When people see me or hear my name, they usually assume I’m a woman and go by she/her pronouns. But they’d only be partially right. I do identify as a woman, but I also identify as nonbinary (yes, you can be both — more on that later) and use they/them pronouns as well. Unfortunately, being nonbinary is an identity that many people still misunderstand.
What does it mean to be nonbinary?
Nonbinary sex educator and therapist Aida Manduley, MSW defines a nonbinary person as "someone who does not identify as a man or a woman, or solely as one of those two genders." It's often used as "an umbrella term for other identities that fall outside the man/woman dichotomy and may be more specific," they add. "However this person identifies their gender, it does not neatly follow the binary of man and woman."
That definition’s pretty broad because being nonbinary means different things to different people. To me, it means that I reject the whole concept of gender. Growing up, I never felt people were wrong when they called me a woman, but it felt like a label imposed on me rather than one that fit. Then, in college, I learned about nonbinary identity, and that did fit. Sure, I have likes and dislikes that some might label “feminine” or “masculine,” but I don’t feel any need to label them that way. The gender binary has made me feel pigeonholed, and I don’t want to identify with it.
Here are some things people tend to get wrong about being nonbinary, in my own experience and that of other nonbinary people.
1. There’s No Such Thing As “Looking Nonbinary”
Most people understand that you don’t have to wear dresses to be a cis woman or wear pants to be a cis man. Yet many people seem to believe you need an androgynous style to be nonbinary, creating the assumption that I and other nonbinary people who wear women’s clothes must be women. But you can’t tell how someone identifies based on what they look like, which is why it’s so important to ask.
“I wish that people wouldn't automatically use she/her pronouns just because of how I present,” says 19-year-old Kelley Cantrell. “They need to stop gendering people's presentations.”
“I wear my hair long, and I'm coded as feminine, read as a cis woman. That doesn't invalidate the fact that I'm nonbinary,” agrees 24-year-old Alaina Leary. “There is no one specific way that it looks to be nonbinary. Nonbinary people have all types of gender presentations just like women and men do.”
2. Being Nonbinary Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Have Any Other Gender Identity
Some people identify as nonbinary and as a man or woman or trans or something else. I personally identify as a nonbinary woman because, to me, this identity acknowledges both that I don’t have an innate identification with any gender and that I’ve been socialized as a woman.
Having more than one gender identity means different things to others, though. 24-year-old Rey Noble identifies as both nonbinary and a woman to acknowledge that she loves her female-coded body but doesn’t always feel it accurately represents her.
Some people also identify as both nonbinary and trans. They may take hormones or undergo gender-affirming surgery, but this doesn’t take away from their nonbinary identity. Others are unable to afford these kinds of medical treatments, and some are interested in certain interventions (like perhaps laser facial hair removal) but not others, says Manduley. “And things can also change over time,” they add. “The way people relate to their bodies changes over time, regardless of their gender identity.”
3. Being Nonbinary Doesn’t Mean Feeling Uncomfortable in Your Body
There’s a societal misconception that if your genitals and identity don’t “match,” you will feel uncomfortable with your body. But in reality, there’s no such thing as “matching” when it comes to gender and genitals. Who’s to say that having a penis or a vulva doesn’t “match” a nonbinary identity? Since there’s no one way to be nonbinary, this identity can match all kinds of bodies.
Some believe that nonbinary people don’t want to be touched on their chests or genitals by sexual partners, says Manduley. “While trans, nonbinary, and/or gender-nonconforming people are more likely to experience gender-related dysphoria, there are tons of people who otherwise don't want their genitals or chests touched during sex anyway,” they explain. Instead of making assumptions, they suggest asking "are there any parts of your body you want me to pay more or less attention to?” or “what words do you prefer I use (or prefer I avoid) for the body parts we'll be using for sex?"
4. Not All Nonbinary People Go By They/Them Pronouns
Nonbinary people can also have a variety of pronouns. Some go by they/them, some go by she/her or he/him, some go by both, and some go by more than that. The only way you can know is to ask.
Similarly, some nonbinary people will go by any pronoun, while others have a strong preference and feel deeply unacknowledged when it’s not honored. 21-year-old Yven likens it to being called by the wrong name. “There’s a real physical pang when someone calls me by the incorrect names,” they say.
5. We Are Not All Intersex, Transgender, or Anything Else People Assume We Are
There’s some confusion about what it means to be nonbinary. Some equate it with being intersex — that is, having a variety of sex characteristics that fall outside the traditional understanding of male or female — but it has nothing to do with your biology. Others equate being nonbinary with being transgender, i.e. identifying with a gender other than the one you were assigned at birth. Are nonbinary people trans? Some nonbinary people feel this definition applies to them, but others don’t. Nonbinary people have a variety of gender expressions.
