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The term “nonbinary” can mean different things to different people. Essentially, it’s used to describe someone whose gender identity can’t be described as exclusively woman or man.

Some people who are nonbinary experience their gender as both man and woman, and others experience their gender as neither man nor woman.

Nonbinary can also be used as an umbrella term, encompassing many gender identities that don’t fit into the man-woman binary.

Although being nonbinary is often regarded as a new phenomenon, history tells us that nonbinary identities have existed for many centuries.

In fact, nonbinary gender has been recorded as far back as 400 B.C. to 200 A.D., when Hijras were referenced in ancient Hindu texts. Hijras are considered a “third gender” community of people who don’t identify exclusively as man or woman.

Before we talk about what it means to be outside the gender binary, let’s define what the gender binary is.

The gender binary is the idea that there are only two genders: man and woman. These genders are considered opposite to one another. Different expectations are placed on each gender in terms of behavior, roles, dress, and more.

In many cultures across the world, a gender binary is assumed. Most people grow up with the idea that there are only two genders.

However, many people exist outside of the gender binary, as a gender that is neither exclusively man nor woman.

Not exactly.

Being transgender is when you don’t identify with the gender you were assigned at birth.

If you were born with a penis, for example, you were likely assigned male at birth and socialized as a man. If in time you find that your gender can’t be described as exclusively man, you might identify with the term “transgender.”

Not all transgender people are nonbinary. Someone assigned male at birth, for example, can experience their gender as woman while someone assigned female at birth can experience their gender as man.

If a person exclusively experiences their gender as man or woman — not as both, another gender, or nothing at all — they might identify with the term transgender, but not nonbinary.

A nonbinary person might not exclusively identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, but rather with one or more genders.

As such, some people argue that all nonbinary people are inherently transgender. Given the definition of transgender as explained above, this argument makes sense.

However, some nonbinary people don’t identify with the transgender experience. This may be for a number of personal reasons. For example, some nonbinary people don’t feel comfortable identifying as being trans if they’ve faced animosity from binary transgender people.

While we often mix up these terms, they mean two different things.

A gender identity is the gender you feel you are. It’s your personal sense of what your gender is.

Words used to describe gender identities include man, woman, nonbinary, agender, gender-fluid, and more. There are an infinite number of gender identities out there.

Your gender expression includes how you behave, dress, act, and even speak in relation to your gender. For example, when someone talks about dressing in a feminine, masculine, or androgynous way, they’re ultimately talking about gender expression.

A common assumption is that all nonbinary people dress and behave in an androgynous style. This isn’t true. Some nonbinary people might have a typically masculine gender expression, while others might have a typically feminine gender expression, a combination of the two or ultimately neither.

Because gender identity is different from gender expression, a person can’t assume or “tell” another’s identity just by looking at them.

Both your gender identity and your gender expression are entirely personal. It’s up to you how to express and describe your gender.

The idea that gender is a spectrum is grounded in two widely accepted beliefs: historical precedence and basic biology.

From Hijras in India to māhūs in Hawaii, there have always been people whose gender doesn’t fit into the stereotype of what it means to be a man or woman. These examples of nonbinary and nonconforming gender throughout history laid important groundwork for how gender identity is understood today.

What’s more, sex isn’t always binary — even on a biological level. One in every 2,000 people are born with an intersex condition. Intersex is a term used to describe people who have chromosomes, anatomy, or other sex characteristics that can’t be categorized as exclusively male or female.

The notion that both sex and gender are binary — with everyone fitting into either a male/man or female/woman box — is a social construct. This system has historically been used to differentiate between biological and gender-related traits in males and females.

The idea that there’s male and female identity isn’t false — it’s just incomplete. Many people, intersex or not, have a mix of biological traits or gender expressions that falls outside the male or female checkbox.

So, is gender identity rooted in nature, nurture, or a combination of the two?

Although more research is needed, growing data suggests there’s some biological component to gender identity — just not in the way that you might think.

For example, attempts to align the gender identity of a person who is intersex with their external genitalia are typically unsuccessful. This suggests the sexual characteristics you’re born with might not always align with your gender identity.

There are a number of gender identities that fall under the nonbinary umbrella.

This includes identifiers, like:

Demigender is another umbrella term for nonbinary gender identities. In many cases, demigender is used when someone feels a partial connection to a certain gender.

For example:

  • demigirl
  • demiboy
  • demifluid

Although there are definitions available for each of these terms, many overlap or have nuanced differences. The meaning can also vary greatly across cultures and geographic regions. That’s why it’s imperative to ask the person using the identifier about what it means to them.

The word “queer” was originally introduced to challenge fixed notions of sexuality and include people who’re attracted to more than just one type of person. The term signifies an inclusive attraction to those whose gender can’t be exclusively categorized as man or woman.

Placing “gender” in front of the word “queer” conveys the idea that those who are genderqueer have multiple gender identities and expressions. This is also known as fluid gender identity or expression.

Although the terms “genderqueer” and “nonbinary” have many similarities, they aren’t necessarily interchangeable. It’s always important to defer to a person’s given identifier.

We live in a world where nearly everywhere a person goes, they’re gendered. It’s all too common for groups of people to be referred to as “ladies and gentlemen” or “guys and gals” when the person speaking has no real knowledge about the gender identities of those they’re referring to.

