To be non-binary generally means that you, (you: your soul, personality, brain, self) are neither a man nor a woman. Some non-binary people count themselves as part of the trans community, as they are not the gender they were assigned at birth. Many non-binary people, myself included, use they/them pronouns, but not all. You can be non-binary and use she/her or he/him pronouns. Some non-binary people use neopronouns, or ask that you just mix up pronouns as you go. Some non-binary people change their names. Some non-binary people describe themselves as being between masculine and feminine identities; some belong completely outside the system of gender.
To make these concepts more accessible I’d like to expand them out a little. So what follows will be a quick discussion of gender, language, and self understanding.
Gender, even without discussing non-binary identities, is not binary. Because concepts like ‘womanhood’ or ‘masculinity’ are not stable, and are not the same for everyone. A black woman will have a different experience of what womanhood means to a white woman, or a woman from the Middle East, or a woman from East Asia. And we have different expectations of upper-class masculinity, working-class masculinity, teenage masculinity, middle-aged masculinity. And different people have different levels of attachment to their gender. “What is a real man?” “What is a real woman?” How often have you asked yourself these questions? How often have you measured yourself against whatever standard you emerged with? Some people are more interested than others. Some people are more attached to their gender than others. Some people are more attached to things stereotyped to their genders than others (and this is different)!
All of these things are different spectrums relating to genders, and you can fall anywhere on these spectrums and not identify as trans or non binary. Or you can. Or you might not now, and might later. For myself, these subjects are interesting, but not urgent. This is an important topic for me because while many gender writers discuss the diversity of the queer community, I want to be clear that humanity is just diverse. If you’re a straight cis man, your friend, also a straight cis man, might think of and interact with his gender in a completely different manner to you. In the same way, very few non-binary people think of their genders in similar ways. And because there’s less established ways of thinking about non-binary identities, a new and sometimes complex set of words and grammars had to be created.
Language is both a construct and, largely, an accident. I’m mentioning this, because people get very het up about people doing language wrong. Especially with regard to queer identities. But for all of human history, people have played with language, words, grammar, and pronouns. A large proportion of non-binary people prefer not to use masculine or feminine pronouns. I can’t tell you everyone’s reasons for this. For me, being called the wrong pronouns feels like people consistently mispronouncing my name, or calling me by my sibling’s name. I know they mean me, but it’s wrong, grating. And the type of manners that lead you to want to pronounce someone’s name correctly are the same manners that lead to correct pronoun usage.
Don’t get too worried. English also uses a plural pronoun to refer to singular individuals in the second person. “You” is the plural / formal version of “thou”, and English speaking people have accepted this as correct when referring to an individual.
But people have always used grammar to express their identity. English speaking royals speak in plural first person (“we are not amused” = ‘I am not amused’) and the English upper class historically use the third person indefinite (“one wouldn’t like to say” = ‘I don’t want to say’). Julius Caesar apparently spoke of himself in third person, as does, say, Terry Jeffords in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Japanese has eight different first person singular pronouns. (English has one set: “I/me”.) These express different levels of formality, and some are gendered. Old Norse has a neuter singular pronoun, to go with the ‘he’ and ‘she’ equivalents, as well as three different plurals. So, ‘they, men’, ‘they, women’, and ‘they, mixed/neutral’. Whatever language you speak, its grammatical systems are idiosyncratic, and not always useful or specific enough for your purposes. If I said to a friend, “we’re going out after this”, am I talking about me and the person I’m talking to, or me and some other people? English doesn’t specify.
We want to be specific when talking about ourselves and other people. We want to be accurate, and understood. Thus, the use of correct pronouns. Whether this be he/him, she/her, they/them, neopronouns (that take a singular form of ‘to be’), or swapping between different pronouns.
I knew non-binary identities existed for maybe two or three years before I realised that was me. Looking back, I’d been thinking about it longer than this. My favourite mythical or magical characters were those that swapped genders enough to have no fixed “real” gender. My fantasy acting role was one which (for convoluted plot reasons that I never bothered to actually figure out) required me, the actor, to keep my ‘real’ gender a secret. And I was already aware as a teen that gender was largely a construct. A medieval ‘woman’ was absolutely not the same thing as a modern woman, or a woman living in ancient Rome. Not just with regards to rights and societal roles, but the entire conception of what it meant and means to be a person is different across time and space. Gender isn’t going to be any more consistent than that.
But it is complicated. It is potentially complicated for everyone. I don’t have universal answers for questions about how innate gender is, how much is social construct, how much really exists in your soul. I know feminine things don’t make you a woman, and masculine things don’t make you a man. Something, it seems, does, but I definitely don’t have that thing. Or at least, I don’t now, in this society, in this life, and I haven’t for a very long time. And I can’t speak for all non-binary people, but I can point you towards some of the things whose instability might point you towards some of your own answers, about what exactly your gender is, and why you call it what you call it.
This week HuffPost UK is running Being Non-Binary, a series of first-person perspectives exploring what it means to be non-binary, looking at how non-binary gender identity relates to different people’s personal, professional and romantic lives. If you would like to share your experience, please do get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org