6. We Have a Variety of Sexual Orientations
Similarly, sexual orientation and gender identity are two separate things. Someone can be cisgender and queer, and they can also be transgender or nonbinary and straight. Or, they can have any of these gender identities and choose not to label their sexual orientation. Sexual orientation generally refers to what gender(s) you are attracted to, whereas gender identity refers to what gender(s) you identify as.
In addition, if you’re attracted to a nonbinary person, that doesn’t determine what your own sexual orientation is. Sexual orientation is a complex aspect of someone’s identity that may involve who they’re attracted to, who they date, who they sleep with, what communities they feel they fit into, and what label simply resonates.
7. Nonbinary Identity Is Not Just a Quirk or Trend
Being nonbinary is not just a personality trait or phase; it’s a real identity that's existed for thousands of years.
“People are becoming more accustomed to the idea of transgender people, since it’s easier to explain the idea of feeling more attuned to the ‘opposite gender,’ but something that's in the middle or completely absent from the gender spectrum at all is still difficult,” says Yven. “I have people asking me what that feels like and then dismissing it when I describe it, or trying to say it’s more of a personality quirk rather than a genuine experience.” Manduley also comes across the idea that nonbinary identity is just a trend — or, as they put it, "a Tumblr invention."
But some cultures that have long acknowledged people outside the gender binary.
8. We Don’t All Feel We Were “Born in the Wrong Body”
This is a common narrative about transgender people as well as nonbinary people, and while it’s true for some, it doesn’t make the identity of someone who does not relate to the “born in the wrong body” narrative less valid.
I personally don’t feel I was born in the wrong body; I feel I was assigned the wrong gender based on people’s misconceptions about my body. My nonbinary identity isn’t the result of my brain chemistry; it’s a reflection of my disagreement with the whole system of gender.
"There's no nonbinary card people have to get validated via distress about their bodies," says Manduley. "Relatedly, dysphoria can be common and is sometimes influenced by the ways in which society (at large and even LGBTQ-specific spaces) often pushes people to gender binaries and leaves nonbinary people feeling broken, confused, and unsettled, like they're doing something wrong for 'not picking a side already.'"
Similarly, nonbinary people don't always feel they were "born that way," Manduley adds. "For some people, their realization (or even discomfort with a binary assignment of man or woman) doesn't materialize until later in life," they explain. "For some, there's little to no distress, and just an internal acknowledgement that their gender is different and/or more complex than man or woman."
9. You Don’t Have to Be Equally “Masculine” and “Feminine” to Be Nonbinary
“I'd like people to know that nonbinary isn't just ‘you are 50% man and 50% woman,’” says 23-year-old Kay Bashe. Nonbinary people identify as feminine and masculine to different degrees, just like men and women, and that may even change from time to time. Some don't identify with masculinity or femininity at all.
It’s not possible for anyone else to say how “masculine” or “feminine” someone is. Masculinity and femininity are just arbitrary labels we give certain traits. What seems masculine to one culture or person might seem feminine to another. And none of them are right or wrong.
10. You Don’t Have To Prove You’re Nonbinary
I used to feel like a fraud for saying I was nonbinary because I didn’t do anything differently from when I identified as a woman. I dressed the same, I acted the same, and I didn’t talk about being nonbinary with many people.
Being nonbinary doesn’t have to be a huge deal, though. You don’t have to do anything special or come out to anyone or behave any differently than you did before. The thing about gender is that it’s totally personal to you.
“Being nonbinary isn't as difficult or complicated as it might seem,” says Noble. “It's messy and weird in the fact that it's hard to think outside of the box that society constructed for us, but ultimately, it's a term that is welcoming and accepting of whatever you need for it to mean to you. It's something you can create for yourself.”
11. Our Gender Identity Is Not All (and, Often, Not Even a Big Part) of Who We Are
Since calling yourself nonbinary is a choice that makes you stand out from the crowd, people may focus on this and see it as the biggest part of who you are. And for some people, it is. But the same way that being a man or woman doesn’t always have to mean very much to someone, neither does being nonbinary.
Personally, I think of myself as an individual above all else. My gender identity is a small part of me that says little about my personality, my interests, or my values. I’ve always thought it was silly to assign people different roles, qualities, and professions due to their gender, and being nonbinary doesn’t change that!
12. Learning All These Things Isn’t Excessive Political Correctness — It’s Part of Being a Nice Person
Why is it worth our time to unlearn these assumptions, educate ourselves about nonbinary identity, and try to understand how the people in our own lives identify? Because it makes us more supportive friends, partners, family members, and human beings.
“For people who don't identify as something outside of their assigned at birth gender, it can be difficult to understand the experience nonbinary and trans people as a whole go through,” says Yven. “But learning to accept that people have completely different lives and experiences is part of being human. Supporting that someone is trying to be more comfortable in themselves is something that society should strive for and encourage.”
This article was first published in 2018 and has been updated to include more information.
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