We’ll start with explaining what binary means in the concept of gender. Trans Student Education Resources defines the gender binary as “a system of viewing gender as consisting solely of two, opposite categories, termed ‘male and female,’ in which no other possibilities for gender or anatomy are believed to exist.”
So I’m guessing that “non-binary” is an alternative to that?
The GLAAD Media Reference Guide defines “non-binary” as term for “some people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the categories of man and woman. They may define their gender as falling somewhere in between man and woman, or they may define it as wholly different from these terms.”
Is this different from transgender?
It is indeed, and the two terms are not to be used as synonyms. The concept of non-binary is there’s more to how people experience gender than just male or female. They might feel most comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns like “they,” though not necessarily. And they might also identify as transgender. But not all non-binary people will identify as transgender. Nor will all transgender people identify as non-binary, as there are people who are transgender who distinctly see themselves as a man or as a woman. Trans Student Education Resources notes that “nonbinary can be used to describe the aesthetic/presentation/expression of a cisgender or transgender person.”
So, for example, saying “Jay is non-binary” could mean that Jay identifies as non-binary, but it could also mean that Jay doesn’t conform in the way Jay dresses or presents?
Like many LGBTQ+ terms, non-binary is a self-applied one that the person would apply, rather than us applying it to them. But your instinct is correct: Jay saying “I am non-binary” can mean many things, and would depend on what Jay says.
I think I get it. Do you have any examples?
Here’s an example from a 2017 New York Times article, in which a teacher explained how she explains the gender binary to students:
Ms. Umberger in Charlottesville said she uses a little game to explain the gender binary, the idea that boys and girls are opposites and that people must be one or the other. “I’ll say, what’s your favorite color? Is it lime green or crimson? And they’ll say, actually it’s royal blue,” she said. By showing that sometimes two rigid options aren’t enough, she teaches them what it means to be nonbinary.
Here’s another example, this one coming from a 2014 Washington Post article:
What Kelsey Beckham really wants is a shirt that communicates something very specific about its wearer. Not about gayness, or anything to do with sexual orientation, but about gender. A shirt that says the wearer is something many people aren’t familiar with: Not a he. Not a she. Not a male transitioning to a female, or a female transitioning to a male. A shirt explaining that Kelsey, 18, doesn’t identify with any gender at all.
From that same piece:
…the world keeps insisting, in a million little ways, that Kelsey has to choose. Like the OkCupid profile some friends are always suggesting Kelsey create online. When Kelsey looked at the matchmaking site’s opening screen, it presented an immediate problem: “I am a [male/female].”
Which box do you check when you don’t belong in any box? How do you navigate the world when the world is built on identifying with one group or another group, male or female, and the place that feels most right to you is neither?
So how do I know whether someone is non-binary?
That person will tell you. There is no one way to be non-binary. In a 2017 piece for Shape, Julia Perch talked to six people about their experiences with gender. Here’s what a person named Francisco said:
There’s a compulsion to categorize or label me, which I’ll always reject. That’s how people are conditioned, to sum you up and place you in the appropriate box. Most people see the beard and assume I identify with men. Then, they take notice of my mannerisms, my partner, and the work I do in the community and assume I’m a gay man specifically. My partner is a gay man, which is irrespective of how I identify my own gender or sexuality. That’s really challenging for some people to comprehend, but they don’t really need to understand it to respect it. I love and find myself attracted to all sorts of people, including gay men and most passionately my partner.
There is no one way of being non-binary. The beauty of it is in the freedom of mind and expression, I think. There are no rules here. People should be allowed room to explore their gender, to self-determine what that is, to change it as much or as often as necessary, to not be gendered at all. This can be considered a trans experience but also doesn’t have to be. I want people to know they can be just who they are, that they can identify or express how they choose, and that it’s more than enough.
Like many terms and labels, “non-binary” is self-applied and self-identified, so don’t apply it unless the person you’re applying to uses that term.
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