What It Means to be Non-Binary

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Whether they’re accepting of it or not, a lot of people have a hard time wrapping their head around what it means to be non-binary. It’s understandable, given most of our society only acknowledges two gender options. I’m hoping that, with this article, I can shed a little light on the issue.

Let me start by saying that there is no one way to be non-binary. There are many different identities that fall under that category. Mine is only one. I’ll be talking about my own experiences in a way that’s (hopefully) relatable to other non-binary folks and informative for everyone else. It’s not meant to be a catch-all handbook on non-binary life.

First thing: Not everyone does, but I consider non-binary to be part of the transgender community. By my personal definition, being transgender means you identify with a different gender than the one assigned to you at birth. With that open of a definition, I see myself as trans. Some prefer to make a distinction between the two, and that’s okay – but personally, I feel connected to the trans community.

Being non-binary means that your gender identity doesn’t fit within the gender binary. The gender binary is a spectrum of gender that only presents two options: Male and female. This is the standard, albeit inaccurate, model in Western society. For people of non-binary identities, gender can be much more vast or complex than that. In Canada and the US, these identities are more commonly accepted in certain First Nations groups, such as the Blackfoot, Lakota, Navajo, Zuni and Mohave. Outside of the Western world, there are many cultures that have acknowledged genders other than male or female. Countries on this list include, but are far from limited to, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Nepal, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Uganda and Madagascar. Looks like being non-binary wasn’t made up by Western millenials, after all.

Much like the word ‘queer,’ non-binary can be both an identity and an umbrella term. In other words, some people choose to describe their gender as non-binary (like me), but it’s also a general term for all identities that fall outside of male or female. The truth is, there are a whole lot of ways to identify that aren’t strictly male or female. For some, their gender varies from day to day. For others, it’s constant. Sometimes they can define it concretely, sometimes they can’t. Some non-binary folks feel they have no gender at all. Some feel they have many. There isn’t one universal way to be non binary. It’s different for all of us, which I think is beautiful. That being said, there are a lot of universal feelings and experiences around it, particularly in cultures where these identities go unacknowledged. It can be a really hard experience, but it’s very freeing to be sure of yourself and have the language to describe these parts of you.

It took me a very long time to realize my gender identity. I’m not exactly sure if it was always there or if, as I grew over time, it came to be who I was. Either way, I was in my early twenties when I started to question my gender. I had only realized my sexuality a few years before that, so adulthood was a major overhaul for me. For a long time, even though I was familiar with gender non-conforming vocabulary, I felt like nothing I had considered really fit. As I thought about my gender more and more, I noticed I often had a strong urge to dress in what is considered a more masculine style. Sadly, I didn’t have the wardrobe to accommodate that, so for a while, I would have breakdowns over feeling ‘wrong’ in my own body. In any other context, it would be silly to cry because you can’t wear the kind of top you want to, but there I was. It was the oddest feeling – not feeling like a man, but feeling like I couldn’t be me in the clothes I had. I felt like the real me was trapped inside and I couldn’t show it, or even explain the feeling.

“We don’t want to make your life hard with different pronouns – we just want to feel right in our own skin.”

Eventually, I began to find myself. I settled on a descriptor: Non-binary, of course. I expanded my wardrobe to allow for more masculine styles. I even changed my pronouns to they/them/theirs (in other words, you would call me they or them instead of she or her). I’ve had a pretty lucky experience in terms of coming out. My partner and friends have taken it really well and are respectful of my identity. However, there are still a lot of places I struggle to be out. Things as simple as filling out the gender section of a form can be a downer. On rare occasions, I’m given the option to pick ‘other,’ and maybe even specify my gender, but usually, I don’t get that luxury.

Even going to the bathroom in a public place is hard. If there’s a gender-neutral bathroom, I tend to use that. There, I feel safe to go to the washroom without weird looks from anyone. However, when that’s not an option, I sometimes want to use the men’s room if I’m presenting more masculine that day. I never have unless it was a single use stall because I fear transphobic or other gender-based violence that may result. Sometimes, expressing my gender in a way that’s comfortable to me will actually put me in danger.

As for my career, I will soon be an educator, and have to decide how I would like my students to refer to me. If they call me Madame, that means I can stay in the closet, if I eventually decide it’s unsafe to be out. The other option means I have to come out to my supervisors upfront so that they’ll allow me to use the honorific they wouldn’t have assumed I wanted. That’s the problem with my pronouns: In most spaces, people will just assume your gender and apply whatever pronouns they see fit – and people who assume your gender are never going to pick ‘they.’

It can definitely wear on me hearing people call me she, but I find it harder to hear from strangers than my friends and family. As I said, many of my loved ones have taken it well and are working hard on making the change. But when a stranger looks at me and calls me Ma’am or Miss, it means that no matter how masculine I present that day, I still don’t ‘pass.’ I still don’t make them wonder my gender enough not to mention it. They look at me and see a woman, and that often hurts, or least feels uncomfortable. The most well-meaning comments from strangers become insults. It’s difficult knowing someone meant no harm in what they said, but feeling that harm done, anyway.

Most of the time, though, I’m able to come back to spaces where people who love me call me by my real pronouns, and that’s the best feeling in the world. I look forward to a world that’s more understanding of and open to non-binary identities, so that I, and other people like me, can freely express themselves as they are and be met with dignity and respect for it. We don’t want to make your life hard with different pronouns – we just want to feel right in our own skin.

Let’s keep working together to learn about each other and make this world a little more inclusive of everyone. You can help by asking people what pronouns they prefer when you meet them, and using ‘they’ when you’re not sure. With just a bit more thought put into our language, we can make things a lot more manageable for a lot of trans folk. Believe me, we’ll all really appreciate it.


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