What Does It Mean to Identify as Nonbinary?

Medically reviewed by Janet Brito, PhD, LCSW, CST on October 20, 2017Written by Mere Abrams, MSW, ASW

What is nonbinary?

The term “nonbinary” can mean different things to different people. At its core, it’s used to describe someone whose gender identity isn’t exclusively male or female.

If someone tells you they’re nonbinary, it’s always important to ask what being nonbinary means to them. Some people who are nonbinary experience their gender as both male and female, and others experience their gender as neither male nor female.

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

Although nonbinary is often regarded as a new idea, the identifier has been around for as long as civilization has. In fact, nonbinary gender has been recorded as far back as 400 B.C. to 200 A.D., when Hijras — people in India who identified as beyond male or female — were referenced in ancient Hindu texts.

India is one of many countries around the world with language and a social culture that acknowledges those whose gender can’t be exclusively categorized as male or female.

Do you have to be transgender to identify as nonbinary?

Nonbinary gender has to do with who someone knows themself to be. Some nonbinary people identify as transgender, while others do not.

This may sound confusing, but when laid out, it’s actually very simple. A trans nonbinary person is someone who doesn’t identify with the sex that was assigned at birth (trans) and also has a gender identity that can’t be categorized as exclusively male or female (nonbinary).

A nonbinary person who doesn’t identify as trans may partially identify with the sex assigned at birth, as well as have a gender identity that can’t be categorized as strictly male or female.

Understanding gender as a spectrum

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 world history have laid an important groundwork for how we understand gender identity today.

What’s more, sex isn’t always binary — even on a biological level. One in every 2000 people are born with an intersex condition. Intersex is 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 or female 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 isn’t false — it’s just incomplete. Many people, intersex or not, have a mix of biological traits or gender expressions that falls outside of 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 that 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 that the sexual characteristics you’re born with may not always align with your gender identity.

Nonbinary gender identities

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

This includes identifiers like:

  • genderqueer
  • agender
  • gender fluid
  • androgynous
  • boi
  • bigender
  • multigender

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.

Is nonbinary the same as genderqueer?

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 male or female.

Placing “gender” in front of the word “queer” conveys the idea that those who’re 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 preferred identifier.

Nonbinary pronouns

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 only 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 preferred pronouns.

TakeawayYou 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.

How to start using 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 makes 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 to describe themself. 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 are 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 and brother, use sibling.
  • Instead of niece and nephew, use nibling.
  • Instead of mother and father, use parent.
  • Instead of husband and wife, use partner or spouse.
  • Instead of grandmother or grandfather, use grandparent.

The bottom line

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 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 guide covers nonbinary gender identities in-depth, touching on individual experiences, mental health, and more.
  • This piece from Teen Vogue digs into gender variance throughout world history. They also have 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 identifies as 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

Mere Abrams is a nonbinary writer, speaker, educator, and advocate. Mere's vision and voice bring a deeper understanding of gender to our world. Collaborating with the The San Francisco Department of Public Health and The UCSF Child and Adolescent Gender Center, Mere develops programs and resources for trans and nonbinary youth. Mere’s perspective, writing, and advocacy can be found on social media, at conferences across the United States, and in books on gender identity.

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