October 10, 2023/Mental Health

What Does It Mean To Be Nonbinary?

Being nonbinary means not identifying solely (or at all) with being male or female

Nonbinary person drinking coffee and reading paper in a coffeeshop.

For a long time, Western society thought of sex and gender as a binary: male/female, girl/boy, man/woman. Though plenty of people throughout history have likely identified otherwise, we haven’t had the language to talk about or understand what that means.

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Fortunately, we’ve come a long way. In 2021, a study by the Trevor Project found that more than a quarter (26%) of LGBTQIA+ youth now identify as nonbinary, with an additional 20% saying they’re still questioning whether they’re nonbinary. And that data doesn’t even begin to cover nonbinary/questioning adults.

But what exactly does it mean to be nonbinary? Child and adolescent psychiatrist Jason Lambrese, MD, helps define this term so that you can better understand this gender identity.

What is nonbinary?

In simple terms, being nonbinary means that you do not identify (solely or at all) with the idea of being a man or a woman.

“We used to think that people were either male or female, and that was it — that there were two endpoints, and everyone had to be at one of them,” Dr. Lambrese says. “But it became clear that that didn’t fit everybody’s experience.”

Now, health professionals recognize that gender identity is much more expansive and multifaceted. Sometimes, it’s explained as a spectrum — a sliding scale of sorts, with “male” and “female” as endpoints.

For some people, being nonbinary means feeling that you’re somewhere else along that line — in between male and female, or a combination of some aspects of both. But other nonbinary people feel that their gender identity exists outside the male/female spectrum — not on the line but somewhere else altogether.

“There are a lot of cultures where it’s very common to identify as male, female or a third gender,” Dr. Lambrese notes. “We might put it somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, or it can be thought about completely outside of that construct.”

Nonbinary gender identities

If you’re trying to get a handle on what it means to be nonbinary, you’re going to have to get comfortable in gray space: There are no specific, hard-and-fast rules about nonbinary identities or “what it means” to be nonbinary.

“What it means for one person could be different than what it means for somebody else,” Dr. Lambrese states.

A nonbinary person could just identify with the term “nonbinary,” or they may use other terms to describe themselves and their relationship (or lack thereof) with gender:

  • Agender, genderless, or gender-free are terms for people who don’t identify with any gender at all.
  • Androgynous means having gender expression characteristics that are typically associated with both male and female.
  • Bigender is when someone identifies with two genders, whether they experience those genders at the same time or alternately.
  • Demigirl and demiboy are terms for people who partially identify with one gender or the other, but not fully.
  • Genderfluid and genderflux refer to the feeling that your gender is flexible. It may change from day to day or over time.
  • Gender non-conforming usually means that a person doesn’t conform to societal gender norms, whether in terms of gender identity, gender expression or both.
  • Genderqueer is typically used as an umbrella term, sort of like nonbinary, for anyone who feels they don’t fit into standard gender labels.

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Because gender can be such a personal experience, these terms can mean different things to different people. And some people might identify with multiple terms or with others not listed here.

If these terms are new to you, you might feel confused about some of the nuances and differences between them. That’s OK. The most important thing is to remain open-minded to learning what they mean to individual people and their gender identity — so that you can be as supportive as possible.

Is nonbinary the same as transgender?

Sometimes, and sometimes not. The answer to this question comes down to each individual person and what identity feels right to them.

For the most part, you can think of being transgender as an overarching concept that encompasses multiple types of identities. “You could say that being trans is the most overarching of all of the umbrella terms, and under that are smaller umbrellas, like being nonbinary,” Dr. Lambrese clarifies.

But not everyone who identifies as nonbinary will identify with being trans. Some nonbinary people, for example, may feel more comfortable with explanations like “not cisgender.” (Cisgender meaning people whose gender identity corresponds with what they were assigned at birth.)

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“For some people, even the term ‘transgender’ can feel like a binary,” Dr. Lambrese says, “so being nonbinary may feel separate from the identity of transgender. It’s all very individualized.”

It’s always best not to make assumptions about anyone’s identity — which is, by the way, a good rule of thumb for all for life!

What pronouns do nonbinary people use?

This answer differs for every person, but “they/them” is common. The Trevor Project found that more than one-third of nonbinary youth exclusively (only) use the pronouns “they/them.”

