Non-binary 101

Non-binary 101

July 14th is International Non-Binary People’s Day, which also kickstarts Non-Binary Awareness Week. The non-binary identity may seem relatively new to some people— But people outside of the gender binary have always existed, both in the West, as well as more gender-diverse cultures.

The Basics

The term Non-binary comes from the gender binary, which is the mostly western idea of a person’s gender being either male or female, with no other options. Non-binary refers to people who do not conform to one of these two labels, and are therefore outside the binary.

Some non-binary people identify as trans, but not all. Transgender generally refers to people whose gender identity is different than the one they were assigned at birth, meaning different from the gender the doctor decided they were, according to bodily characteristics, when they were born. 

Some non-binary people may feel gender dysphoria, which is a feeling of discomfort in one’s assigned gender, and want to medically transition, while others may not. Dysphoria does not define whether a person is non-binary enough. A better signifier of gender is gender euphoria, an intense joy or comfort in one’s gender identity and expression.

Different non-binary people may use different pronouns, have different gender expressions and a different complicated relationship with gender as a whole. Non-binary people can be of any age and race, social and economic status.

In Slovenia, there is an estimation of around 10.000 trans people in general, while in the United States alone, there’s at least 1.2 million non-binary adults. But being part of a marginalized identity comes with its own costs on mental health. Out of the people included in the previous study, 94% have reported suicidal ideation at some point in their life.

It’s important to talk about both the joys and the struggles that non-binary people go through because of their identity. We asked several different people who identify as non-binary to talk to us about their experience navigating life and have used their responses to focus on some main points about the non-binary experience.

When do people generally start relating to non-binary identities?

Almost every participant from our survey said that they realized they’re non-binary in their late teens or early twenties. An important factor that people mentioned is learning about non-binary identities. Most of the participants indicated that upon learning about non-binary identities and different definitions of gender, something inside their mind connected and usually they instantly knew their gender is outside the binary. Some people also said that if they knew about non-binary identities before they did, they would have started relating to it sooner. This indicates that education about non-binary identities played an important role for our interviewees regarding identity discovery. We should be given the chance to learn more about gender identity at school, since discovering a part of yourself and understanding how society can misunderstand you on a daily basis plays a part in one’s mental health.

A lot of non-binary people discover their gender identity later in life and that is very important to say, because non-binary people are frequently viewed as youngsters “going through a phase”. In that sense, we can also see a lot of similarities in how society views non-binary people and bisexuals. It is also important to note that that “phase” seems to never end, that is to say that people who realize they are non-binary usually never stop relating to that identity. Is a phase still a phase if it doesn’t end? I would say not.

I think I realized when I was about 18 […], simply when I fully internalized that the definition of gender is less fixed than I thought. I am a very theoretical/logical person and in that moment that just made a lot of sense.” 
– Hannah F, she/they/ona/sie

“[I realized] when I was about 25 years old. At that point I got to know the non binary concept. probably I would describe myself as non binary even before if I would have had a language for that.”
– Nils, he/they

I always didn’t relate to gender but also to queer movements because I felt not legit to be assimilated with people that actually “had to fight” for the gender of their choice to be recognized. And then I met non-binary people who made me feel legit a year ago.
– Marlene, any pronouns

One identity, many different interpretations

Non-binary is an identity that doesn’t relate to a specific societal gender, and is therefore very interesting in the different ways people express and connect with it. Some people may appear more androgynous or go through medical transition, while others may not change a single thing about their appearance, and be perceived by the general society as their assigned gender at birth. The connecting point of all the people we interviewed was a sense of freedom that being non-binary makes them feel. It’s the feeling of not having to bend to society’s expectations of how you should act according to your assigned gender, being able to not be woman or man, but just Yourself.

“To me personally it was a game of what I’m not – that is, I’m not either a woman or a man. That is how I will usually come out of the closet – saying the genders on offer don’t fit, but I am happy.”
– Leo, on/they

“It gives me more freedom. I am still seen as a man by society and I am aware that I am holding male privilege, but in my inner circles and close relationships I exist only as Filip and have no need to define my gender.”
– Filip, they/them 

“This identity is very personal to me, as I relate it to who I am at the very core. who I am without being affected by external forces of society and the people around me. when I connect and nurture my ‘higher self,’ my spiritual self, the self whose intuition and innate reactions and feelings I know I can trust, that is when I feel most non-binary, most like myself.”
– Hannah F , she/they/ona/sie

