Non-binary - What is it? What does it mean?

Last Updated: 12/10/2021
13 min read
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Non-binary flag

Non-binary which sometimes can be spelled nonbinary or shortened to NBY or NB or enby typically refers to a person whose gender cannot be described as male or female. Nonbinary gender identities are a primary example that there are more than two distinct gender identities.

Nonbinary gender identities prove that the gender spectrum is beyond two genders. It includes multiple gender identities which are not solely male or female. Some nonbinary individuals may identify as two genders or neither of the binary genders. 


Table of contents

Terminology

Nonbinary is an umbrella term. A nonbinary person does not fit the gender binary boxes but that does not mean they are of a wrong gender or have gender dysphoria. The term non-binary is under the transgender umbrella. Even though nonbinary folks have an assigned sex they do not identify as trans. Nonbinary also does not refer to a person's sexual orientation.

Even though the term to describe someone who is neither a man nor a woman, does not feel comfortable with the assigned sex at birth but is not transgender is fairly recent. The word nonbinary became a popular term to describe those who are neither transgender nor cisgender people in the late part of the twentieth century. 

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term as: “relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female”

Genderqueer may be a precursor to non-binary gender identities. Some people choose to use the term genderqueer interchangeably. The terminology may sound similar for most people but being non-binary is not the same as being intersex. Despite the many similarities most intersex people identify as intersex or gender they feel best represents their sex.

Non-binary identities are an example of gender diversity. Most people whose gender identity falls under the nonbinary umbrella can describe themselves as other gender identities. Some of these gender identities may include the following: 

  • Agender
  • Androgyne
  • Bi gender
  • Demigender
  • Genderfluid
  • Libragender
  • Maverique
  • Neutrois

Some nonbinary individuals can be described as lacking specific gender identity. There are many nonbinary people that can be partially aligned with one or both binary sexes. A nonbinary person may have a connection to masculinity and/or femininity but that does not they believe there are only two genders. They are often called viabinary, ideobinary, or male-aligned as well as female-aligned. 

There are also nonbinary people who challenge gender options yet express masculinity and femininity simultaneously. These people identify as androgynous or meso binary. 

On many occasions, a nonbinary individual will not be connected to any of the standard man or woman genders whatsoever. They are not in between male or female, they simply do not identify with either one. Their sexual orientation does not depend on their gender identity.

The use of the word nonbinary to describe people whose gender expression and identity do not fit the example of male or female has become popular in the past decade. That said, the mentions of nonbinary gender identity as well as transgender people date back centuries.

History

Non-binary genders date back as far as 400 B.C. to 200 A.D. Ancient Hindu texts talk about hijras, people who had both masculine and feminine traits in India. Hijras are sometimes viewed as trans women but many historians say they could have been both transgender people as well as nonbinary gender.

Indigenous and non-Western history includes gender-neutral language. In fact, Indigenous people had nonbinary genders and polygender systems for understanding people’s genders. Some scholars argue that European colonizers used the traditionalist male or female sex as a tool for the oppression of Indigenous peoples.

There are many historically-linked labels in cultures around the globe that speak of transgender equality, an identity beyond man or woman, binary notions, and terms that fall under the nonbinary umbrella.

Ancient Times 

  • Some of the earliest mentions of nonbinary persons come from Mesopotamia. The ancient texts reference individuals who are not men or women. Religious priests are described as the third gender. 
  • Buddhist Tipitaka documents four gender categories which include people who have both male and female characteristics. 
  • Native American history includes Two-Spirit people. Two-Spirit people fall under the non-binary umbrella. This term which can only be used by Indigenous persons allows them to reclaim their cultural heritage and identity outside the typical notion of male or female. 
  • There are six genders in the Jewish sacred texts. They may be described as cisgender man, cisgender woman, transgender man, transgender woman, androgynous people with both male and female characteristics, as well as people who may be described as agender. 

1600-1900

There is little information on the genderqueer and nonbinary individuals of the 17th century and up until recent history. A well-known fact is that in English law when there were questions of inheritance at play, people referred to those who did not fit the gender binary as the pronoun “it”. During those days it was considered to be grammatically correct and was in legal terms appropriate to address people who were outside the binary. 

Singular they as a pronoun existed in the English language for years, but grammarians decided that it was not acceptable around 1745. In the 20th century though, nonbinary folks have reclaimed the singular version of a gender-neutral pronoun. 

Modern Day

The terminology gained notoriety in the 1990s. Riki Anne Wilchins used the term genderqueer in the first issue of In Your Face. The term was used to refer to individuals with complex or unnamed gender expressions. 

The term nonbinary is here to stay when it comes to gender identity. There are many prominent people who identify as non-binary. Their openness about gender identity helps raise awareness of non-binary people’s issues. 

Nonbinary Celebrities

Demi Lovato who in 2017 shared that she has a bisexual sexual orientation came out publicly as a nonbinary individual in a post on Instagram. They shared their identity as well as pronouns. Demi’s coming out was welcomed by the showbiz industry and beyond. 

