Gender identity is as individual and unique as we are. Our conception of who we are — whether we identify as a man, a woman, neither, both or somewhere in between — is based on our own perception, expressed in ways that may or may not align with the social norms. Gender identity and expression are susceptible to doubt, ignorance and even harm, especially when they do not conform to normalized social traits and behaviors.
Everyone’s own perception of themselves deserves to be respected, even if the person who’s supposed to respect them might not completely understand what their identity means. Learn to become an informed ally by educating yourself on gender identity definitions, and be an active supporter of transgender and non-binary rights by respecting those with all gender identities and expressions.
What is the gender binary?
The gender binary is the belief that there are only two genders: man and woman. Individuals who believe in the binary think that all individuals fit into either of these categories. Often, these categories are linked to their sex assigned at birth. Binary-believers think those who are born male are always men and those who are born female are always women.
Yet this binary view of gender limits even the biological implications of gender. Beyond male and female, about 1 in 1500 babies are considered “atypical” in terms of genitalia, falling into the intersex category. Intersex is a generalized term used to define many conditions in which someone is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy outside the normal female and male categories. This indicates a biological spectrum much like the gender spectrum popularized today.
While the gender binary moves toward prescriptive gender roles and identities, the gender spectrum includes identities that fall outside the conventional norms of male and female. This recognizes people who don’t use terms like “man” or “woman” to describe themselves, but rather terms like agender, genderqueer, genderfluid, gender nonconforming and non-binary.
What does non-binary mean?
Folks who identify as non-binary don’t identify exclusively as a man or woman. Because they don’t identify within the stereotypical gender categories, they’re outside of the binary — where the term non-binary comes from.
Non-binary people might use gender neutral pronouns, such as they/them/theirs or ze/hir/hirs. While some may present themselves more androgynously, others may present more stereotypically masculine or feminine. Each person expresses their gender differently, even if they might use the same label to identify themselves.
The term non-binary is about gender identity, based on what the person perceives themselves to be and what they want to call themselves. Therefore, not every non-binary person is intersex — intersex people might not identify with the gender binary, but the term “non-binary” doesn't have anything inherently to do with sexual anatomy.
There is also a difference between transgender folks and non-binary folks. Not every non-binary person is transgender, although some might identify as both. Not every transgender person identifies as non-binary; some might identify as a transgender woman or a transgender man.
5 ways to be respectful of non-binary folks
1. Use preferred pronouns and names.
The most important part of respecting non-binary folks is respecting their choices and preferences. Not every non-binary person chooses to identify or express themselves in the same way. Just because you know someone who shares the same label doesn’t mean they’ll prefer a certain name or use a set of pronouns. You can normalize stating pronouns by always introducing yourself with your pronouns, whether in person or by including them in an email signature, text, fb message, twitter bio, you name it.
If you’re unsure, ask respectfully instead of jumping to conclusions. However, recognize that not everyone is ready or able to come out yet and not everyone is comfortable sharing the pronouns they prefer. If someone does share this information with you, make sure you’re respectful of their preferences and use them correctly.
2. Don’t make any assumptions.
The gender binary is pervasive in all of our lives. It dictates gender roles that we all might feel constrained to, whether we identify with the roles we’re perceived of having or not. When someone identifies or presents outside of the binary, it’s important for us to overcome the habit of categorizing them as a man or a woman. We can’t assume that because someone wears a dress that they’re a woman or if they have facial hair that they’re a man. Assuming can lead to erasure and ignorance of other people’s identities. Ask instead of making assumptions.
3. Support their choice of expression.
Sometimes non-binary people decide to get surgery to alter their anatomy. Sometimes they might take hormones. Sometimes they change their name; sometimes they don’t. It’s not up to you to help them make their expression more akin to what you might think they should look like. Like every woman expresses her womanhood and femininity differently (or not at all!), every non-binary person expresses their identity differently. Identity is not about physical expression; it’s about self-perception.
4. Assess your own privilege.
One of the most important parts of becoming an ally is assessing your own privilege. In order to help and support others, you need to understand and acknowledge the ways you’ve been spared injustice. How does your gender identity privilege you in your everyday life? Where does it not? Exploring our own privilege can help us find the blind spots — where we might not recognize injustices done to others — and allows us to confront any of our own biases or prejudices.
5. Educate Yourself.
It’s not the responsibility of non-binary folks to teach you about their gender identity. Don’t be afraid to do some research! There are numerous resources online with definitions of different gender identities, demonstrations of the gender spectrum and even guides on pronouns. Once you’ve started to understand the terms, continue your research by reading work from non-binary activists and artists. Folks that have graciously and bravely shared their experiences can provide valuable insight.
Understanding the term non-binary is just the first step in learning to respect folks with a non-binary identity. While terms might be unfamiliar, taking the time to research and listen is incredibly important when hoping to respect others. When we hold back assumptions and uplift others unconditionally, we open ourselves up to enthusiastic acceptance, respect, and support of people with every identity.
Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.