by Rachel Dougherty

Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities. Do you have a word that needs defining? Let us know!

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Define it:

“Non-binary” is a gender identity under the transgender umbrella. Someone who is non-binary does not identify as exclusively male or female (also known as the gender binary) and does not identify as the gender assigned to them at birth.

Explain it:

Typically gender is presented as a “choose one” scenario, with “male” and “female” as the only two options available. This is called the “gender binary.” But the thing is, not everyone’s gender falls into this either-or system. Some people identify with no gender (“agender”), others identify with two (or more) genders (“bi-gender”), and then there are those whose gender identity isn’t constant (“genderfluid”). These are just some examples of identities under the non-binary umbrella.
Being nonbinary is different for each person, which makes it a difficult word to explain—in fact, I’d argue that that’s the beauty of it. You see, dear reader, the explanation you get from me may not exactly match with another non-binary person’s explanation. I say this only to emphasize how important it is to ask a person what being non-binary means to them.
For me, identifying as non-binary feels like freeing myself from gender roles that don’t fit me and creating anew those that do. The traditional gender binary comes with certain expectations for men and women—roles to which they’re supposed to adhere. I see non-binary people as being on a constant adventure—thinking through what it means to be masculine or feminine (or tossing those ideas away entirely) and creating for ourselves identities that feel genuine and liberating without adhering to the strict either-or of the gender binary.
I am learning that, personally, I can honor both traditionally feminine and masculine characteristics without conflict. As a non-binary person, I feel free to ditch expectations that I find confining or harmful. On most days, I feel more masculine than feminine (or “masculine-of-center”). Embracing this part of my identity has meant ditching some of what’s expected of women. At the same time, I find myself rejecting expectations like “boys don’t cry” or “men aren’t compassionate” because I love the emotional and caring parts of my personality. I feel like an alchemist combining the characteristics that feel most like myself without a need to fit what’s expected of either men or women.
Some aspects of identifying as non-binary can be challenging. For instance, things like getting dressed, introducing myself and my pronouns, and going to the bathroom are a struggle almost every single time. This struggle is two-fold: first, my gender doesn’t feel the same every day, so constantly navigating that and determining how to present myself is an ever-changing adventure. Secondly, I don’t always feel safe presenting as non-binary, which impacts how I move through space on any given day.
I am in a constant balancing act of figuring out my gender and moving through spaces safely. If I’m going someplace unfamiliar or meeting someone new, I almost always dress and act in a way that feels the most safe, regardless of whether this performance is representative of how I’m actually feeling. Safety usually looks like presenting as either “male” or “female,” or what I like to call “grinning and bearing it until you’re back among queer or safe spaces.”
On days when I feel safe and confident, though, being non-binary is great! It often feels really playful and expressive to spend time thinking about my gender and how to present it to the world. In spaces where I’m out, I feel freed from the script of needing to behave like my gender is “supposed” to. “Act like a lady” fades off into the distance, joined by “boys don’t cry,” and, finally, it’s my turn to decide how to behave: not because my gender told me to, but because I want to.

Debunk it:

Non-binary is not (just) androgyny. Sure, some non-binary folks look androgynous (partly male and partly female), but you can’t know who is non-binary by identifying androgyny. People present as non-binary in many different ways. Unfortunately, because there’s a huge lack of representation, especially for diverse non-binary folks, the cultural understanding of non-binary identities is limited. And while I love the folks out there rocking button downs and ties, this representation is exclusive. Not everyone experiences and expresses their non-binary identity in the same way.Through more diverse representations, the breadth of nonbinary identities becomes more recognizable.
Nonbinary people are not “just waiting to fully transition.” Nonbinary people are transgender, but we’re not moving from one end of the gender binary to the other. I am not on my way to being a trans man. Given society’s obsession with the gender binary, non-binary people are often invalidated and written off as just “waiting to transition” from one gender to another. Let non-binary people be! Regardless of how I or any other non-binary person identifies one year, one month, or even one week from now, today my gender identity is valid and real.
Non-binary people aren’t present in the mainstream. Non-binary people may not be particularly visible, but we’re present. For instance, I work at a non-profit in a totally professional space. I’m not sure that everyone in my office knows that I’m non-binary, but I’m not hiding. Non-binary people are present—writing music, starring in films, leading social movements, writing dissertations, making your coffee—whether or not you see them.
Interested in learning more about non-binary people? That’s awesome! Check out the stories and work of some rad folks and projects like Amandla Sternberg, Tyler Ford, Dark Matter, PWR BTTM, Bklyn Boi Hood, and GenderQueerID.
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Rachel lives and works in NYC but is constantly homesick for Pittsburgh. They are passionate about increasing civic participation, and they are concerned about building equitable access to the public sphere. In their spare time Rachel spends time seeing shows at DIY venues, wrestling with their Jewish spiritual life, and going off-recipe in the kitchen. Follow them on Twitter @active_witness

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