February 05, 2024

What is “Non Binary” and how it differs with Gay or Lesbian or LGBT

Understanding Non-Binary Identities – 

To many, especially those who are not part of the LGBTQ+ community, it seems as though the 21st century is full of ‘new’ gender identities like genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary and so on. In reality, the emergence of these terms comes from decades of work within the LGBTQ+ community to be accepted, valued and celebrated in a traditionally homophobic and transphobic society. As far back as Western records go, gender variance has existed. What’s changed is our ability to name how we feel about our gender in a way that is not binary. 

What is the gender binary?

The gender binary refers to the common perception that there are only two genders; man and woman. Countless cultures, particularly those outside of a European or North American context, recognize much more than two genders. For example, Hijra is recognized as a third gender in India or Two-Spirit in North America. Humans like to put people into categories and boxes, which is why we have social constructs like race and gender. They are arbitrary but over centuries, have become things that we use to differentiate and discriminate one another. While each human may have different physiological forms, these have nothing to do with how we feel about our gender. When babies are born, the doctor looks at their genitals and decides their gender. From that point on, parents, teachers and other adults adapt their behavior to socialize children into this assigned gender. For girls, this means covering them in pink, frills, and bows and buying them Barbie dolls, cooking sets, and makeup. For boys, this means dressing them in blue and surrounding them with construction toys, trucks and toy guns. Not only can the gender binary create negative gender expectations for people who exist within the binary, it can also be harmful to those who experience gender variance.

What is the difference between sex and gender?

Many people like to differentiate between sex and gender. This implies that biological sex is real and physical while gender is a fluid an abstract concept. In reality, both are socially constructed ideas. You may have heard some people say that sex is our biological or physical makeup that relates to our hormones, genitals, and chromosomes while gender is how we choose to present ourselves or what we think in our minds. This differentiation is harmful, particularly to transgender people. This Autostraddle article provides excellent insight into this discussion;

“There’s nothing intrinsically male about XY chromosomes, testosterone, body hair, muscle mass or penises. If an alien civilization found earth, they wouldn’t look at a person with a penis and say “Oh, that must be a male, sex based on genitalia is the One Universal Constant.” Sex, like gender, is indeed socially constructed and can be changed.”

Different gender identities

So, now we know that gender and sex are both social constructs, we can think about what it means to be non-binary. Non-binary is often seen as an umbrella term. It can encompass many gender identities such as genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, bigender, demigender and so on. But if gender is not real why do we have so many labels for it? Well, in a world that is so strictly delineated by binaries, those who do not fit into it may desire to create their own labels and communities to feel safe. Legal recognition of multiple genders, non-binary genders or people with no gender is important because it validates a diversity of lived experience. If men and women are able to check “M” or “F” on a form, or on their passport, non-binary people should be afforded the same right.

Many non-binary people also identify as transgender. Our traditional understanding of transgender is someone who changes their physical form to become a different gender from the one they were assigned at birth (a man becoming a woman, for example). However, when we acknowledge a broader and more inclusive understanding of gender, transgender actually just refers to anyone whose gender identity or expression does not necessarily align with their assigned sex or gender. To be transgender, you do not have to have surgery or take hormones or change anything about your physiology. Therefore, people who are non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid and so on are also within the transgender umbrella. They may experience varying levels of gender dysphoria or desire to physically change their bodies using hormones or surgery. You cannot tell if someone is non-binary or transgender just by looking at them; people choose to express their gender in many different ways. This can include physical changes to the body but it can also include makeup, facial hair, clothing, name choice, and pronouns. Therefore, it is always important to ask people which pronouns they prefer before referring to them in the third person. For example, many non-binary people may use “they/them/theirs” because “he” and “she” are pronouns typically used in the gender binary. (Here is a handy list of neo-pronouns and how to use them).

Supporting non-binary people

The non-binary identity is a recognition that the gender binary is limiting. Instead of thinking of gender as a binary, many prefer to think of it as a spectrum. We all exist somewhere along that spectrum. Many people live their whole lives not questioning their gender. This is a privilege because it means you are free from transphobic violence and discrimination that exists in the workplace, in schools, in healthcare, and in the legal system. However, for those who exist in the middle, on the outside or fluctuate across the spectrum, there are many barriers in our society. Trans and non-binary people experience disproportionate rates of discrimination and violence across the world. Transgender people experience the highest rates of violence among the LGBTQ community. This means that other members of the LGBTQ community must do their best to support, respect and celebrate trans and non-binary people.