Janelle Monae identified as nonbinary on Twitter. The star retweeted a gif of a nonbinary character with the caption: “Are you a boy or girl? It's an experience.” Monae also added #IAmNonbinary to the tweet. 

Sam Smith came out as a nonbinary person in an interview with the Sunday Times. They said they feel "just as much a woman as I am a man."

Asia Kate Dillon is a real advocate for nonbinary representation on the silver screen. They play a nonbinary character on Showtime’s “Billions” as well as in the 2019 John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum” film starring opposite Keanu Reeves. 

Non-Binary Transition

Celebrities are certainly increasing visibility for nonbinary and gender-fluid people. There truly is no single nonbinary look, and to each person, it is an individual journey. Some nonbinary folks may choose to transition medically by: 

  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Surgical procedures
  • Cosmetic procedures 

There are many non-binary humans that prefer to socially transition rather than involve medical procedures. They may attempt to look more gender neutral in terms of their appearance. 

There are also some non-binary folks that may introduce elements that are either more masculine or feminine, an opposite of their assigned birth sex.

Differences

The umbrella term nonbinary includes many gender identities. Among them are genderqueer and genderfluid. This may explain why some people use the terms interchangeably.

Genderqueer

This term can refer to both gender identity as well as gender expression. The easiest way to distinguish between non-binary and genderqueer is to focus on what the word truly intends to mean. Genderqueer is centered on being queer. 

The word genderqueer is a self-identification term. It is often used by people who challenge the social norms associated with the binary gender. It may be used by individuals to express gender nonconformity. 

Genderfluid

The term gender fluid also refers to gender identity or expression. Being genderfluid typically involves an experience of moving between sex at birth and other genders. It can also mean that a person’s gender expression shifts over a period of time. 

Some people who identify as genderfluid like to explore and challenge the boundaries of binary. Genderfluid folks typically express the need to remain about their gender identity. They do not want to commit to a specific description of their gender. 

Genderfluid people may even fluctuate between a variety of expressions over time. A genderfluid person may also identify as other genders. 

Agender

Agender or gender-free or genderless is someone who identifies as not having a gender identity. This category typically includes many gender identities that do not conform to the traditional binary view of gender. Agender people may fall under the non-binary gender identity umbrella. 

Why Identify As Non-Binary?

To some people non-binary is a more effective term to describe their gender identity and expression. Many nonbinary folks find the term to be recognizable and well understood. 

Nonbinary is also an umbrella term that includes many different identities. This is why non-binary individuals often feel comfortable with using it since it helps communicate more information about who they truly are. 

Pronouns

Non-binary individuals may use a variety of different gender-neutral pronouns. Some non-binary folks like the American actor Amandla Stenberg may even use gender-neutral pronouns alongside gendered ones. Stenberg says: 

"I tend to believe that gender as we've set it up in current-day society doesn't actually exist. I've said before that I'm comfortable with using the pronouns 'they' or 'them' alongside 'she' and 'her' just because that's a conversation that's important to me. I don't necessarily always subscribe to female pronouns just because I don't think that pronouns are necessarily very meaningful."

Every individual is unique. So it is important to share your pronouns in conversation as well as ask the person about the pronouns they prefer using. Some non-English speakers may have their own versions of pronouns, there are languages where gender-neutral pronouns are fairly new and uncommon. Always be respectful of pronouns. Never assume someone’s gender identity based on their gender expression. 

Common pronouns that nonbinary people tend to use in communication are: 

  • - they/them/theirs
  • - ze/hir/hirs
  • - ze/zir/zirs
  • - xe/xim/xem
  • - ee/em/eir
  • - ve/ver/vis
  • -tey/ter/tem

Remember there are some non-binary folks that do not use pronouns at all. They prefer to be referred to only by their name. 

Flag and Symbols

Some nonbinary persons use the Trans Pride flag to this day. The flag was created by a transgender woman named Monica Helms in 1999. The colors of the transgender flag stand for the following: 

  • Pink traditionally used for baby girls represents women
  • Blue traditionally used for baby boy represents men
  • White represents gender-neutral and non-binary, people

Transgender flag

The flag is most often associated with trans people but since transgender is an umbrella term that sometimes includes nonbinary, this flag continues to be among the flags for nonbinary individuals.

A genderqueer flag is also sometimes used by the nonbinary community. It was designed by a genderqueer writer and advocate Marilyn Roxie in 2011. The flag colors are lavender, white, and green. According to Roxie, the lavender stripe is a mix of blue and pink which represents androgyny, white represents gender-neutral people and green represents identities outside the gender binary. 

https://lgbta.wikia.org/wiki/Genderqueer?file=Genderqueerflag.png

Nonbinary people identify most frequently with a four-striped flag. In 2014 Kye Rowan created the most commonly used flag to represent nonbinary gender identities. It was designed for non-binary folks who did not feel that the genderqueer flag represented them well enough.

The colors of the flag are yellow, white, purple, and black. 

  • The yellow stripe represents people whose gender exists outside of the binary
  • The white stripe, people with many or all genders
  • The purple, people with genders considered a mix of male and female
  • The black for people who identify as not having a gender.

