I'm starting the conversation for many who don't know how or where to start it, here are my answers to some frequently asked questions about being non-binary.
What does it mean to be non-binary?
Non-binary is an umbrella term used for people who don’t identify within the binary genders of man and woman. The reason it is considered an umbrella is because there are many different ways people experience being non-binary. Someone may feel like both a man and a woman or neither or have a gender identity that changes over time. This concept may be confusing if you haven’t encountered it before but, in the last few years the visibility of non-binary people has picked up significantly as more people have adopted the definition of gender referring to the way you feel rather than your biology.
Some words non-binary people may use to describe the way they identify include:
Genderqueer - a term used in place of non-binary
Genderfluid - having a gender identity that fluctuates over time
Trans or Transgender- not identifying with the gender you were raised as
Agender - feeling gender neutral/ not identifying as man or woman
Gender non conforming - not conforming to traditional gender expectations
What is important to note here is that while these words have definitions, they aren't the only meaning. The meaning can change for each person. Don’t be afraid of asking, “What does that word mean to you?,” if you’d like to find out more from an individual close to you.
Google trends search for non-binary 2005- present
Why is it so difficult to understand?
It’s often difficult for cisgender (those who identify with the gender they were designated at birth) people to quickly grasp the concept of non-binary identities. This is because one of two genders is given to us from day one and it is continually imposed on us in our culture; films, newspapers, language, and our sex education at school have all catered to a binary system.
Another reason we find it so difficult is because we naturally categorise and stereotype to make sense of this world around us. An advantage of this is that we are able to respond quickly to situations because we may have encountered a similar experience before. A disadvantage, however, is that we make generalisations and often ignore peoples intricate differences. So, as we are habitual creatures, a knee jerk reaction into “I don't understand” when confronted with a non-binary person is not your fault. This shouldn't be used an an excuse to not understand though, it's important to respect and engage with the identities of those around you!
What does it feel like to be non-binary?
Being non-binary feels different to everyone, so it’s important to keep an open mind when talking to someone about their gender identity. My parents gained a greater understanding of what it feels like to be non-binary through a friend of theirs who grew up in Serbia but now lives their life in Sweden; this person is unsure what to answer when someone asks them where they are from. They feel caught between cultures, not fully being able to fully commit to either country.
So, is your nationality where you were born, or where you live? Are they both or are they neither? They say it can be fluid depending on national holidays or where they are in the world, but the feeling of not properly belonging to either is very much there.
I would say this is how I feel about my gender identity. I am non-binary because I never feel fully connected to being a man or a woman. Feelings about your gender can change depending on your context; I find that when I am in the company of my family, I tend to default back to the gender was raised as, but when I meet new people I feel much freer in terms of my gender expression.
Gender is a spectrum, but it is much more complicated than a straight line with a man at one end and woman at the other. My non-binary identity is not the same as someone else’s, just as one person's identity as a man doesn’t necessarily equate to another’s. To limit identity to a binary and to act as if all identities mean the same thing to everyone does a great disservice to all of our unique identities.
Is being non-binary a phase?
A common assumption about non-binary people is that it’s “just a phase." Perhaps this is because people who don’t understand you might assume being non-binary is an in-between, an “experimental” space for someone to be before they figure out who they actually are. Though this is true for some people, it isn’t always a given. Besides - doubting the validity of someone’s identity for who they say they are isn’t a good thing to do. I know people who have been openly non-binary for years. Other people go from binary to non-binary, or non-binary to binary. There’s nothing wrong with feeling something now and something else later on.
I hope this post has introduced you to the tip of the gender identity iceberg. I encourage openness to those brave enough to live just as they are even when some people don’t understand. Whether you are living as the gender you were labeled at birth or as transgender or non-binary, I encourage you to talk about it; the gender conversation is for all of us.
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