101: what does it mean to be non-binary?

June 16, 2021

Image by Sharon McCutcheon from Pixabay

Jamie Aldridge explores the complexity of the many gender-nonconforming identities

Non-binary is an umbrella term for gender identities that are neither 100% male nor 100% female‍; identities that are outside the gender binary.

It’s a complicated identity that’s not as well-understood or as visible as the term transgender or trans, so people might not feel able to be open about their non-binary gender identity.

Research by Stonewall consistently shows that non-binary people feel the need to hide their identity in order to avoid discrimination, to an even greater degree than binary trans people. 24% of non-binary people are not out as non-binary to anyone in their family, compared to 17% of binary trans people.

The term covers many experiences of gender identity that don’t align with my own. You can read more about my non-binary gender identity here.

What does it mean to identify as ‘non-binary’?
Non-binary people may feel their gender identity is androgynous (both masculine and feminine), neutral (neither masculine nor feminine), or which varies over time (genderfluid).

People may use the term ‘non-binary’ to describe their gender identity, or they may use other terms such as genderqueer, agender or genderfluid, depending on their personal experience of their gender.

What issues do non-binary people face?
There are a number of issues faced by non-binary people, such as:

  • Lack of awareness of what it means to be non-binary and the different labels non-binary people might use to describe themselves, such as genderqueer or neutrois;
  • Lack of awareness of gender-neutral forms of address, such as the title ‘Mx.’ (pronounced ‘mix’), use of they / them pronouns, or use of neopronouns such as xe / xem and fae / faer;
  • Feeling forced to live in one gender role because of societal gender norms (society choosing their gender for them);
  • Lack of awareness about non-binary gender identities among healthcare staff, leading to difficulties accessing gender-affirming treatment (being addressed using the right pronouns, for example) or transition-related healthcare (such as hormone therapy);
  • Higher incidence of mental health conditions due to discrimination and prejudice;
  • Societal prejudice against anyone who ‘queers’ (doesn’t conform to) the gender roles enforced by our society and upbringing;
  • Lack of legal recognition of non-binary gender identities; currently, the only gender options on identification documents are M (male) and F (female). These options exclude non-binary people who don’t identify with the M or F labels.

If a non-binary person’s friends, family and wider community understand more about gender diversity, they are less likely to face these issues.

L-R: the non-binary, genderqueer and genderfluid pride flags

How common is it to be non-binary?
It’s difficult to give an exact (and accurate) figure of the number of people who identify as non-binary. A 2011 survey conducted by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 0.4% of its 10,039 respondents identified as non-binary, with a further 1% identifying as a binary trans person.

However, this may not reflect the true number of non-binary people living in the UK, partly because non-binary people don’t have legal recognition in the same way trans men and trans women do, and due to varying definitions of being non-binary.

This may also be due to the lack of social awareness or acceptance of non-binary identities, leading people to hide the fact that they’re non-binary. Over half (52%) of non-binary people alter the way they dress to avoid harassment and discrimination, compared to 40% of binary trans people.

Do all non-binary people call themselves ‘non-binary’?
Different people use different terms to describe themselves. For example, a gay woman could describe herself as a lesbian, a lesbian trans woman, or simply queer. Some phrases people use to describe their non-binary gender identity include:

  • I am non-binary
  • I identify as non-binary
  • I am genderqueer
  • I am genderfluid
  • I am agender
  • I am gender-nonconforming
  • I am queer

A good rule of thumb is to use the term or word that the person uses to describe themselves. If you’re unsure what they like to be called, or what pronouns they use, ask them (in private).

How can I tell if someone is non-binary?
Put simply, you can’t. It’s not possible to tell from the outside that a person has a non-binary gender identity because your gender identity is an internal experience that isn’t necessarily reflected on the outside.

It’s important to know that gender expression is different from gender identity. Gender expression is how you present or appear externally, for example, what clothes you wear and the mannerisms you have. Gender identity is how you experience your gender internally, in your own mind. Someone can favour wearing skirts and dresses and not necessarily identify with a feminine gender identity.

Gender identity and gender expression aren’t the same. Image by Disabled And Here

What can I do to support non-binary people?
The best things allies can do to support non-binary people is to listen to non-binary people themselves. Follow non-binary activists such as CN Lester, Meg-John Barker or Wednesday Holmes.

You could follow non-binary celebrities such as:

  • Singer Sam Smith (identifies as non-binary and uses ‘they’ pronouns);
  • Actor and director Elliot Page (identifies as non-binary and a trans man and uses ‘he’ and ‘they’ pronouns);
  • Actor and model Cara Delevingne (identifies as genderfluid and uses ‘she’ pronouns);
  • Actor and singer Demi Lovato (identifies as non-binary and uses ‘they’ pronouns).

You could follow or get involved with LGBT and equality groups such as cliniQ, a transsexual health and wellbeing service, or akt, a charity that supports young LGBT people with housing issues. You can read up on non-binary people’s experiences at queer bookshops Category Is Books and Gay’s The Word.

For more information, check out the following web pages: