In my first post of this series, How to Be an Ally: Learning the Difference Between Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation, I wrote about the differences between gender identity and gender expression.
For this next installment, I want to go over the gender identity of non-binary. I'll also explain why, for the first time in my life, I'm excited for my upcoming appointment at the DMV.
Non-binary means "someone who does not identify as a man or a woman, or solely as one of those two genders."
A non-binary person may identify as having two gender identities. For example, someone could identify "as non-binary and as a woman". That would make them bigender (having two genders). A non-binary person might identify as agender or genderfree (having no gender); being genderfluid (moving between genders); or as third gender.
A non-binary identity does not mean the person is intersex (but intersex people can identify as non-binary). Non-binary people may define themselves as transgender or they may not. This tends to vary based on the definition of transgender being used as well as their personal definition of non-binary.
myths about being non-binary
Let's dispel a few of the most common myths about non-binary people.
Myth #1: All non-binary people will use they/them pronouns.
This is not true, as many non-binary people will use she/her, he/him, they/them, or a combination. There's no standardized reason why someone might prefer "they/them and he/him" to "they/them" or "he/him" alone.
As is always the case with pronouns, the best way to find out what pronouns someone prefers is to ask them directly. One easy way is to introduce your own, "By the way, I use he/him pronouns and just realized I haven't asked you what your pronouns are yet - which do you prefer?" People generally appreciate being asked their pronouns and would rather be asked than misgendered.
Myth #2: Non-binary people look and dress androgynously.
This could be true, or it could not be. There's no set way non-binary people dress. Non-binary people can and do dress in traditionally masculine or feminine ways, a combination, neither really, or alternate among several different styles. There's no one particular way to dress like a non-binary person. If you're non-binary and wearing clothes, that's how a non-binary person dresses.
To restate one of the major points of Part I of this series, gender expression (how you dress, shave or don't shave, etc - the outside things other people observe) and gender identity (how you feel about yourself on the inside) do not have to match.
Until gender expression is not socially penalized and discriminated against, there are many reasons why someone might not be able to express themselves publicly to match the way they feel inside.
Alternately, someone who is genderfluid might dress traditionally masculine one day, traditionally feminine the next. This expression perfectly matches their gender identity as a non-binary, genderfluid person.
Myth #3: Non-binary is a label that is trendy right now but will soon pass and be replaced with the next fad.
This is an exceptionally hurtful myth about non-binary people. It echoes previous myths about other groups, like the offensive myths that all bisexual people are sexually promiscuous or that lesbians only prefer women because they were traumatized by men. It's a common way queer people have been discriminated against: people say we are confused, broken or temporary.
The truth is that non-binary people have existed for as long as people and gender have existed. Non-binary gender identities were present within many different cultures throughout history. Labels may change from place to place and from time to time, but there have always been people with non-binary gender identities.
what non-binary means to me
Personally I identify as non-binary and use the pronouns they/them. I'm biologically female but have never identified with my biology. When my peers in early elementary school started really differentiating between "girls" and "boys", I felt frustrated and left out.
I hated being called a "tomboy" by well-meaning adults. A tomboy meant "a girl who likes boy things". I had two problems with that: 1) girls can like anything because there are no "boy things" and 2) I wasn't a girl who liked boy things, because I wasn't a girl at all.
I had zero examples of gender-nonconforming people in my life and no role models to help me better articulate what I thought my role was on the gender spectrum. Regardless, from a fairly young age I was adamant that it was a kind of spectrum. I knew I believed this because I felt like everyone was always reading me on the wrong place on it.
I very much identify with Tris Mamone's account of "fitting in until you don't" as a non-binary person:
"For a brief moment I was one of the girls until the subject of the ridiculous things men do popped up. At first I nodded in agreement with the shitty things men do, but then one of the women would say, 'Men just don’t listen! Oh, uh, no offense, Tris.' Everything was going so well until someone had to point out that I’m not one of the girls after all. That’s when I would walk away and play with the family dog. Social dysphoria struck again."
Dogs are always a safe bet. They usually don't make harsh judgments about your gender presentation or lack of conformity. I've played with a lot of dogs. Cats are good, too.
Today, I feel comfortable using a non-binary label. I tend to use it interchangeably with the term "genderqueer" when describing myself. Not all non-binary people do. (Here's a deeper history of the term "genderqueer"; language is fascinating.)
As of 2019, California has started allowing non-binary people to select a third gender option for their driver's license.
So in July when I go in to renew my license, I'll be able to select not "M" or "F", but "X".
I'm not looking forward to the DMV queue, but I am very excited for the opportunity to identify myself legally as who I've always been all along.
How to learn more: talk to us!
I know that personally I appreciate being asked to share my perspective by my cisgender friends. Especially when it doesn't feel like a challenge or a judgment, I am happy to talk about my gender identity and what it means to me.
If you have a question for someone they'd probably appreciate you asking, instead of making an assumption. It's generally better say something like, "I'd like to hear more about how you identify gender-wise if you want to tell me about it". That gives the person an open-ended way to volunteer as little or as much information as they want.
And of course, thanks to the internet, you can learn a lot about non-binary people just by reading first-person accounts in articles and blogs.
Here's a few resources to get you started:
My Genderation (video): This Is What Non-binary Looks Like
Curve: 10 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Non-Binary
Teen Vogue: 9 Things People Get Wrong About Being Non-Binary
National Center for Transgender Equality: Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive
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