This Is What It Means To Be Non-Binary

Photo by Florian Halbedl
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.
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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.
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*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.
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Photo by Rob Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock
Jacob Tobia was just named one of Forbes' 30 Under 30. They co-produced and hosted the NBC News series Queer 2.0, and are currently working on their memoir, Sissy.

In your experience, what’s the most difficult thing about explaining gender non-conformity?

"What’s felt useful for me to put together was that a lot of times with older folks in my life — from folks who are maybe Gen X to people who are elders in the community — what I realized is that the difference in some sense is around the language that we use to talk about gender. Sometimes, it’s the label that we choose to use and the language in terms of talking about being genderqueer or gender non-conforming or gender-fluid. But when it comes to the actual lived experience of being genderqueer or gender non-conforming with people, I really think that everyone can get it. You know what I mean?

"There are some old ladies at my church where if I sat down with them and said like, 'These are all the labels that I use to talk about my gender,' it’s not that they would be mad or hostile. It’s just that they would be confused. They would be like, 'This is so complicated.' When it comes to actually, like, wearing lipstick to church and hanging out with the old church ladies at my home church in North Carolina, the actual act of it is easy, because they’ve known me their whole life. Everyone’s known gender non-conforming people. There’s nothing new about what we’re doing. I think it’s just a language that can be there. I’m going to be less concerned with whether or not someone can articulate the difference between genderqueer versus agender versus gender-fluid. I’m much more concerned with are they treating me right, and do they treat me right regardless of what I’m wearing that day? And do they stand up for me if others are mistreating me? It’s not that the language isn’t important, but language is always contextual. Language means something different to different generations and different cultures at different moments, and I’m just trying to figure out a way to sort of let people affirm me in the context in which they are."

It sounds like your church is really cool, but do you have any thoughts on some of the religious resistance to trans identities?

"Within my own sort of spiritual framework — which is a complicated one — but, like, within my church, I feel like I’ve always claimed a divine sense of my gender identity. That like God or the Creator or the universe or whatever sort of higher energy we are made by, made us. I just think that the very fact of our existence as people proves our worth, and that’s always been sort of my standpoint. That’s always been how I’ve understood it. If there was something wrong with gender non-conforming people, then they wouldn’t be here."

How do you deal with people who view gender- non-conforming people as being incomplete or refusing to “pick a side”?

"Part of my journey as a gender non-conforming person has been learning to realize that queer spaces are rarely going to be easy or good spaces for me all the time. I think what I’ve had to learn is there are gay men who are ashamed of my femininity. There are gay men who are ashamed of their own femininity, and they take it out on me. Like, there are gay men who think that I’m like an embarrassment to the community, or who think that I’m not towing the party line, who think my gender identity reflects negatively on them.

"I think in a similar way, there are also more binary oriented trans people. Not very many. Again, these are definitely minorities in the community, but these people exist. They’re also binary and feel that I am messing with the trans story, that I am corrupting the trans story, or somehow making it more shallow, because I don’t identify with a binary gender. And in some people’s eyes, transness should only be about binary gender.

"But the LGBTQ community is a community, right. They’re like every community, and every marginalized community throughout history. We have disagreements among ourselves about how our community should be represented and who our community even is. I think that I’m learning to realize that people within the LGBTQ community who have an issue with my gender identity, or who feel threatened by my gender identity or feel embarrassed about my gender identity or feel ashamed to be in the same room with me, that’s about them. And it’s about the marginalization and cycles of abuse that they’ve been subjected to throughout their lives.

"The only reason that any trans woman, that any binary identified trans woman would feel threatened by a nonbinary person is, because the world is so constantly invalidating her gender identity and her identity as a woman, right? If her identity as a woman was not constantly being invalidated, then no one would feel any threat in the trans community from nonbinary people, because we wouldn’t have a party line that we needed to tow. And in the same way, gay men who are ashamed of my femininity or who are ashamed of feminine people, that’s because they’ve been treated with violence or with abuse or with neglect when they’ve expressed femininity in their lives. If we lived in a world that did not teach men to be misogynistic and to not hurt or abuse men or neglect men or people who express femininity, then those gay men would not be ashamed of me. So, it’s about other people’s trauma, not about me. It’s about when you’re watching someone live a life that’s really free, and you still feel trapped in yourself."

How has your gender expression evolved over the years?

"Many of my earliest childhood memories were about my gender being at tension with the world around me, because as a kid, I just sort of naturally had all the gender. Like, I wanted to run around in the woods; I wanted to get dirty; I wanted to play with bugs; I wanted to bake in my Easy-Bake oven; I wanted to play with Barbie, and I wanted to watch a science movie. And then, I wanted to go to sleep with a princess canopy bed and a dinosaur stuffed animal. I just liked what I liked and wanted what I wanted, and didn’t have a sense of shame about it until other people started problematizing what I wanted.

