and intentional assumption, but for many it is subconscious and automatic. This assumption leads people to subconsciously classify others as male or female, often non-intentionally, and produce binary-gendered pronouns when talking about people such as myself, again without conscious intention.
While this mistake is often performed without conscious intent, it can be overcome via intentional action. Accurately mentally conceptualizing people’s gender, and producing accurate gender pronouns, is a skill. It’s typically not a conscious skill, just as juggling or dancing are typically not conscious skills. As with developing any skill, intentional practice is very helpful.
If there’s a particular person whose gender you have trouble thinking about accurately, or for whom you struggle to produce accurate pronouns, try practicing. This practice should be done at a time when you can consciously think about someone’s gender, and the appropriate gender pronouns. In particular, practice should be done outside of conversation, because during conversation your conscious attention is elsewhere. Try saying “X is non-binary, and the right pronouns to use for them are “they/them”. They’ve told me what pronouns are accurate to use for them, and now I’m practicing the skill of using their pronouns correctly.”
Once you’ve learned to accurately conceptualize one person as nonbinary, it becomes much easier to do so for all nonbinary people you might meet.
Accuracy vs. Preference
In this article, I have focused on accuracy around gender, rather than preference. Non-binary gender and they/them pronouns are simply more accurate when thinking about me and referring to me than male gender and he/him or female and she/her. Accuracy matches my preference in these cases, though I will note that if for whatever reason accuracy is unachievable, I prefer feminine terms to masculine ones.
The reason that I focus on accuracy, rather than preference, is because people should be accurate about referring to me, regardless of whether they care about matching my preferences or not. Calling me “he” is incorrect in the same way that calling the sky magenta is incorrect: It doesn’t reflect reality. If someone calls me “he”, they’re either making a mistake, or intentionally getting it wrong. My default assumption is always that they’ve made a mistake.
If you’re talking to me or near me, and you get my gender wrong, I think an appropriate reaction is “Oops, I got that wrong”, rather than “Oh no, I’ve horribly offended you!”. I don’t find it particularly offensive that many people have an ingrained assumption of a strictly binary gender system. It’s not accurate, and I’d invite you to work on overcoming it, but it’s not a terrible slight against me.
There are horribly offensive things that people could say about gender, but simply referring to me as an incorrect gender is definitely not one of them. Offensive things are generally much more ideological and intentional, such as something starting with “Non-binary people deserve to be …”. You’d probably know if you were going down that route.
I’d invite everyone to move to an accuracy mindset rather than a preference mindset around gender, as I think it leads to more positive and effective dialogue and understanding.
The nonbinary pride flag is an important symbol of nonbinary identity and community. It was created by Kye Rowan in February 2014, when they posted it on Tumblr. Here’s what it looks like in the abstract:
Here’s what it looked like when I flew it at Pittsburgh Pride 2023, last month:
I have 3 flags on my flagpole in that picture: The nonbinary flag at the top, the trans pride flag 🏳️⚧️ in the middle, and the LGBTQ+ pride flag 🏳️🌈 at the base. All three apply to me, so I flew all three.
Further directions and questions
This has just been an introduction to the concept of non-binary gender, and to my gender in particular. There’s lots more to discuss. I might write more advanced or personal articles in the future. If you have questions, feel free to get in touch. Mastodon is probably a good generic option for getting in touch with me.