Humans throughout history have observed patterns among our species (and others) to more easily group and distinguish between similar and different traits.
These groupings are often binary in nature, meaning that they relate to or involve two things. Sometimes, these two things are positioned as mutually exclusive or in opposition to one another.
An example of these socially constructed and systematically reinforced groupings are the seemingly dominant gender categories of man and woman.
There have always been people whose existence and lived experiences don’t fit neatly into these gender categories, regardless of whether history books and other institutional recognize it.
Here’s what you need to know.
Nonbinary is both an umbrella term encompassing many gender identities and a singular gender identity label.
As a singular gender identity, nonbinary describes genders that exist outside of the binary, or that can’t be described as exclusively woman or man.
It’s important to note that nonbinary is a gender identity, not a form of gender expression.
The term “nonbinary” tells you something about who a person is — not about what they might look like.
Nonbinary people can have presentations and expressions that are:
- gender conforming
- gender nonconforming
There isn’t one specific way to be, look, or act nonbinary.
Nonbinary identity provides a framework for understanding and celebrating nuanced and complex experiences of gender that aren’t rooted in assigned sex or fall outside of binary gender traits, expectations, norms, and stereotypes.
Although the term nonbinary has become more commonly used in the past decade, nonbinary identities and nonbinary people have been around for centuries.
Nonbinary gender has been recorded as far back as 400 B.C. to 200 A.D. when hijras — people in India who identified as having both masculine and feminine traits — were referenced in ancient Hindu texts.
Early documentation of nonbinary genders is more commonly found in Indigenous and non-Western cultures, some of which use trigender and polygender systems for categorizing and understanding people’s genders.
European colonizers forced a white-centered binary construction of sex-based gender identity and expression onto Indigenous people in a violent attempt to invalidate their lived experiences.
Another motivator? To erase this vital and rich part of cultural history that teaches that nonbinary genders are naturally occurring and should be celebrated.
Binary gender has been used to oppress communities and cultures across time.
Terminology such as “Two-Spirit” — which falls under the nonbinary umbrella and should only be claimed by Indigenous people — gives Indigenous communities a way to revive histories and affirm their cultural roles and identities outside of the white Eurocentric notions of woman and man.
There are many more labels that fall within the nonbinary umbrella, and not all of them are culture-specific.
This quickly expanding set of vocabulary provides many people with the opportunity to locate and validate their personal and cultural experience of gender while communicating it to others.
Gender roles are the behaviors, presentations, stereotypes, acceptable traits, and norms society ascribes to someone based on their perceived or assigned sex or gender.
A nonbinary framework for understanding gender is founded on the notion that sex-based labels assigned at birth (such as male, female, girl, or boy) don’t determine your:
- core sense of self
Many people who are nonbinary reject gender roles and the rigid expectations and perceptions attached to them.
Anyone whose gender identity or experience can’t be exclusively captured by using the terms “man” or “woman” can identify as nonbinary.
Although nonbinary people can personally self-define this term with slight variation, it’s most often used to describe experiences that:
- encompass both masculine and feminine traits
- don’t align with the sex-based and gender-based attributes imposed at birth
In practice, being nonbinary looks like having a core sense of self that can’t be exclusively described as man or woman and using language that respects and sees your personhood first and foremost.
Some nonbinary people feel that gender-neutral language is more affirming of their gender, while others use both gender-neutral and binary language to describe and affirm who they are.
One person who’s nonbinary might need access to a gender-neutral restroom, while another nonbinary person might prefer to use a sex-segregated space based on safety, convenience, access, and comfort.
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.
The gender identity label a person uses to describe themself doesn’t necessarily tell you what pronouns to use.
Here’s a list (in no particular order) of pronouns nonbinary people commonly use:
- gender-neutral pronouns, such as they/them/theirs
- neo pronouns, such as ze/hir/hirs or ze/zir/zirs
- binary pronouns, such as she/her/hers and he/him/his
- multiple sets of pronouns, such as she/they or he/they
- any pronouns, so long as they’re used respectfully
Some nonbinary people don’t use any pronouns at all. Some feel most affirmed and respected when only being referred to as their name.
No matter your gender identity, it can be a good idea to introduce yourself to others with your name and pronouns. This may prompt others to share theirs.
If someone doesn’t share their pronouns freely, you should respect their decision and avoid pressing the subject further.
If you’re unsure of what terminology to use in a given situation, deferring to gender-neutral language is typically (though not always) experienced as an inclusive effort.
The umbrella term nonbinary includes gender identities such as genderqueer and genderfluid, which results in some overlap and similarities among the terms.
“Genderqueer” can refer to both gender nonconforming identity and gender expression.
Unlike nonbinary, both the word itself and associated identity are centered around being queer.
“Genderfluid” can also refer to gender identity or expression.
It often involves the experience of moving between genders or having a gender or presentation that changes over a particular period of time.
For example, a person’s gender identity or expression can change from moment to moment, day to day, month to month, year to year, or decade to decade.
Unlike nonbinary, gender fluid conveys specific information about the evolving nature of gender over time.
Someone might opt to use the term nonbinary over others because it has become more recognizable (and Google-able) than many of the more specific gender identities under the umbrella.
As a result, using this term might be a clear and effective way of communicating something about a core part of oneself that’s complex, nuanced, and sometimes hard to explain.
Nonbinary gender might be for you if you:
- resonate with any of the above
- experience your gender as both masculine and feminine
- don’t identify with the sex-based categories or gender expectations assigned to you
Nonbinary gender provides people with a space to explore and actualize an identity and expression in a way that feels aligned with their core sense of self.
Sometimes people identify with the term nonbinary in the longer term, while others identify with it for a period of time in the process of exploring or understanding their gender with greater clarity.
If you feel like this term no longer fits, it probably means you gained some helpful information about yourself along the way.
Figuring out why these shifts occur can be both challenging and anxiety-provoking.
Most often, finding the answer involves reflection about:
- your sense of self
- what gender means to you
- how gender relates to your entire personhood
- how gender relates to your experience in your body
- how gender relates to your experience in the world
If you know someone who’s exploring their gender or who identifies as nonbinary, you can support them by checking in to find out the ways they want you to be supportive while simultaneously respecting and protecting their boundaries, right to time, and privacy.
Remember, some people are more comfortable sharing than others. Not everyone wants to speak openly about their gender and pronouns upon request.
People typically share when they’re ready and will let you know if they want you to inform or correct others.
In the meantime, there are lots of other ways to show up as an ally. For more on this, check out “10 Ways to Step Up As An Ally to Non-binary People.”
If you want to learn more about gender, there are many online resources out there. For example:
You can also check out our list of 64 different terms to describe gender identity and expression.
If you want to learn more about nonbinary gender, specifically, check out the following articles:
Mere Abrams is a researcher, writer, educator, consultant, and licensed clinical social worker who reaches a worldwide audience through public speaking, publications, social media (@meretheir), and gender therapy and support services practice onlinegendercare.com. Mere uses their personal experience and diverse professional background to support individuals exploring gender and help institutions, organizations, and businesses to increase gender literacy and identify opportunities to demonstrate gender inclusion in products, services, programs, projects, and content.