Over the past 10 years, a new word that defies traditional understandings of gender and identity has soared in popularity, rising from obscurity into the mainstream: ‘non-binary’. The term is used to describe a gender identity that falls outside of the terms of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. While many are adopting the label as a means of describing their experiences with gender, there is also a large amount of controversy surrounding its legitimacy.
According to people who use the term, ‘non-binary’ is not a third gender, but rather a blanket term for a range of experiences and identities that don’t align perfectly with womanhood or manhood. For some people that means identifying with both genders, which is commonly described as being ‘bigender’. Others are ‘genderfluid’, meaning their sense of gender fluctuates, and some call themselves ‘agender’, meaning that they feel they have no gender at all. Due to variety and complexity, the blanket term tends to be the most popular.
Non-binary people also experience dysphoria and incongruence (distress and disconnect) from their assigned gender at birth, as well as euphoria (intense feelings of joy and comfort) when presenting as a different gender, similar to what is described by binary transgender people. The difference tends to be that for non-binary people, what feels comfortable and euphoric tends to fall in the middle. For example, someone may prefer having breasts, but be uncomfortable with being referred to as ‘her’. The same person may also experience intense joy if they have a beard, while wearing dresses and high heels.
Discourse surrounding the validity of binary transgender individuals has been happening for decades and the push for acceptance has been gradual. Still, it’s helped by the fact that people are navigating familiar concepts; a transgender man is like all the other men I know, and a transgender woman is like the other women I know. But for many people, the concept of someone being something in between a man and a woman is brand new, and too complicated to bother with.
Many people question how such a thing can exist when people are born with seemingly binary anatomy and believe that since it didn’t seem to exist 50 years ago, it’s simply a fad among young people. But for many people identifying with the word, it’s a descriptor for something they’ve felt for their entire lives and never had the vocabulary to describe. They also point to intersex people, who are born with a mixture of male and female characteristics, as evidence that even sex is not as binary as we tend to believe.
Rune Finlayson has been calling themselves non-binary since 2014 but said that they knew they weren’t a boy nor a girl at a very early age, leading to confusion and exclusion in settings that usually take no thought for people who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. Even before they knew that others felt the same way, they struggled to call themselves a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’.
“When we were dividing into groups of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ I would stand in the middle, not feeling connected with any group,” Finlayson says. “I would also feel this intense discomfort when being called by gendered terms, and then even more discomfort because I was told that wasn’t normal. I never really called myself anything before learning non-binary language. Since what I knew gave me dysphoria, I just called myself ‘me’. I … found out about non-binary and realised, ‘oh, it actually has a name.”
For others, the increase in education around gender has allowed for introspection and an understanding of their identity that they were previously unable or unwilling to unpack. For many non-binary people who aren’t aware that being in between is an option, it’s easy for feelings of discomfort and dysphoria to be minimized and ignored. They may identify with the gender on their birth certificate purely because it’s the path of least resistance when neither of the options they know about fit. They may also identify as a binary transgender person because their dysphoria is so intense, but suffer doubt due to preferring traits of their assigned gender.
Max Coleman identified with their assigned gender until a little over a year ago, due to a lack of knowledge that they had any other option. Although Coleman didn’t resonate with the gender they were assigned, they also didn’t feel like the opposite gender. According to Coleman, it was interactions with non-binary friends that caused them to begin questioning their gender, and research on the internet helped them to feel sure of it.
“The first thing was meeting other people who identified as non-binary or gender diverse,” Coleman says. “It was definitely a lot of Google, a lot Reddit, a lot of Tumblr, a lot of talking to people in the queer community at my university.”
It’s common for people who don’t experience gender dysphoria or incongruence to feel that the increase in focus on gender and the wide new vocabulary that is being created alongside it is unnecessarily complicated and indicative of uninteresting people wanting to feel special. Because they don’t spend much time thinking about gender, they find it to be a bizarre thing to focus on. But for many people who experience disconnect with their bodies and the way people perceive them, it can be helpful and comforting.
“It’s important for everybody to have a label if they want it,” Coleman says. “Like, I get that some people really don’t like labels and so they choose not to identify as anything, but for some people it’s comforting. It makes us feel understood and heard, and that we’re not broken, or ‘other’, or alienated. It gives us a community to hold onto.”
Despite assumptions that it’s a fad, the word ‘non-binary’ and the people who use it are being increasingly accepted throughout society; from the workplace, to school, to the media, and even to doctors’ offices which are acknowledging the divide between sex and gender. With people legally changing their gender markers to ‘X’ rather than ‘M’ or ‘F’ on their passports, this is hardly a trend. It’s a way of being.