For many nonbinary people, pronouns are about more than just how they want to be addressed. They’ve become a powerful way to assert an aspect of their gender that’s often unseen or unaligned with others’ assumptions.

Because of this, pronouns have the power to either affirm or invalidate a nonbinary person’s existence.

Some nonbinary people use binary pronouns, such as:

  • she/her/hers
  • he/him/his

Others use gender-neutral pronouns, such as:

  • they/them/theirs
  • ze/hir/hirs
  • ze/zir/zirs

Although these are the most common gender-neutral pronouns, there are others.

The pronouns someone uses can also change over time and across environments. For example, some nonbinary people may use gender-neutral pronouns in spaces where they feel safe. They may allow people at work or school to refer to them using traditional binary pronouns instead of their specified pronouns.

Takeaway

You should always use the pronouns a person tells you are appropriate to use for them. If you’re unsure or have no information about how someone wants to be addressed, opt for gender-neutral language.

Incorporating gender-neutral language into everyday conversation is an easy way to challenge gender stereotypes and be inclusive of those who don’t want to be addressed using gendered words or pronouns.

When an incorrect pronoun or gendered word is used to refer to someone, it’s called misgendering. We all make mistakes, and misgendering a person at some point in time will likely be one of them.

When this happens, it’s important that you apologize and make an effort to use the appropriate language moving forward.

Using gender-neutral language is one way to avoid misgendering completely.

However, it’s important to affirm an individual by using the words they use. When meeting someone for the first time, ask how they like to be referred to or what pronouns they use.

If you’re addressing a group, or if you’re unsure of someone’s pronouns, opt for gender-neutral language, such as “they” or “people.”

Gender-neutral terms

  • Instead of boy(s)/girl(s), man/woman, and men/women, use person, people, or humans.
  • Instead of ladies and gentlemen, use folks.
  • Instead of daughter or son, use child.
  • Instead of sister or brother, use sibling.
  • Instead of niece or nephew, use nibling.
  • Instead of mother or father, use parent.
  • Instead of husband or wife, use partner or spouse.
  • Instead of grandmother or grandfather, use grandparent.

Many people grow up believing there are only two genders. Because of this, it might take some time to wrap your head around the idea that people can be nonbinary.

Be open to learning

The fact that you’re reading this article suggests you want to learn about nonbinary identities, which is a great first step.

This article can’t cover everything there is to know about gender identity. We recommend reading further, on our site and others, to give you a more comprehensive idea about what it means to be nonbinary.

Believe them

Respecting and supporting nonbinary people begins with respecting their identity. If someone tells you they’re nonbinary, believe them. Don’t assume it’s a phase or a fad — it’s who they are.

Yes, it might take a while to stop thinking of them as a boy/girl/man/woman, but if you make an effort to change the way you categorize them in your mind, it will become easier to wrap your head around it.

And when you’ve fully accepted — consciously or unconsciously — that somebody is nonbinary, it’s far easier to show your support and respect.

Don’t out anyone

The world is, unfortunately, quite hostile to nonbinary people. For this reason, it’s not always ideal to tell people that someone is nonbinary, unless they’re explicitly OK with it.

Besides, their gender identity is their business, and they might prefer for it to be private.

If you’re not sure whether someone is “out” as nonbinary, you can ask them. Otherwise, err on the side of caution, and don’t discuss their identity with others.

Use someone’s chosen pronouns

If you make a mistake, simply apologize and correct yourself.

If you’re not sure which pronouns someone uses, ask them. It’s also a good idea to ask them which pronouns they prefer to use in which setting — like at work, with their families, and with acquaintances. This is because many nonbinary people don’t want to be “outed” to certain people (as mentioned above).

Make a habit of sharing your own pronouns so that others may feel more comfortable sharing theirs.

Use inclusive language

This can be as simple as using some gender-neutral terms mentioned above. If you’re addressing a room, for example, use “folks” or “friends” instead of “ladies and gentlemen.”

Don’t be nosy

It’s considered rude to ask a nonbinary person whether they were assigned male or female at birth. If you think about it, you’re pretty much asking them about their genitals — it’s rude and unnecessary.

Teach others

Sharing articles and resources on nonbinary identities helps more people learn. Gently suggest that others use inclusive and gender-neutral language when possible.

Be kind

Remember that a nonbinary person is just that: a person. Be considerate toward them, don’t overstep boundaries, and accept their identity. For more information, read this guide.

By acknowledging and affirming nonbinary gender identities, we create space for the gender diversity that truly exists to emerge. We each have a role to play in ensuring that an environment is safe and supportive.

These resources offer tips on where to start:

  • This first-person essay explains what it can be like to discover you’re nonbinary..
  • This piece from Teen Vogue digs into gender variance throughout history. The site also has a great breakdown on how to use gender-neutral pronouns.
  • This video from BBC Three clarifies what you should and shouldn’t say to someone who is nonbinary.
  • And this video from Gender Spectrum is geared toward parents of children who are nonbinary, touching on what to expect and things to consider.

Mere Abrams is a researcher, writer, educator, consultant, and licensed clinical social worker who reaches a worldwide audience through public speaking, publications, social media (@meretheir), and gender therapy and support services practice onlinegendercare.com. Mere uses their personal experience and diverse professional background to support individuals exploring gender and help institutions, organizations, and businesses to increase gender literacy and identify opportunities to demonstrate gender inclusion in products, services, programs, projects, and content.