What Does it Mean to Be Non-Binary? Experts Explain the Gender Identity

You can't tell if someone identifies as non-binary (or enby) just by looking at them.

For the most part, people typically fall into two categories: male or female—that idea is known as a gender binary. But not everyone fits so perfectly into the man-or-woman categories. That's where the term "non-binary" comes into play.

"Non-binary is a term used to identify a person who does not identify within the gender binary (male or female)," Christy L. Olezeski, PhD, director of Yale Medicine’s Gender Program, tells Health. Essentially, non-binary—sometimes shortened to NB or enby—is a type of gender identity. “Some individuals do not identify as male or female, but as a mixture of the two—something other than male or female or with no gender at all,” she says. “Some folks have an identity that fluctuates over time.”

The Human Rights Campaign defines non-binary as, “an adjective describing a person who does not identify exclusively as a man or a woman. Non-binary people may identify as being both a man and a woman, somewhere in between, or as falling completely outside these categories.” The campaign says that while some non-binary people also identify as transgender, not all non-binary people identify that way.

Similarly, the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) also clarifies that being non-binary is not the same as being intersex, or being born with anatomy that doesn't fit the typical definitions of male or female. The NCTE says most people born as intersex identify with a specific gender, while those who are non-binary are usually born with specifically male or female anatomy.

How can non-binary people identify?

While non-binary is a specific gender identity, it's also often used as an umbrella term for others who don't identify within the typical male or female gender binary. According to the NCTE, many non-binary individuals will simply identify as non-binary. However, according to a 2015 journal entry in the International Review of Psychiatry, there are also a number of specific ways non-binary people may identify. Because of that, "it is important to ask each individual how they identify,” Dr. Olezeski says. Here's what a few non-binary gender identities look like:

  • Agender: Like the name suggests, agender refers to having no gender identity or identifying as gender neutral.
  • Bigender: Those who are bigender identify as having both gender identities of male or female. This can mean they switch from male to female or identify as both simultaneously.
  • Gender fluid: The term gender fluid means that an individual moves between gender identities.
  • Genderqueer: This term encompasses all people who identify as non-binary.
  • Third Gender: Third gender is a term to describe anyone who doesn’t identify with binary options. Hence, a third sex.

What pronouns should you use for non-binary people?

Dr. Olezeski urges the importance of being respectful of pronouns when describing a non-binary person. “They are not preferred pronouns, they are someone's pronouns,” she reminds. “How would you feel if someone used the wrong pronouns for you?”

While most people who are non-binary prefer the pronoun “they,” it never hurts to ask someone how they wish to be identified. (If you wish to do that but are still unsure how, it's helpful to offer your own pronouns first.)

According to The Trevor Project, a non-profit organization focused on suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth, there are a number of pronouns that can be used.

  • She, her, her, hers, and herself
  • He, him, his, his, and himself
  • They, them, their, theirs, and themself
  • Ze/zie, hir, hir, hirs, and hirself
  • Xe, xem, xyr, xyrs, and xemself
  • Ve, ver, vis, vis, and verself

How can you be an ally to the non-binary community?

Once again, this comes down to respecting a person's chosen identity—and that means, first and foremost, to use the chosen name and pronouns of all people, Dr. Olezeski says. It should be noted that you don't necessarily need to understand why a person would choose to identify as non-binary—just that you respect that decision and the person making it.

The NCTE also notes that you can't tell if someone identifies as non-binary just by looking at them, so leave any assumptions you have out of your relationships or interactions with non-binary people—and remember to use the gender pronoun and name that they ask you to use.

You can go further in being an advocate for the non-binary community by supporting their ability to live and dress how they want in all public places, especially at work and in school environments, the NCTE notes. A big one to pay attention to here is bathroom use: "For many non-binary people, using either the women’s or the men’s room might feel unsafe, because others may verbally harass them or even physically attack them," per the NCTE. "Non-binary people should be supported by being able to use the restroom that they believe they will be safest in."

It's also essential to understand that everyone's experiencing being non-binary is different, and the only true way to understand and be an ally for the non-binary community is to familiarize yourself with those who identify as such, through talking to them and listening to their stories.

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