We often sort things into binaries, systems with only two categories. The categories often take the form of “this” or “not this.” For example, fiction and nonfiction. Free and priced. These labels sometimes work when there are clear-cut differences between inanimate objects. However, people are rarely so simple.
The gender binary is the idea that all people are either entirely male or entirely female. No exceptions, nothing in between. We’ll point out how that idea is flawed and how gender identity is much more colorful than black and white.
What is non-binary?
Imagine if someone asked you “What color is Orange? Red or Yellow?” It’s neither. After all, not all colors are either red or yellow. Many are combinations of both in different proportions. Plus there isn’t just one shade of red or yellow. There are infinitely many colors along a spectrum, all of them relative to the person experiencing them.
This is one example of how nature often works in spectra. Humans are another. We come in many skin colors, heights, shapes, abilities, and personalities. It shouldn’t be surprising that gender identity isn’t as clear-cut as male or female. Those who identify as something besides 100% male or 100% female may call themselves non-binary or NB.
Another common name for non-binary is genderqueer. This has more or less the same meaning as non-binary. However, queer can be controversial. It was once used as a slur against gay folks up until the 1980s when the MOGII community reclaimed it. Since it used to be a hateful insult, some are still offended by it. This is why it’s generally best to stick to the term non-binary, unless you know the person likes the term genderqueer.
What does it have to do with other parts of gender?
Non-binary refers to a gender identity outside the gender binary. This is not to be confused with intersex individuals, whose biological sex is not completely/definitively male or female. Being non-binary means nothing about someone’s physical characteristics.
It’s even independent of gender expression. Non-binary folks may choose to present themselves as masculine, feminine, both, neither, or some other possibility. The only requirement to be NB is to see yourself as something other than completely male or completely female.
Similarly, non-binary folks may or may not be transgender—identifying differently than the gender they were assigned at birth. Do not assume all non-binary folks are trans. Gender identity is up to the individual, and they get to choose which terms they prefer.
While some non-binary people aren’t trans, some are. Not all trans people transition to the other binary gender. An alarming portion of the trans community clings to the gender binary. Despite knowing the pain of having their gender identity questioned, some trans folks completely dismiss non-binary genders. That’s wrong to do. We need to be open to others’ experiences, especially since our communities often overlap.
The moral of the story here is that you should pursue whatever gender identity and gender expression makes you feel most comfortable. Gender identity can be just as personalized and unique as sexuality. It’s up to you, and only you, to decide what fits.
Examples of non-binary genders
The color analogy works fairly well for explaining different types of non-binary genders. Just as some colors are mostly red, some people may be non-binary but still feel partial to one gender or another. This is often called demigender, and the demi- prefix can be attached to any gender to show a partial connection to that gender, as in demiboy or demigirl.
Others fall right in the middle between male and female, as orange sits between yellow and red. There are many names for this. Some like the term androgynous to refer to someone who identifies as some mix between male and female. The terms non-binary and genderqueer can also specifically refer to this mixed gender.
On the other hand, others experience more than one gender. After all, many photos and paintings have multiple colors. The many ways to experience this often fall under the multigender umbrella.
Some notable examples are bigender (experiencing two genders) and polygender (experiencing four or more genders). An even more expansive term is pangender—experiencing multitudes of genders, possibly infinitely many. These may even go beyond all currently-defined genders (like how white is all of the colors together). Multigendered folks may experience each one simultaneously or move between them over time.
I personally identify as genderfluid, where my identity shifts between different genders over time. My own personal experience doesn’t seem to include any sort of pattern, but others’ sometimes do. In addition to changes in gender, someone may also have changes in the intensity of their experience. This may be described as genderflux. That is, genderfluid refers to changes in gender while genderflux refers to changes in the intensity of experiencing gender. As you may have guessed, you can be both.
It would be pretty hypocritical to get to the end of this and claim you must either be binary or non-binary. This is why there are other identities out there. Some folks don’t experience any form of gender. These people often call themselves agender. Think of how black or grey don’t show up in the spectrum above at all.
There are also identities unique to various cultures (Note: these are only acceptable to use if you are part of those cultures). This includes Two-Spirit, which was coined by the Nation American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in 1990.
It’s common as a culture to believe that something different is wrong. That someone can’t feel two genders at the same time. That someone is confused if they fluctuate. That someone is defective if they don’t feel gender at all. These simply aren’t true, though. NB people aren’t broken—the gender binary is. It’s our job to support others in living authentically and finding what makes us most happy.