What Is Non-Binary?
Medically reviewed by Lauren Schlanger, MD
"Non-binary" is a term used to describe people who do not identify exclusively as male or female. The term encompasses a variety of gender identities and expressions that fall outside of the traditional binary system of gender, which categorizes people as either male or female.
This article explores gender identity as a spectrum. It will familiarize you with the language used to describe various gender identities and non-binary pronouns and explain the difference between gender expression and sexual orientation.
Definition of Non-Binary: Who Are Non-Binary People?
Non-binary people are those whose gender identity and/or gender expression fall outside of the traditional binary gender categories of "man" or "woman." Some non-binary people identify as a blend of male and female; others identify as a gender different from male or female; some do not identify with any gender.
The term "non-binary" is sometimes shortened to "enby" (the phonetic pronunciation of the initials "NB" for "non-binary"), though not every non-binary person uses that term. Non-binary people may use various terms to describe themselves, including:
Genderqueer: A person who does not adhere to conventional gender norms
Agender: A person who does not identify with any gender
Genderfluid: A person whose gender identity is not fixed and may change over time
Demigender: A person who feels a partial connection to a particular gender
Intergender: A person who identifies as both male and female or as a combination of both genders
Pangender: A person who identifies as many genders
Androgynous: A person whose gender expression is a mix of masculine and feminine traits or who identifies as having a gender that is neither exclusively male nor female
Gender nonconforming: A person who does not conform to societal expectations or norms around gender expression or identity
Transgender/trans: A person whose gender identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth
Everyone's experience of gender is unique and personal, and there is no right or wrong way to express or define your gender.
If you are questioning your gender identity and wondering if you are non-binary, know that it is normal and valid to explore your gender identity. Some signs that you may be non-binary include:
Feeling uncomfortable with the traditional binary gender categories of male and female
Feeling like you don't fit in with the expectations or stereotypes associated with your assigned gender
Feeling like you exist somewhere in between male and female or outside of the gender binary entirely
Consider talking to a medical or mental health professional with experience in gender identity for support in navigating your own gender identity.
A pronoun is a word used to replace a noun. In the context of gender, pronouns refer to someone without using their name, such as "he" (masculine) or "she" (feminine).
Non-binary people may use pronouns that do not fit the pronoun associated with the gender assigned at birth and instead use pronouns that more accurately reflect their gender identity. "They/them" are gender-neutral pronouns that refer to someone without assuming their gender identity.
Many non-binary people use "they/them" pronouns, though not all do. Some may use "he/him" or "she/her" pronouns or a combination of both. Others may wish to refrain from using pronouns and instead ask you to use their name. Some nonbinary people use newer gender-neutral pronouns called neopronouns, such as ze/zir/zirs.
Gender pronouns and neopronouns non-binary people may choose to use include:
It's always best to ask people their preferred pronouns and what words they use to describe their gender identity. Using a person's chosen pronouns shows respect and helps foster a sense of safety and inclusivity.
Are Transgender People Non-Binary?
Transgender people and non-binary people are two distinct but related groups. While some transgender (trans) people are non-binary, most trans folks identify as either male or female. To understand the difference, it can help to know what it means to be transgender, cisgender, and nonbinary, such as:
Transgender: Someone who identifies with a gender different from the one assigned at birth; for example, someone assigned male at birth (AMAB) but identifies as a female is a transgender woman
Cisgender: Someone whose gender identity aligns with the one they were assigned at birth; for example, someone who was assigned female at birth (AFAB) and identifies as a woman
Non-binary: Someone who identifies with a gender outside the traditional binary of male and female, which can include people who identify as genderqueer, agender, or genderfluid (among others)
While some may consider non-binary people a subset of transgender folks, not all non-binary people identify as trans. Some non-binary people may see themselves as being separate from the gender binary entirely, while others may feel that they exist somewhere between male and female.
Gender identity is personal and individual, and everyone's experience is unique. Some transgender people may identify as non-binary, while others may identify as strictly male or female. Similarly, some non-binary people may identify as transgender, while others may not. Ultimately, it is up to each individual to determine how they identify and what labels (if any) feel most comfortable for them.