“It adds a layer to my feminist fight and deeply brings it together with lgbtiq+ fight. It also brings even more freedom to be myself because these welcoming non-binary people I met showed me that their is no right or wrong way to be non-binary / transgender”
– Marlene (any pronouns)

“It gives me freedom and the right to be OK with how I feel. It also gives me the possibility of breaking the gender norms and rules that we have in the binary world.”
– Nils, he/they

The non-binary community

Our interviewees, upon being asked whether they are connected to the non-binary community (including the global online community), expressed the need of having more events, especially support groups meant specifically for non-binary individuals. Some people also said they personally don’t feel the need to connect with the community, but would be happy if there was a stronger community for the ones who do. The interviewees whose discovery of them being non-binary is recent, feel the need to connect with other non-binary people more than those who’ve realized they’re non-binary more than a couple of years ago

“[…] I know some people from different occasions in my life and I follow them on instagram, but we do not meet or talk regularly and sometimes I am even too shy to say hi to them on the street.”
– Hannah, she/they/ona/sie

What is worrying is, that some interviewees mentioned having bad experience in the non-binary community, because of some harmful individuals in the trans/non-binary community in Ljubljana.

“[…] Slovenian community is very scattered and non-homogenic, which is fine, but there is a lot of trauma engraved into non-binary and trans community here. Some individuals from these communities are just very toxic and they affect other members. I don’t feel a need to be that connected to it, but I still wish the community would be more stable.”
– Filip, they/them

A lot of people are also hopeful for the future. In June of 2021 there was a non-binary support group organized by Društvo Kvartir for the participants of their event, Transposium, which made a lot of non-binary people excited for more  similar events.

“[…] after the discussions […] in Transposium, many people were into making group talks like this on a regular basis.”
– Marlene, any pronouns

In addition to more non-binary events, interviewees also expressed the need for more visibility, both in the queer community and general public, including sharing more personal stories. Another thing mentioned was access to more queer-friendly therapists.

Struggles that come with being non-binary

There are a few struggles that a lot of interviewees wrote about, one of the main being language. A lot of languages, including Slovene and other Balkan languages, don’t have a gender neutral pronoun that could be used as an equivalent to the English pronoun they. That leaves non-binary people that want to use gender neutral pronouns in their native languages usually only with the option of using both grammatically feminine and masculine pronouns interchangeably, which isn’t an ideal choice for all and it is mostly used for lack of a better solution.

Furthermore, let’s talk about transphobia. Interviewees mentioned they are struggling with hearing transphobic “jokes” and comments. These are the results of the gendered society we are raised in, and which is the reason behind most, if not all, other struggles non-binary individuals go though.

“Trying to escape this world made me very weak, tired and [to lose] a lot of precious time. I struggle with having been raised as a stupid woman which made me become something that I hate.”
– Marlene, any pronouns

Being misgendered is fairly common for non-binary people, even when talking in English and using the pronoun they, because most people will assume you’re either a man or a woman. What a lot of people don’t know is that you can still misgender a non-binary person, even if you use the right pronouns for them, with words like: man, woman, mother, brother, and similar. As mentioned before, that’s even more likely in gendered languages like Slovene.

“[…] If I want people to know that i am non-binary, I have to tell them that directly and often explain it. I don’t always have the energy to do so, so sometimes I just go by a man and he/him pronouns.”
 – Filip, they/them

All of the struggles mentioned until now make coming out a complicated process. Interviewees mentioned they are afraid of confusing people, because their appearance doesn’t go with the idea of a stereotypical non-binary person- that is, if the people to whom they are coming out to have even heard of non-binary identities in the first place. Coming out is a difficult mission for every queer person, but the invisibility of non-binary identities in the general public can make it a step harder for non-binary individuals.

Talking about invisibility, a lot of non-binary people feel the need to pressure themselves into an activistic role just because there is a necessity of their identities being more visible.

“[I am] feeling a pressure to come out and be an activist, but [I am also scared] of taking on that role, as one also just wants to exist.”
– Hannah F, she/they/ona/sie

Invisibility can also make cisgender and binary transgender people ignorant, afraid of asking questions, asking the wrong questions or overall avoidant to the topic of someone’s non-binary identity. That is why it’s important to talk about it, have non-binary events and be as loud as possible. It is vital to make people in the general public as well as people in the queer community listen.

