Nonbinary gender identity is just one term used to describe individuals who may experience a gender identity that is neither exclusively woman or man or is in between or beyond both genders.1 Nonbinary individuals may identify as genderfluid, agender (without gender), genderqueer, or something else entirely.
All nonbinary people are included in the broad category of transgender people, though some nonbinary people might not feel comfortable identifying as such, because being transgender was historically narrowly defined as requiring a movement between binary genders. The notion that transgender people have to transition to an “opposite” gender has been particularly strong and particularly problematic in the medical community.
A person’s gender identity is their internal sense of themselves as a woman, man, or person out of the binary. Cisgender people are those whose gender identity is the same as the gender correlated with 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.”2
Gender identity is different from 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 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.3 Sexual orientation refers to a person’s interest in people of the same or similar gender, different gender(s), all genders, or no genders. People of any sex can have any gender identity and sexual orientation. The concepts are independent.4
What Is the Gender Binary?
The gender binary is the problematic notion that there are only two genders, and all individuals are either a woman or a man. 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 sex. 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 have XY chromosomes and are born with uteruses. The term for people who have a mix of hormonal and anatomical traits typically associated with male or female bodies is intersex. Someone can be intersex, but a person is not “an intersex.”
Cultures around the world have recognized genders other than woman and man throughout history.5 It’s just that we are now developing an English language vocabulary to describe the spectrum of gender identity that exists.
Types of Nonbinary Gender
Nonbinary is both a gender identity and a catch-all term to describe gender identities other than strictly man or woman. While there are many types of nonbinary gender, some are more commonly discussed than others. These include:6
- Agender: Having no specific gender identity or having a gender identity that is neutral or undefined. Sometimes used interchangeably with genderless and neutrois.
- Bigender: Having two distinct gender identities, either simultaneously or alternatively.
- Genderfluid: Moving between two or more gender identities.
- Genderqueer: A catch-all term for individuals with nonbinary gender identities. Some people identify with it as their main identity. The term includes a slur, so make sure an individual explicitly identifies with it before tacking it onto them.
- Nonbinary: The umbrella term covering all gender identities outside the gender binary. Individuals can and do identify with nonbinary as their specific identity. Also referred to as nb or enby, though both of these terms are contentious. As nb also means non-Black, some Black cisgender and nonbinary people are uncomfortable with it as a shortened term for nonbinary. Many nonbinary adults do not feel comfortable with enby because it sounds infantilizing.
- Two Spirit: A pan-tribal term created by and for indigenous Americans to describe a variety of genders with specific social and/or ceremonial roles. Many tribes have specific gender identities that are outside the binary, but Two Spirit is an umbrella term for all indigenous Americans that is sometimes adopted as a specific identity, like nonbinary is for settler and immigrant Americans.
Discussing Sexual Orientation
Have you ever noticed that discussing your sexual orientation means disclosing your gender identity? Sexual orientation terms 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 woman.
Although it is commonly thought otherwise, nonbinary people can and do identify as heterosexual, as gay, and as lesbians.
Because of the expansive nature of gender identities beyond the binary, anyone of any sexuality can be attracted to a nonbinary person. A heterosexual woman can be attracted to a nonbinary person while affirming both her sexuality and her partner’s gender. Gender is very personal, so people who use the same term to identify themselves can have different conceptions of what their gender is.
Some nonbinary people identify as woman- or man-aligned. This identification can mean that their gender is part woman or man, and/or that they occupy a social location similar to that of men or women. An example of the latter is a nonbinary person who was assigned man at birth, is only attracted to women, and who experiences transmisogyny (the compounding of transphobia and misogyny that transgender women face). Many transfeminine people who fit this bill can and do identify as lesbians.
Being woman- or man-aligned is not a watered-down version of being woman or man. Alignment does not make a nonbinary person less nonbinary. There are also nonbinary people who identify as being unaligned.
Gender and Pronouns
People who are nonbinary may use gender-neutral pronouns. Although there are a variety of gender-neutral pronouns, the most commonly used one is the singular they. Instead of saying: “He went to the market to sell his wares,” say: “They went to the market to sell their wares” when referring to a person whose pronouns are they/them/theirs or whose pronouns you are not aware of.7
While referring to someone who uses they/them pronouns or referring to a person whose pronouns you do not know with they/them is great, referring to binary trans people, especially trans women who use she/her only, with they/them is transphobic.
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 who use those pronouns. Using a person’s correct pronouns is both truthful and respectful. Misgendering (referring to a person with the wrong gender or pronouns) causes mental health issues for transgender people.
If you are seeking support for issues with gender dysphoria, coming out, relationships, bullying, self-harm, and more, contact the LGBT National Hotline at 1-888-843-4564 for one-to-one peer support.