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What does it mean to be ‘nonbinary’?

Being nonbinary comes with a lot of misconceptions, but when it comes down to basics, what does it actually mean? (Credit: Getty Images)
Being nonbinary comes with a lot of misconceptions. What does it actually mean? (Credit: Getty Images)

The term “nonbinary” is one of many identities that's been gaining popularity in recent years, largely due to a sharp rise of young people embracing the label.

In fact, a 2021 report from the Williams Institute, a research center at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted nearly 1.2 million nonbinary people between 18 to 60 living in the United States. Of that total, three-quarters were under the age of 30, suggesting that younger folks have explored gender identity to an extent that older folks have not.

Further research backs that claim: A 2022 survey from the Pew Research Center showed that 3% of young U.S. adults (18 to 30) identify as nonbinary while 2% identify as transgender (around 10 to 15 million people in total). In contrast, trans and nonbinary adults aged 50 and older accounted for only 0.3% (around 900,000 people).

Making it even more relevant is the growing number of celebrities, like Sam Smith, Demi Lovato, Janelle Monáe, Jonathan Van Ness, Emma Corrin and others, who have embraced the nonbinary label, sparking a desire for parents and LGBTQ allies to learn more about how they can support trans and nonbinary youth. On the flip side, such visibility has helped spark backlash from conservative lawmakers, many of whom have made sweeping proposals across state courts that seek to limit access to gender-affirming care for trans and nonbinary youth.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 11: EDITORIAL USE ONLY: Sam Smith attends The BRIT Awards 2023  at The O2 Arena on February 11, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Jo Hale/Redferns)
Sam Smith, seen here in February attending the BRIT Awards 2023 in London, is among a growing number of celebrities who identify as nonbinary. (Photo: Jo Hale/Redferns)

At the end of the day, however, what does it all mean?

To fully understand the nonbinary experience, experts say you must first recognize the fact that modern views of “sex” and “gender” are ever-evolving. That requires a great deal of explanation and, above all, patience.

What is nonbinary? Is it the same as transgender?

First, let's define "binary.” According to Merriam-Webster, its basic meaning refers to “something made of two things or parts.” Within the context of gender and sex, it’s typically called the “gender binary” and is meant to describe a traditional belief that gender and sex only exist as two distinct, opposite forms of masculine and feminine (male/man/boy and female/woman/girl).

Essentially, nonbinary is an umbrella term referring to a person who does not identify exclusively as one or the other in terms of their gender identity: meaning, the social and psychological sense one carries of being male or female, as opposed to biological sex or, in growing parlance, sex assigned at birth.

Being nonbinary can manifest in a multitude of ways depending on the individual, as noted by the National Center for Transgender Equality’s website. For example, some may have a gender that “blends elements of being a man or a woman” while others might have a gender that is different from “either male or female.” Some might not identify with any gender at all, while others are more fluid, meaning their gender identity can change over time.

It’s important to note that “nonbinary” and “transgender” aren’t necessarily the same thing. While nonbinary refers to those who do not exclusively identify as male or female, transgender people very often do identify as either one or the other (but not always). Some may even identify as both nonbinary and transgender, depending on the person.

As noted by the American Psychological Association, “transgender is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth,” whereas nonbinary is defined by the APA as those who “identify their gender as falling outside the binary constructs of ‘male’ and ‘female.’”

“People who are nonbinary experience their gender in a way that doesn't conform to the normal ideas of male or female,” C.P. Hoffman, who serves as senior policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality and identifies as nonbinary (using they/them pronouns), tells Yahoo Life. But even that description is “too simplistic,” they add, which is where it gets murky.

Demi Lovato attends the premiere of 'Scream VI' in New York City, U.S., March 6, 2023. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs
Demi Lovato, pictured attending the premiere of Scream VI in New York City earlier this month, identifies as nonbinary. (Photo: REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs)

“People will often envision a straight line that has ‘male’ on one end and ‘female’ on the other end, with ‘nonbinary’ sort of in the middle,” explains Hoffman. “But I think that's too simplistic a way of looking at it, because you're looking at something that is three or four dimensional in a one-dimensional way. So, at the very least, you need to add more access.”

That’s why, Hoffman stresses, it’s important for people to understand that “nonbinary” is an umbrella term meant to describe an array of gender variations that exist outside of the conventional definitions — including “micro labels” like genderfluid (in which one’s gender identity is not a fixed constant), genderqueer (when one’s gender can shift or change at any given time) or agender (someone with no gender identity at all).

Just as important, Hoffman continues, is understanding that "nonbinary folks don't necessarily experience gender dysphoria in the same way as a lot of binary trans people,” which is partly why “there’s a lower percent of nonbinary people who seek [gender-affirming care]."

Gender dysphoria, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is a diagnosis given to transgender and some nonbinary people experiencing “psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity.”

For many trans/nonbinary people, coming to the conclusion that their gender identity doesn’t match their biological sex is a drawn-out, painful experience.

"The psychology of being nonbinary is very similar [to the trans experience] because, regardless of whether you are nonbinary or a binary trans person, society still tries to put you into boxes,” explains Hoffman. “It still tries to say, ‘Oh, you're a boy, so you should like these things; or you're a girl, so you should like those things.’ So, in being nonbinary you're pushing back against that notion to the same extent as trans people. You're trying to explain who you are to a society that is frequently hostile and thinks that you should be something else.”

Misconceptions, dismantling tropes and finding common ground

Christy Olezeski, director and co-founder of the Yale School of Medicine’s Pediatric Gender Program, an interdisciplinary team providing services for transgender and gender expansive youth and families, says the biggest misconception people have about nonbinary folks is that they’re “going through a phase,” which she explains is far from true.

“Some misconceptions about nonbinary folks are that it’s just a phase, a fad or that individuals are unclear or confused about their identity,” she tells Yahoo Life. “In fact, individuals who live outside of the traditional cisgender binary have been recorded throughout history.”

Indeed, cultures throughout the world have recognized people with multiple genders for centuries — including “Hijras” in India, “Two Spirit people” in Native American culture, “muxes” in Mexico and “bakla” in the Philippines.

Accepting the fact that nonbinary people aren’t new, Hoffman argues, is vital towards building compassion and empathy for their lived experiences.

“There’s this idea that nonbinary folks just showed up, that we’re a bunch of teenagers and 20-somethings who are just being ‘extra’ or that we’re just ‘rebelling against society.’ That’s not the case at all,” they say. “I’m in my 40s, and I realized that I didn’t really fit into the male/female dichotomy decades ago. The problem was I didn’t have a name for it.”

Having precise language — such as the various micro labels noted above — that accurately describes one’s lived experience can help nonbinary people understand who they are and where they fit in the mold.

“Part of the reason why we're seeing younger folks come out as nonbinary isn't because it’s a trendy new thing,” Hoffman explains. Rather, it’s “because we've created a space where they have that language while they're still young. They don't have to go decades, like me, trying to figure out what they are in a system that denies their existence.”

Affirming one’s existence is key, adds Olezeski, and it starts small: for example, using “they/them” pronouns when someone requests it.

“While folks don't understand another's lived experience, we can be respectful of their chosen name and pronouns,” she says. “There is research looking at the use of name and pronouns being linked to less depression and suicidal ideation. Using someone's name and pronouns is a free intervention, which can have a positive impact on their mental health.”

Basic respect, Hoffman notes, is an act that goes a long way when speaking to a nonbinary person.

“Don't assume we're going to be one thing or another,” they say. “Talk to us as individuals first, and find out who and what we are. We’re human, first and foremost.

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