What Is Gender Dysphoria?
The term "gender dysphoria" refers to the discomfort or distress some non-binary people experience due to their gender identity not aligning with their assigned gender at birth. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines "gender dysphoria" as "clinically significant distress or impairment related to gender incongruence, which may include a desire to change primary and/or secondary sex characteristics."
There is controversy surrounding the concept of gender dysphoria as some people believe the term pathologizes non-binary identities, meaning it regards certain people as psychologically abnormal or unhealthy. In this way, gender dysphoria is thought of as a mental illness rather than just a normal part of the broad spectrum of human gender. The concept is harmful and plays a role in the discrimination gender nonconforming people face.
Ultimately, the controversy around gender dysphoria highlights the complex and evolving understanding of non-binary identities within the larger context of gender and identity.
Non-Binary and Sexual Orientation
Though gender identity and sexual orientation are often assumed to be related, they are distinct from one another. Gender identity is how you feel or experience your gender, which may or may not reflect the sex you were assigned at birth. Sexual orientation, on the other hand, refers to your emotional and physical attraction to others.
Gender identity does not determine sexual orientation. Non-binary people have diverse sexual orientations and may identify as gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or any other sexual orientation.
Resources for Non-Binary People
If you are non-binary, questioning your gender identity, or know someone who is, you are not alone. A recent study found that about 11% of U.S. adults in the LGBTQ+ community—approximately 1.2 million people—identify as non-binary. That number is even higher among LGBTQ+ youth, with 48% between 13 and 22 identifying as transgender or non-binary.
Living outside of the gender binary can be challenging, and many non-binary people face discrimination, harassment, or lack of understanding from family, friends, and society. Access to resources and support can help non-binary people and allies connect with a community that shares similar experiences. Resources include:
National Center for Transgender Equality: Provides resources for members of the trans and non-binary communities and advocates for policy and societal changes to increase the acceptance of transgender people in the United States
Gender Spectrum: Nationwide organization that offers online and in-person social support groups for transgender and non-binary young people, parents, and other family members
The Trevor Project: Provides 24/7 support and information to LGBTQ youth and offers a moderated online community for LGBTQ youth called TrevorSpace, where young people can find support and advice to safely explore their identity
Trans Lifeline: A trans-run organization that connects trans and non-binary people to support and resources
Gender Creative Kids: Community organization that supports non-binary, trans, and genderfluid youth, their families, schools, and communities
How to Use Non-Binary Pronouns
Using non-binary pronouns is a simple way to show respect and validation for someone's gender identity. Here are some tips on how to use non-binary pronouns:
Ask for their pronouns: If you are unsure of someone's pronouns, ask respectfully. You can share your pronouns and ask, "What pronouns do you use?" or "Can you share your pronouns with me?" It's always best to avoid assuming someone's pronouns based on appearance or societal stereotypes.
Practice using their pronouns: Once you know someone's pronouns, practice using them. You can do this by using their pronouns when referring to them in conversation, writing, or other forms of communication. If you make a mistake, apologize and correct yourself.
Use gender-neutral language: If you are unsure of someone's pronouns, or if someone uses gender-neutral pronouns like they/them, you can use gender-neutral language instead of gendered language. For example, instead of saying "he" or "she," you can say "they" or use their name instead.
Educate yourself: Learn as much as possible about non-binary identities and pronouns to better understand and support non-binary people. Many educational resources, including guides, videos, and articles, are available online to help you learn more about non-binary identities and pronouns.
Remember that using someone's correct pronouns is an important way to show respect and support for their gender identity. By learning and using non-binary pronouns, you can help create a more inclusive and affirming environment for everyone.
"Non-binary" is a broad term that describes people whose gender identity is not exclusively male or female. Non-binary people may identify as a combination of genders, a gender that is neither male nor female, or may not identify with any gender. Non-binary people may use a variety of pronouns. Using a person's correct pronouns is a good way to show respect and support for their gender identity.
Non-binary people often face challenges accessing resources and support due to a lack of understanding or awareness about non-binary identities. By learning as much as you can about non-binary identities, you can provide the support and allyship that non-binary people deserve to live authentically and with dignity.