“People [are] nervous and/or unsure about how to talk to me about transness and/or my trans friends or partners and [are] avoiding the topic.”
– Hannah F, she/they/ona/sie

Another thing worth mentioning is intersectionality. The struggles of race, gender and class, as well as all other struggling communities, are not separate issues, but are connected by intersecting systems of discrimination. It’s important when considering the struggles of non-binary people, to also remember that their other social and political identities also affect their experience with gender.

“Having the intersection of also being a migrant/having a family [with] a migration history, [who] has been trying to survive in an oppressive environment for years and has been forced to conform to the new society and norms and therefore have high expectations for you.”
– Hannah, she/they/ona/sie

The last problem worth mentioning is internalised transphobia. Even inside the non-binary community there are some hurtful stereotypes surrounding non-binary identities. If you are a non-binary person who was assigned female at birth and you have more feminine gender expression some people will not take your identity as seriously, and the same goes for people who were assigned male at birth and have a more masculine gender expression. The stereotype that all non-binary people are androgynous is used to make non-binary people feel “not trans enough” and is actively hurting the non-binary community and every non-binary individual.

 “No one really sees my identity because I look like I should […]”.
– Marlene, any pronouns

Finally, there is the false idea that you can’t be both a non-binary person and a transgender man/woman. Identities and labels exist to help people find communities to fit into and figure themselves out easier, and can be combined in many different ways, as long as they’re serving the person that uses them.

“My everyday struggle was to identify if I am a trans man or a non binary person. But then, because sometimes I understand myself as both, is my identity a beautiful spectrum of diversities.”
– Nils, he/they

Common Misconceptions

As with any LGBTQIA+ identity, non-binary comes with many misconceptions, both from outside and within the community.

First of all, there’s a lot of confusion over whether non-binary is something new, a phase or a “fad” that young people partake in, something completely unnatural. But non-binary identities have existed for millennial throughout different cultures. It might be something most western individuals are not familiar with or used to, but that does not change its legitimacy and very real history.

Even after the acceptance of non-binary as a valid identity, there’s the misconception that all non-binary people have a specific look and way of acting. There is the stereotypical notion of a non-binary person being usually afab (assigned female at birth), thin, white and androgynous, therefore excluding a lot of people’s experiences and creating a rigid set of ideas that closely resembles trying to fit non-binary into a “third” gender. 
This is often done by people who “mean well”, but just don’t have the knowledge and understanding of non-binary identities. But this notion of non-binary as the third gender can be very hurtful. Non-binary is, like the name says, outside of binary and refers to people who do not comform to one of the two gender labels.
Non-binary people can and do express their gender in many different ways, in varying degrees or femininity and masculinity, and can be of any assigned any gender at birth. They may or may not go through gender affirming surgeries or HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy), may have dysphoria or may not have ever experienced dysphoria at all. There’s no right or wrong way to be non-binary.

Lastly, it seems like a very obvious thing, but it’s something some non-binary people have to deal with hearing- Non-binary people are not in some way special or different than other, “ordinary” people. They’re not all activists, or trying to show off or get attention in any way. Non-binary is a label that any person could use to define their gender

“I think the most often ones are ones like you’re just confused, there is nothing outside of the binary, it’s just a phase or you’re actually just the other end of the binary. None of it is true for me of course, and just adding for anyone who might fit in these categories there is nothing wrong with questioning or trying out an identity either (outside the nothing outside of the binary one, that one’s false for sure). It’s just basic respect for me to respect what a person says about themselves – they will know themselves best.” 
– Leo, on/they

“That we look all the same and feel the same, that we must be half – half in our gender expression and behavior”
– Nils, he/they

So, how can you be a good ally to non-binary people?

Here are some ideas:

– When you meet new people, ask for their pronouns and share your own pronouns, especially when talking to cis people. That helps demystify pronouns and makes them more ordinary.

– Respect people’s pronouns. If you’re having trouble with them, try repeating phrases where you use the person’s pronouns in your head to get used to it, ex. They are going to the bathroom. Ens is interested in sports.

– Examine your internalized transphobia, your relationship with your gender and your subconscious prejudices, as well as your privilege.

– Read about trans people and trans history, talk to trans people, make trans friends! Listen to trans people when they talk about their experiences.

– Stand up against transphobia wherever you see it.

– Be a safe person for people to come out to.

– Stand up against classism, (environmental) racism, sexism and other oppressive structures too, as they all effect trans non-binary people as well.

– If you can, see how you can contribute money and/or time to organizations fighting for trans rights (for example, Društvo Kvartir, Transakcija and other organizations in Slovenia)

Written by Myrto Chouliara and Lan Aidan



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