"So, like my earliest self was gender non-conforming. My earliest self, my purest self, had an effortless and authentic and real relationship to their gender identity. I think the process of my life has been trying to get back to who I was when I was three years old. Trying to get back to who I was before all this shame was imposed upon me. It’s like my gender exploration won’t be done until I’m dead. Like my gender exploration won’t be done until I’m 87, and even then, I’ll be making discoveries. I’ll be like, 'Oh, I have a new idea.' And they’ll be like, 'Jacob, you can’t. You’re too old to do that,' and I’ll be like, 'Never.' Those will be my last words, and then, I’ll kick the bucket and be happy about it. That’s why my gender will never land. The whole point is to fly."
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Photo by Florian Halbedl
Dr. Joshua M. Ferguson is a non-binary trans filmmaker, author, advocate, and artist. They are the subject of an upcoming feature-length documentary entitled Non-Binary.

What does being non-binary mean to you?

"Non-binary is a feeling of freedom. I was assigned a ‘male’ sex at birth, but the truth is that I was born neither a boy nor a girl because gender is self-determined. Over the last few years, I’ve been on a quest to reconnect with who I was when I was a child before I had to conform to the binary. The gender binary can be violently enforced on some of us. I faced severe bullying when I was a teen, and the truth was lost along the way. Then I realized that it was possible to identify as neither a man nor a woman, because this is how I always felt."

How do you feel that the non-binary identity relates to trans identity in general?

"Many people understand trans people to be either trans men or trans women, and that trans people follow a very similar line of transition from one to the other. During my PhD work at The University of British Columbia, I worked through what I call the Transgender Metanarrative, which I understand to be the mainstream narrative of trans identity. The mainstream understanding is that all trans people are either trans men or trans women. But, the trans community is actually quite diverse and I’ve reclaimed my non-binary identity that I lost early on in my life.

"I still feel like the term transgender applies to my identity, because my sex and gender identity do not align according to societal expectations. 'Trans' has evolved into the umbrella term for our community. Two years ago, many people didn’t understand what trans meant without saying transgender. Now, trans is used widely in mainstream discourse. I believe non-binary is a part of the trans umbrella, and I identify as a non-binary trans person. The media has started to use ‘gender non-binary’ to clarify that non-binary is related to gender; however, ‘gender non-binary’ isn’t used by many non-binary people. The visibility building for non-binary identity doesn’t necessitate that we add gender to simplify our identity. Some non-binary people are intersex, so it doesn’t make sense to make non-binary an exclusionary term by adding gender before the term."

Was there something special about the non-binary label that makes it specifically appeal to you over any other potential identifiers?

"For me, non-binary is an anti-category in the sense that it is inclusionary, rather than exclusionary. Non-binary is to gender and sex what queer is to sexuality — fluid and evolving as we change throughout our lives. Non-binary allows people to be who they are, instead of setting limitations about identity while also acting as a term for us to come together under the banner of a vast and diverse community."

California is paving the way for a non-binary option on state IDs. As an advocate for non-binary status on government documents, do you think there should be options besides male, female, and non-binary, or do you think those three options are enough?

"I’ve applied for non-binary legal recognition on my identity documents in Ontario and British Columbia. I’m a proponent for non-binary gender markers on IDs, because I know that it will increase our visibility in society. We need tangible evidence of our existence to challenge our erasure. Non-binary gender markers can encompass many different types of identities that fall outside of the binary. I can’t say whether three options are enough, because the trans community is diverse and the three options might not be enough for people now or in the future. But, what I do know is that we’ve been erased for far too long and that non-binary people have a right to be legally recognized in society and our correct gender markers is a good start!"

Do you think the spectrum of trans identities is something that will continue to expand, or do you see it contracting in any way?

"Well, it’s been wonderful to witness the unprecedented visibility of non-binary identity just within the last year. It’s comforting that so many people are affirming their identity as non-binary. It just feels right because non-binary already signifies a spectrum. Non-binary identity is our truth, and I can imagine that the non-binary community will continue to grow and expand as more people feel comfortable being who they are beyond the myth that gender is only man or woman. It’s an exciting time to highlight to youth and adults alike that non-binary is a legitimate identity."
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Photo by @elif__kucuk
Alok Vaid-Menon is a gender non-conforming writer, educator, and performance artist who has presented their work in more than 30 countries.

What’s your first memory of being gender non-conforming, and when did you fully realize/put a label on it?

"When I was a little kid, I insisted that my parents let me wear my sister's hand-me-downs and only wanted to wear traditionally feminine clothing. It wasn't a problem at the time, so I didn't understand myself as different/marginalized because of it. When I started to go to school and get teased for my appearance, that's when I was made aware of my difference."

Even in the LGBTQ community, there can be a lot of gender-policing of non-conforming people, especially when it comes to whether or not they shave, take hormones, do surgeries, etc. How do you address those who treat you as if you’re somehow incomplete?

