What Does It Mean to Be Non-Binary, Exactly?

·7 min read

ICYMI: Demi Lovato came out as non-binary last month. "I am proud to let you know that I identify as non-binary and will officially be changing my pronouns to they/them moving forward," they wrote in an Instagram caption. By sharing their identity with the world, the 'Camp Rock' turned platinum pop star joins a long list of Disney Channel celebs who grew up and came out as non-binary, which includes Miley Cyrus and Amandla Stenberg.

But while knowing celebs who identify as non-binary is important for raising awareness (FYI, just last week marked Non-Binary Awareness Week), it's also important to do the work to understand non-binary people so you can be both supportive and respectful. To help with the latter, we called up three non-binary gender-affirming therapists and sexuality educators to answer all your questions about what it means to be non-binary.

What Does Non-Binary Mean, Exactly?

Quick: Think back to the last time you filled out a patient, student, or employee intake form. Likely, you had to check 'M' for man, or 'W' for woman. That's because Western society has structured gender as a binary, meaning an either/or set of options.

Someone who is non-binary has a gender that does not neatly fit into this binaristic model, explains Jesse Kahn, L.C.S.W., C.S.T., director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC. "It describes a person whose gender is neither man nor woman and can be beyond, in between, and/or completely independent of the gender binary," they say.

For some folks 'non-binary' is their gender, in the same way someone else might be a 'man' or 'woman'. For others, non-binary functions an umbrella term, naming, generally, the fact that their gender does not neatly fit into the 'man' or 'woman' boxes. Folks in the latter category may feel that their gender is accurately named by a more specific term such as transmasculine gender outlaw, genderfluid femme, butch boi, or leather Daddy dyke (to name just a few).

Is Non-Binary the Same As Transgender?

The two terms are not synonymous. But "for some people, the two terms may intersect or overlap," says pleasure-based, queer- and polyamory- inclusive sex educator and sex-positivity advocate Lateef Taylor. To understand why, you need to understand what 'transgender' means, and to fully understand what transgender means, we need to time-travel back to when you were in a fetus. Ready?

While you were in utero, likely your doctor performed an ultrasound, eyed whether or not you had a tiny penis or vagina, then proclaimed proudly 'girl' or 'boy'. Despite what "gender reveal" parties might have you believe, this doctor wasn't actually checking your gender, they were checking your sex, says Rae McDaniel, a non-binary licensed clinical counselor and gender and sex therapist based in Chicago.

Different from gender, sex names someone's external parts, they explain. "And gender names someone's internal understanding of who they are."

For some people, their sex assigned at (or before) birth ends up aligning with their gender. Meaning, they have a vagina and identify as a woman, or have a penis and identify as a man. Categorically, these folks are known as cisgender. "The prefix 'cis' means 'on the same side as'," explains McDaniel, "so someone cisgender has a gender that is on the same side as their sex." For others, their sex and gender do not align, and these folks are known as transgender. The prefix 'trans' means 'on the other side of', so someone transgender has a gender that is on a different side than the one they were assigned at birth.

Some non-binary people view transgender as an umbrella term, and identify as both non-binary and transgender, says McDaniel. But other non-binary folks do not resonate with the term 'transgender' at all. Similarly, there are some binary transgender (i.e. trans man or trans women) people who are not non-binary because they do fit into the 'man' or 'woman' box, they explain.

What Does This Mean For My Sexuality?

'Non-binary' is a gender and gender is not the same as sexuality, says Taylor. "No matter your gender, your sexuality is up for you to name," they say.

Indeed, there are non-binary people all across the sexuality spectrum. "Someone who lived their entire life as a gay man may continue to identify as gay after coming out as non-binary," they say. After bucking traditional gender boxes, some non-binary people find themselves gravitating towards more expansive sexual orientation terms like queer, bisexual, polysexual, or omnisexual. In other words, it's hugely individual.

RELATED: What Does It Really Mean to Identify as Pansexual?

For the record: Coming out as non-binary does not necessarily mean anything about the non-binary partner(s)'s sexuality, if they're currently partnered. Their partner can identify by whatever sexuality label they want to, so long as they're able to affirm their non-binary partner's gender in other ways.

Am I Non-Binary? How To Explore Your Gender

Frankly, it is extremely uncommon for people who are cisgender to question their gender, says Taylor. And if the first time you thought about exploring your gender was after reading this article, odds are you're not non-binary. However, if you have found yourself asking questions about your gender and gender presentation previously, exploring your gender could bring you some clarity, they say. These tips can help.

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1. Think about the role gender plays in your life.

"Gender is a powerful force that has existed in all of our lives since before we were born," says McDaniel. (Yep, all of our lives!). For people all across the gender spectrum, "it can be helpful to un-pack the ways you've been indoctrinated into a gendered world," they say.

To start, ask yourself questions such as: What have I been told is true about men and women? How has being raised [insert gender here] impacted the activities I've participated in, clothes I've worn, and ways I've taken up space?

2. Explore your gender expression.

Slightly different from gender, McDaniel defines gender expression as the way someone chooses to showcase (ahem, express) their gender to the outside world through things like clothing, head and body hair choices, behavior, and voice and speech patterns.

"Ask yourself what the teeniest tiniest step you can take to express your gender in a way that feels good to you, and take that step," they say. If that means a haircut? Snip, snip, bitches! If that means swapping dresses for pants? Pull out that donation bag and go shopping! If that means piercing your face? Call up your bestie with the strongest grip!

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3. Try on different pronouns.

Non-binary people can (and do!) use any set of pronouns. Some non-binary people (like Jonathan Van Ness) use binary pronouns like she/her and he/him, others (like Lovato) use non-binary pronouns like they/them. A third group uses neopronouns like ze/hir/hirs, and some non-binary people use multiple sets of pronouns or no pronouns at all. Hoorah for options!

If the pronouns you currently use feel pretty good, go ahead and scroll past this step. But if the pronouns you currently use feel like walking around in a too-tight, itchy turtleneck, or otherwise induces gender dysphoria, Taylor recommends playing around with the pronouns you use. "Exploring your gender is all about playing around with reclaiming things like pronouns, names, and dress," they say.

It is perfectly kosher to ask different people or groups to try on different pronouns for you as you figure out which pronouns most align with your gender, according to Taylor. You might say, "I'm currently playing around with my pronouns, so I'd love it if you start using they/them in addition to she/her for me." Or, "In this space I use he/him pronouns!".

4. Follow people all across the gender spectrum on social media.

First things first, give any transphobes lingering on your "Following" list the boot. Next, refill your feeds with people (celebs, influencers, athletes, etc) all across the gender spectrum.

Why? Because "representation goes a long way," says McDaniel. "Queering up your social feeds will introduce you to — and normalize — a variety of ways of being and existing." If you're not sure where to start, give Jeffrey Marsh, Caroline Colvin, Miki Ratsula, Alok Vaid-Menon, Jacob Tobia, Jordan Underwood, James Rose, Ericka Hart, and Rain Dove a follow.