When people see me or hear my name, they usually assume I’m a woman and go by she/her pronouns. But they’d only be partially right. I do identify as a woman, but I also identify as non-binary (yes, you can be both — more on that later) and go by they/them as well. Unfortunately, this is an identity that many people still misunderstand.
Non-binary sex educator and therapist Aida Manduley, MSW defines a non-binary person as "someone who does not identify as a man or a woman, or solely as one of those two genders." It's often used as "an umbrella term for other identities that fall outside the man/woman dichotomy and may be more specific," they add. "However this person identifies their gender, it does not neatly follow the binary of man and woman."
That definition’s pretty broad because being non-binary means different things to different people. To me, it means that I reject the whole concept of gender. Growing up, I never felt people were wrong when they called me a woman, but it felt like a label imposed on me rather than one that fit. Then, in college, I learned about non-binary identity, and that did fit. Sure, I have likes and dislikes that some might label “feminine” or “masculine,” but I don’t feel any need to label them that way. The gender binary has made me feel pigeonholed, and I don’t want to identify with it.
Here are some things people tend to get wrong about being non-binary, in my own experience and that of other non-binary people.
1. There’s No Such Thing As “Looking Non-Binary”
Most people understand that you don’t have to wear dresses to be a cis woman or wear pants to be a cis man. Yet many people seem to believe you need an androgynous style to be non-binary, creating the assumption that I and other non-binary people who wear women’s clothes must be women. But you can’t tell how someone identifies based on what they look like, which is why it’s so important to ask.
“I wish that people wouldn't automatically use she/her pronouns just because of how I present,” says 19-year-old Kelley Cantrell. “They need to stop gendering people's presentations.”
“I wear my hair long, and I'm coded as feminine, read as a cis woman. That doesn't invalidate the fact that I'm non-binary,” agrees 24-year-old Alaina Leary. “There is no one specific way that it looks to be non-binary. Non-binary people have all types of gender presentations just like women and men do.”
2. Being Non-Binary Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Have Any Other Gender Identity
Some people identity as non-binary and as a man or woman or trans or something else. I personally identify as a non-binary woman because, to me, this identity acknowledges both that I don’t have an innate identification with any gender and that I’ve been socialized as a woman. Having more than one gender identity means different things to others, though. 24-year-old Rey Noble identifies as both non-binary and a woman to acknowledge that she loves her female-coded body but doesn’t always feel it accurately represents her.
3. Not All Non-Binary People Go By They/Them Pronouns
Non-binary people can also have a variety of pronouns. Some go by they/them, some go by she/her, some go by both, and some go by more than that. The only way you can know is to ask.
Similarly, some non-binary people will go by any pronoun, while others have a strong preference and feel deeply unacknowledged when it’s not honored. 21-year-old Yven likens it to being called by the wrong name. “There’s a real physical pang when someone call me by the incorrect names,” they say.
4. We Are Not All Intersex, Transgender, or Anything Else People Assume We Are
There’s some confusion about what it means to be non-binary. Some equate it with being intersex — that is, having a body not traditionally classified as male or female — but it has nothing to do with your biology. Intersex people can be non-binary, but so can people who are not intersex. Others equate being non-binary with being transgender, i.e. identifying with a gender other than the one you were assigned at birth. Some non-binary people feel this definition applies to them, but others don’t.
5. Non-Binary Identity Is Not Just a Quirk or Trend
“People are becoming more accustomed to the idea of transgender people, since it’s easier to explain the idea of feeling more attuned to the ‘opposite gender,’ but something that's in the middle or completely absent from the gender spectrum at all is still difficult,” says Yven. “I have people asking me what that feels like and then dismissing it when I describe or try to say it more of personality quirk rather than a genuine experience.” Manduley also comes across the idea that non-binary identity is just a trend — or, as they put it, "a Tumblr invention."
Being non-binary is not just a personality trait or a phase — it’s a real identity that's existed for thousands of years.
6. We Don’t All Feel We Were “Born in the Wrong Body”
This is a common narrative about transgender people as well as non-binary people, and while it’s true for some, it doesn’t make the identity of someone who does not relate to the “born in the wrong body” narrative less valid.
I personally don’t feel I was born in the wrong body; I feel I was assigned the wrong gender based on people’s misconceptions about my body. My non-binary identity isn’t the result of my brain chemistry; it’s a reflection of my disagreement with the whole system of gender.
"There's no non-binary card people have to get validated via distress about their bodies," says Manduley. "Relatedly, dysphoria can be common and is sometimes influenced by the ways in which society (at large and even LGBTQ-specific spaces) often pushes people to gender binaries and leaves non-binary people feeling broken, confused, and unsettled, like they're doing something wrong for 'not picking a side already.'"
Similarly, non-binary people don't always feel they were "born that way," Manduley adds. "For some people, their realization (or even discomfort with a binary assignment of man or woman) doesn't materialize until later in life," they explain. "For some, there's little to no distress, and just an internal acknowledgement that their gender is different and/or more complex than man or woman."
7. You Don’t Have to Be Equally “Masculine” and “Feminine” to Be Non-Binary
“I'd like people to know that non-binary isn't just ‘you are 50% man and 50% woman,’” says 23-year-old Kay Bashe. Non-binary people all identify as feminine and masculine to different degrees, just like men and women, and that may even change from time to time. Some don't identify with masculinity or femininity at all.
It’s not possible for anyone else to say how “masculine” or “feminine” someone is. Masculinity and femininity are just arbitrary labels we give certain traits. What seems masculine to one culture or person might seem feminine to another. And none of them are right or wrong.
I used to feel like a fraud for saying I was non-binary because I didn’t do anything differently from when I identified as a woman. I dressed the same, I acted the same, and I didn’t talk about being non-binary with many people.
Being non-binary doesn’t have to be a huge deal, though. You don’t have to do anything special or come out to anyone or behave any differently than you did before. The thing about gender is that it’s totally personal to you, so no matter what you say your gender is, you are right. You can’t be wrong.
“Being non-binary isn't as difficult or complicated as it might seem,” says Noble. “It's messy and weird in the fact that it's hard to think outside of the box that society constructed for us, but ultimately, it's a term that is welcoming and accepting of whatever you need for it to mean to you. It's something you can create for yourself.”
Why is it worth our time to unlearn these assumptions, educate ourselves about non-binary identity, and try to understand how the people in our own lives identify? Because it makes us more supportive friends, partners, family members, and human beings.
“For people who don't identify as something outside of their assigned at birth gender, it can be difficult to understand the experience non-binary and trans people as a whole go through,” says Yven. “But learning to accept that people have completely different lives and experiences is part of being human. Supporting that someone is trying to be more comfortable in themselves is something that society should strive for and encourage.”