"Yes, historically and to this day the LGBT community has not celebrated gender non-conforming people and, in fact, continues to belittle us as failures and imposters. It's extremely challenging to live a gender non-conforming life when everyone else believes that they know what is best for you better than yourself. I try to surround myself with people who understand me for me, and to not dwell on people who are interested in policing my identity and expression."

Do you feel like the terms non-binary/gender-fluid/non-conforming are interchangeable?

"For me they are, but for other people they may not be. I think it's very important to resist homogenization. There are as many ways to be and identify as gender non-conforming as there are gender non-conforming people. There is no one definition, one category, or one way of being. And it's that diversity of experiences that is our strength."

What is the most important thing for cisgender (and some transgender) people to understand about those who identify as non-conforming?

"There are so many, so it's hard to choose! But I would say: The idea that one has to be a man or a woman is relatively new in the scheme of things. Many indigenous cultures and traditions across time had space (and still do) for gender variant expression. Being non-binary isn't some new fad or trend, it's ancient."
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Photo by Mario Torres
Jeffrey Marsh was the first non-binary model to be featured in a bridal gown look book and is a social media ambassador/correspondent for MTV, Logo, VH1, GLSEN, GLAAD, and PFLAG. Their widely viewed inspirational videos led CBS to name them "Viner of the Year."

What’s your first memory of being gender non-conforming, and when did you fully realize/put a label on it?

"I can always remember being me. I get asked this question a lot, but in a slightly different way: 'When did you know you were different?' I always answer that question with a challenge. I’m not different. Growing up, I had no concept that I was different. I realized at a certain point that other people couldn’t handle who I am — that other people had a problem with me — but that’s not the same as feeling 'different.' I always knew I was fully human, and therefore the same as everyone, and that led to a lot of suffering and confusion, because people treated me differently. Things would have made a whole lot more sense if I had felt different, and people had treated me differently.

"To answer your question, I was always me. My mom and dad can tell you stories of me wearing my mom’s clothes or trying on makeup or playing with dolls from long before I have a memory of it. So there wasn’t a clear moment of realization; my experience is more that I’ve always been like this, and other people have always been uncomfortable around me.

"I didn’t have a clear label — non-binary — for my experience until I became well-known on Vine and teens started saying things like, 'What’s your pronoun?' This was years ago and without their guidance, I would never have done more research into people like me."

One of the misconceptions that people seem to have about non-binary or non-conforming people is that we're something new, when in fact they've been around forever. Buddhists and Asian cultures seem to recognize this more readily than the west. Why do you think that is?

"I’ve been Buddhist for over 15 years now, and I lived at a Buddhist monastery for a while. There is the Buddhist concept of non-separation, a recognition that life and nature is one big swirling messy mass that is only arbitrarily divided into categories. I think that concept lends itself well to obliterating something as artificial as a binary view of gender. Of course there are many genders because the concepts of man and woman are totally made up. One of my Buddhist heroes is Guanyin, a non-binary helper kinda-goddess-type person who, as the stories go, can take any gender and any form to help others get further on their spiritual path."

One of the things I hear sometimes is how brave it is to be gender-fluid, when the truth is, most people reach a point when they just can’t live to please other people’s expectations. Oftentimes, those expectations or resistance to genderqueer or non-binary identities have to do with fear. How do we help ameliorate that among people who feel that non-binary people need to pick a side?

"What people fear most is a loss of their own sense of self. I’m a walking metaphor, and what I usually represent for binary-loving people is total chaos. As you point out, though, I’m not chaotic. In fact, owning my identity and celebrating my fluidity is wonderfully grounding and stabilizing. Being me is freeing. But my freedom seems like a loss of stability to most cis folks. In other words, just by existing, I force other people to ask themselves, 'What makes a man?' or, 'If I’m not a woman, what am I?' This reaction — associating me with chaos — seems to be gut-level and not conscious.

"I find that kindness and open-heartedness go a long way to assuage other peoples’ fears. I came to a point long ago where I stopped caring about whether people fear me. If my safety isn’t being threatened, I feel like it’s none of my business. I mean this in the most loving way: I don’t care what you think of me. We have bigger problems on this earth to deal with than someone’s issues about me, and people will either get over their fears or they won’t, and I don’t feel like I need to spend time helping them."

Your message of self-acceptance applies to people who don’t necessarily identify as queer or trans. If there was one thing you would hope these people could relate to or understand about non-binary individuals that applies to them as well, what would it be?

"We are all the same. We all want the same thing. I could probably phrase the thing we all want as 'total unconditional acceptance' or a similar phrase. The human condition applies to me and you and trans folks and cis folks because we are all human first, and we are our identities later. So, the crossroads where we all meet is a choice: Will you live your life trying to please other people, or will you live a life that is authentic to you? I have been told on many occasions that I’m too queer to live. And for others it’s something else. You’re too fat, too shy, too smart...whatever! It’s the 'too's' that will get you, and as non-binary people we can represent living beyond the 'too much' with grace and freedom and total self-acceptance."
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