For some people, using they/them to refer to a singular person feels weird and uncomfortable — that squiggly feeling you get when you use improper grammar. If this is you, try to remember: Language is constantly evolving, and it’s OK for words’ meanings to change. Plus, you’re probably already more used to using they/them singular pronouns than you might think (for example, “Someone left their umbrella behind! I sure hope they come back for it.”).

“It’s important that we validate and normalize ’they/them’ as pronouns that can be used singularly,” Dr. Lambrese states.

The study also found that an additional 21% of respondents use a combination of gender pronouns that include but aren’t limited to they/them. This could mean, for example, that someone uses them/them pronouns and she/her pronouns. They may prefer that you mix them up at random (“I’m getting lunch with her tomorrow because they weren’t available today.”) or ask that you use certain pronouns at certain times.

What about neopronouns?

Less common but still important are neopronouns, which are words that have been created to take the place of traditional pronouns. Some examples include:

  • Xe/xem/xir.
  • Ze/zir/zem.
  • Ee/em/eir.

If you’re not sure exactly how to use neopronouns, here’s an example: “Xe is so friendly and funny. When I first met xem last week, I immediately asked for xir number so we could hang out.”

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It can take some work to incorporate this type of evolving language into your lexicon, but doing so shows respect and support for others. Like anything new, it will start to come naturally to you over time.

“If you mess up, that’s OK,” Dr. Lambrese reassures. “Just apologize and use the correct one going forward. People can usually appreciate that. It’s when you’re not trying that can be very hurtful.”

Nonbinary people and mental health

The English language now offers more terminology than ever for people to express their gender identity, which represents society’s evolving understanding of gender. But that doesn’t always mean that individual people have become more understanding or accepting.

The Trevor Project found that 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the year before the study. That included more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth — largely owing to a lack of support and respect from family, friends and society at large.

“When nonbinary teens live in an environment where they’re not feeling accepted or validated, they can experience negative mental health outcomes like depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation,” Dr. Lambrese says.

The Trevor Project found that nonbinary youth whose family members respected their pronouns were far less likely to attempt suicide than their peers without family support.

“These numbers are supported by studies that have looked at sexual and gender minorities over time,” Dr. Lambrese says. “Data shows that the more support children and teens have, the better their mental health outcomes are.”

How to support nonbinary people

“Being affirming of somebody’s experience doesn’t have to mean that you fully understand all of the intricacies of their identity,” Dr. Lambrese says. “It doesn’t even have to mean that you agree with all of their goals for themselves. But you can still be affirming and supportive.”

Two of the simplest and more powerful ways to show your respect and support are to use people’s preferred names and proper pronouns.

“At the very least, this allows people to feel heard,” he says. “The data shows that sometimes, those simplest things lead nonbinary people to say, ‘When my pronouns are used correctly, I feel so much better.’ It’s such a simple, easy thing that we can all do.”

Dr. Lambrese shares some tips:

  • Ask for their pronouns (and share yours): Meeting someone new? “Don’t make assumptions about people’s gender identity or their pronouns,” Dr. Lambrese advises. “You can ask people, or you can introduce yourself with your own pronouns and ask for theirs. I might say, for example, ‘Hi, I’m Jason, and my pronouns are he/him. What name and pronouns do you use?’”
  • Seek out examples: If someone shares their pronouns with you and you’re not entirely sure how to use them, politely ask if they feel comfortable sharing some examples so that you can get it right. Google is your friend here, too.
  • When you mess up, apologize … and move on: If you accidentally misgender someone, acknowledge it (“Oh, I’m sorry! I meant ‘they.’”) and then keep the conversation flowing. Over-apologizing is awkward for everyone, and it centers your own feelings over theirs.
  • Normalize pronouns: Putting your own pronouns in your email signature or on your nametag at events allow people others to feel more comfortable sharing their pronouns with you.
  • Adapt your other language, too: Gendered terms like “Hey, ladies,” and “You guys,” can feel exclusionary to nonbinary people. Instead, practice using inclusive, gender-neutral terms like “y’all” and “folks.”
  • Gently correct others: If you overhear someone else talking about another person with the wrong pronouns, offer a polite but firm correction: “Jamie actually uses they/them pronouns, not he/him.” Helping others get it right behind the scenes may lessen the chances that they misgender someone face to face.

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At the end of the day, supporting nonbinary people is, in so many ways, similar to supporting any other community of people: “Operate in good faith, demonstrate respect and apologize when you fall short,” Dr. Lambrese encourages.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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