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What Does It Mean, Exactly, to Be Nonbinary?

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The cultural conversation surrounding gender and sexuality is a never-ending one. Even until recently, in terms of sexuality, it was commonly thought that “gay” and “straight” were the only options, with bisexuality or pansexuality frequently overlooked or completely erased.

When it comes to gender, public understanding is also becoming much more nuanced. More and more individuals are feeling able to come out as transgender (although trans people and trans women in particular remain socially marginalized). But again, there are many who feel they do not sit comfortably in an either/or category. Gender, like sexuality, is a spectrum, and somebody who sits somewhere between the two extremes might identify as nonbinary.

What does it mean to be nonbinary?

Put simply, somebody who is nonbinary or gender nonconforming doesn’t necessarily feel that they conform to a male or female gender identity, or they relate to elements of both, or neither. As such, a nonbinary individual might prefer that they be addressed using ‘they’ and ‘them’ personal pronouns, rather than ‘he’ and ‘him’ or ‘she’ and ‘her’.

“Many of my earliest memories are based around my struggle to conform to a gender,” says Tom, 41, who uses he and they pronouns. “At four years old I understood that I wasn’t supposed to ‘walk like a girl.’ No one had told me that, I just absorbed it from observing how others were behaving. Left to my own conclusions, I’m honestly not sure if I would have committed to a gender at all.”

Amandine, 34, started using they/them pronouns last year, and found that it made a profound difference in their life. “I started to love myself, even though it is an ongoing thing,” they say. “I still have a long way to go, but it starts to feel very right, and that is the best thing. My whole life makes sense now. And because I really start to love myself, I have no intention in transitioning of any kind. I don’t feel right using she/her because that’s part of why I don’t feel good. But at the same time, I know I am not a man. I want to be true to myself and not pretend I am who I am not, therefore he/him aren’t viable for me. They/them are neutral and they are the best. The first time people used it, it felt as weird as it did right. It felt so good.”

Being nonbinary is sometimes conflated with being trans. Nonbinary people (also known as “enby” people or “enbies,” from N.B.) exist within the transgender umbrella, as they do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. While there are overlaps between the two identities, they are not the same; some people may identify as trans and nonbinary, while others may feel that only one of those descriptors applies to them. Much like the rest of the trans community, nonbinary people remain underrepresented in mainstream culture and media, which is why they are still so misunderstood by many.

“Everyone reacts to them as if this is a brand new phenomenon,” says Tom. “When actually, we’ve been here the whole time, but have been ignored or shamed into hiding… For most of my life I considered myself to be a gay male, because it was the best fit from the available options. For those who already survived the fear and stigma of coming out as gay long ago, there’s this additional anxiety about reliving all of that, or seeming confused about who you are, or seeking attention to be ‘trendy.’ It’s so much easier to just wear the ill-fitting shoe, because it already got you this far.”

“I have found there is much more support and patience in the trans community than among gay men, in terms of helping everyone feel desirable and valid,” they add. “You can show up as your entire self, and that brings new sexual thresholds, new relationships, and a much more optimistic (or maybe just realistic) outlook about the future of gender and sexuality.”

nonbinary flag

Miguel SotomayorGetty Images

Celebrities who have come out as nonbinary

Over the last couple of years, several prominent public figures have publicly expressed that they identify as nonbinary. Perhaps two of the most prominent examples are singer Sam Smith, who has spoken in interviews about feeling “just as much a woman” as a man,. and Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness.

Singer Demi Lovato now goes by they/them pronouns, having said: “I feel that this best represents the fluidity I feel in my gender expression and allows me to feel most authentic and true to the person I both know I am and still am discovering.”

Other actors who have spoken publicly about their nonbinary identity include Asia Kate Dillon (Billions, John Wick Chapter 3), Nico Tortorella (Younger), and Indya Moore, who is best known for playing a trans woman on the critically acclaimed drama series Pose but identifies as non-binary in real life.

There are also a number of nonbinary artists and performers who explore gender identity in their work, including RuPaul’s Drag Race stars Bob the Drag Queen, Adore Delano, Shea Couleé, Sasha Velour, and Violet Chachki.

What are the signs I might be nonbinary?

There is no one single definition of what it means to be nonbinary: the label might feel different depending on the person, and some might resist the idea of being categorized entirely.

“In my experience as a mental health professional, people who identify as non-binary often describe feeling their gender in two main ways—feeling like they exist between the binaries of male and female, or existing beyond the binary or consuming the gender continuum entirely,” says therapist Jor-El Carabello LMHC. “Often, exploration can look like a process and I think it’s important that people recognize that understanding yourself, and your gender, has to be done on your own time and your own way.”

Once you have figured out that nonbinary is a term that fits you, and that gender-neutral pronouns feel more appropriate or suitable, Carabello advises taking care with how you first begin to share that information.

“We can’t overstate how important it is to be seen as your true self, and how vulnerable that can make you feel,” he says. “I often recommend clients start with a close friend or generally supportive figure first. This could be a good friend, a partner, parent or teacher… or even a therapist. It can help ease you into a process of exploring this part of your identity to others in a lower risk space before you figure out how you’d like to (and if you want to) share your pronouns with others more widely.”

Carabello also has some advice for cisgender people who are given this new information, acknowledging that sometimes there is a learning curve involved and that some folks might trip over the language to begin with. “When I talk about misgendering, my recommendation is often ‘apologize, adjust and move on,'” he says. “I think it’s most critical for others to work very hard at honoring someone’s pronouns (this practice also reduces suicidality by about 50% for transgender youth), with some acknowledgement that we all make mistakes from time to time. But it’s important to make a concerted effort.”

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