From a very young age, we're trained to think of choices in binaries: You have to pick one thing or another, and there's no in-between. Mac or PC? Katy or Taylor? DC or Marvel? This is also true with gender.
Fortunately, you don't have to subscribe to the gender binary – the idea that there are only two genders – because society is becoming increasingly aware that there are ways to identify that have nothing to do with our conventional conception of what it means to be a man or a woman. And that's where non-binary gender identities come in.
When someone identifies as non-binary (which for the record, isn't called "gender non-binary"), that means that their gender expression is outside traditional expectations of masculinity and femininity. While many, if not most, cisgender and transgender men and women have gender expressions that are frequently masculine or feminine, many non-binary or gender non-conforming people live in the space between (or beyond) these ideas, and often use they/them pronouns instead of the gender-specific he/him or she/her.
Unfortunately, even with wider acceptance of the trans community, there can still be an unease with those who identify in a way that defy gender roles entirely. The idea of seeing a man wearing a flowing gown with a beard can fry the mental circuits of people who may not be familiar with the evolving nature of gender. But gender expression is self-expression, and while it's often considered a punk rock-like offensive or an intentional attention-grab, non-binary people (and other gender non-conforming people) are only trying to be themselves.(And it's important to note that they don't always identify as transgender, either.)
Oftentimes, it just takes actually knowing someone who is non-binary or trans or gender non-conforming to shift someone's perspective from confused (intolerant, even) to empathetic. So we talked to four non-binary people to help clear up some of the confusion around this particularly misunderstood gender identity. Because when it comes to gender, you don't have to be one or the other. It's a spectrum, and for many, their expression is a constantly moving target.
*Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Welcome to Gender Nation, where gender is defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.