Nonbinary flagNonbinary flag

There are also several alternate versions of the nonbinary flag available online. 

As far as the symbol to represent nonbinary people goes the most common one was created in 2012. The symbol essentially deviates from the typical manhood and womanhood symbols. It is similar in its design but instead of a cross or an arrow, it features an X or a star on the end. The X stands for the non-binary gender, pronouns, and titles. 

Non-binary symbolNon-binary symbol

An alternate version of the symbol: 

Alternate nonbinary symbolAlternate nonbinary symbol

There is another symbol that is often used by nonbinary individuals on social media. It is an astronomical symbol for comets. The symbol was suggested since the male and female signs both represent planets. The symbol shows a variety of identities that fall under the non-binary umbrella. 

Maverique symbolMaverique symbol

How to Know if You are Non-Binary?

There really is no test to take to figure out one’s identity. It is a personal journey to self-discovery. For some people, the term may feel comfortable using it right away. For others, it may take quite some time to get used to it. 

The important thing is to understand that anyone whose gender identity falls outside the gender binary may identify as non-binary. Whether a person feels more feminine, masculine, neither or both does not limit them in their use of the word nonbinary to describe their gender identity. 

Non-binary people can define themselves in a variety of ways. So, if you feel like you do not fit the boxes of the standardized binary vision of gender. If you encompass masculine and feminine characteristics. If the sex assigned at birth doesn’t quite feel right to you then you may identify as a nonbinary person. 

What Does It Mean To Be Non-Binary?

You may choose to go through a social or medical transition in order to correspond with your gender identity. 

You may want to come out to your friends and family and explain what nonbinary means to you. Some people include their pronouns as well as ask others to use gender-neutral language to affirm their gender. 

There are many nonbinary individuals who prefer to use gender-neutral spaces including public restrooms, while others choose to segregated options based on sex assigned at birth for easier access, safety, and convenience. 

There truly is no one way to be a nonbinary or genderqueer. It is all about how non-binary gender feels to you and what identity means to you as a person. 

As mentioned before, there isn’t one way or a right way to be nonbinary. Being nonbinary is about knowing yourself and doing what’s right for you. Nonbinary gender identity allows people to explore their true core self and express what feels authentic to them to the world. 

What If I No Longer Feel Non-Binary?

It is absolutely okay to explore your identity in order to gain a better view of yourself as a human being. Sometimes labels change. Nobody can tell you how to feel. 

If the term no longer resonates with you then you may find a term that fits you much better as a person. 

Supporting Non-Binary People

It is very important to raise awareness and provide a voice to the LGBTQ+ community. Non-binary individuals need your support in terms of the fight for equality. There are many nonbinary as well as genderqueer people who face discrimination, harassment, violence just because of who they are. There are countries where being nonbinary or transgender can be punishable by law.

According to the Human Rights Campaign in many places of the world people can be persecuted or worse killed because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.

If you want to support nonbinary people start by showing your respect for their pronouns, boundaries, expression. Do not ask uncomfortable or inappropriate questions. Educate yourself before starting a conversation about gender identity and expression. 

People often share information about themselves if they feel comfortable during the conversation. Avoid being nosy but do ask about preferred pronouns in a polite way. 

You can also do some of the following to show your support for nonbinary individuals: 

  • Join LGBTQ+ organizations focusing on nonbinary and genderqueer issues
  • Seek out educational materials on gender identity, in particular, nonbinary and genderqueer
  • Volunteer at LGBTQ+ events 
  • Promote gender inclusive spaces and language at work, school, community centers

Commonly used non-binary flag: 

Nonbinary flagNonbinary flag

The oldest version of the non-binary flag: 

The oldest version of the non-binary flagThe oldest version of the non-binary flag

Alternate non-binary flag:

Alternate non-binary flagAlternate non-binary flag

Another alternate version with four stripes: 

Alternate version with four stripesAlternate version with four stripes

A version of the flag also available online: 

Alternate non-binary flagAlternate non-binary flag

Five stripe version: 

Five stripe versionFive stripe version

Another alternate: 

Alternate nonbinary flagAlternate nonbinary flag

A version available online:

Cryptocrew's non-binary flagCryptocrew's non-binary flag

Another alternate flag: 

L2 A Six's alternate flagL2 A Six's alternate flag

Alternate flag by ExnoticEAlternate flag by ExnoticE

8 stripe version of the non-binary flag: 

Alternate Pastel 8 stripe Non-binary flag by PanDemiBoyPrideAlternate Pastel 8 stripe Non-binary flag by PanDemiBoyPride

Non-binary symbol: 

Nonbinary symbolNonbinary symbol

An alternate version of the non-binary symbol: 

Alternate non-binary symbolAlternate non-binary symbol

A comet-like symbol: 

Maverique symbol

Maverique symbol

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Julia Sotska is a former Senior PR Manager at Taimi. She hails from Toronto, Canada where she studied Communications and Journalism Broadcasting. Julia is an experienced journalist, TV producer, editor and communications manager. Her work has been featured in prominent publications in Canada, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and more. Julia is passionate about LGBTQ+ and disability rights, mental health, wellness, and parenthood.

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