What Does It Mean to Be Non-Binary or Have Non-Binary Gender?

non-binary person using tablet
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Non-binary gender identity is just one term used to describe individuals who may experience a gender identity that is neither exclusively male or female or is in between or beyond both genders. Non-binary individuals may identify as gender fluid, agender (without gender), third gender, or something else entirely.

Sometimes non-binary people are included in the broad category of transgender people. This represents an evolution as, historically, being transgender was often conceptualized as requiring a movement between binary genders. The notion that transgender people have to be moving towards male or female genders has been both particularly strong and particularly problematic in the medical community.

What Is Gender Identity?

A person's gender identity is their internal sense of themselves as male, female, or alternative gender. Cisgender people are those whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. Conversely, transgender is an umbrella term used to describe "the full range of people whose gender identity does not conform to what is typically associated with their sex assigned at birth."

Gender identity is different from gender role or gender expression. While gender identity is an internal, deeply-rooted sense of self, gender expression is how a person externally expresses their gender identity. It's important to note that gender expression is how they present themselves and it may or may not correspond to a person's gender identity. Gender role is the collection of behaviors, attitudes, and personality traits that society associates with a particular gender, in a given culture and time. The notion that men and women are fundamentally different and should behave in very specific ways is sometimes referred to as gender essentialism

Gender is also different from sex and sexual orientation. While sex refers to a person's biology—chromosomal, hormonal, and anatomical—gender is a socially, culturally, and environmentally constructed term. Sexual orientation refers to a person's interest in people of the same sex, the opposite sex, both sexes, or neither sex. People of any sex can have any gender identity and sexual orientation. The concepts are independent.

What Is the Gender Binary?

The gender binary is the problematic notion that there are only two genders, and all individuals are either male or female. Some might argue that there are only two sexes, so there should only be two genders, but that argument is flawed.

Although we categorize most infants into male or female, there is more diversity than that in terms of both sex and gender. The biology of sex is complex. Most people are XX or XY, but some people are XXY or XO.

In addition, your chromosomes don't fully determine your sexual anatomy. Some people are XY women. Other people have bodies that fall between male and female, chromosomally, anatomically, or hormonally.

Therefore, given the wide variety of sexual biology, it should not be surprising that there can also be a wide range of gender identity. Cultures around the world have recognized genders other than male and female throughout history. It's just that now we are developing an English language vocabulary to describe the spectrum of gender identity we see.

Types of Non-Binary Gender

Non-binary is both a gender identity and a catch-all term to describe gender identities other than strictly male or female. While there are many types of non-binary gender, some are more commonly discussed than others. These include:

  • Agender: Having no specific gender identity or having a gender identity that is neutral. Sometimes used interchangeably with gender neutral, genderless, or neutrois.
  • Bigender: Having two distinct gender identities or expressions, either simultaneously, at different times, or in different situations.
  • Genderfluid: Moving between two or more gender identities or expressions.
  • Genderqueer: A catch-all term for individuals with non-binary gender identities.
  • Non-Binary: The umbrella term covering all gender identities and expressions outside the gender binary. Also referred to as NB or enby.
  • Third Gender: Having a gender identity or expression that is not defined in terms of the binary options (male/female, masculine/feminine). May also be referred to as third sex or othergender.

Discussing Sexual Orientation

Have you ever noticed that discussing your sexual orientation means disclosing your gender identity? Sexual orientation words are generally used to draw a comparison between someone's gender identity and the gender of the people they're attracted to.

For example, if you are someone attracted to men and identify as heterosexual, your gender is almost certainly female. However, for those who do not want to disclose their gender identity, there are other words for talking about sexual orientation that focus on the people someone finds attractive while keeping their own gender out of the discussion.

This can be especially helpful for people who are non-binary or gender fluid and want to talk about the people they're attracted to. To get around the limitations of words such as heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual, some people describe their sexual orientation as gynosexual, androsexual, or both.

A person who is gynosexual is sexually attracted to women (gyno- is the Greek prefix used to describe things related to women/females). A person who is androsexual is attracted to men (andro- is the Greek prefix used to describe things related to men/males).

Gender and Pronouns

People who are non-binary may use gender-neutral pronouns. Although there are a variety of gender-neutral pronouns, the most commonly used one is the singular they. For people who use gender-neutral pronouns, instead of referring to a non-person as he or she, they are referred to as they.

It can be difficult for some people to get used to using the singular they, but it gets easier with practice. If you think about it, many people use the singular "they" whenever they're referring to an abstract person or someone whose gender they don't know. (The singular "they" is used twice in the previous sentence, and most people probably didn't notice.)

It's not that much harder to use the singular they to refer to people whose gender identity is not well described by male or female. It is, however, far more polite than misgendering them because it's easier than respecting their identity.

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