What does it mean to be non-binary?
The word “binary” refers to the number two. So, when we talk about the gender binary, we’re referring to two genders–man and woman.
Non-binary means “outside of the gender binary.” Non-binary shouldn’t be confused with intersex, which means that a person is born with some combination of both male and female sexual traits.
Sometimes non-binary can mean that someone identifies as third gender, gender-fluid, gender-queer, or even genderless. A transgender person may consider themself to be non-binary or a non-binary person may consider themself to fall under the umbrella term “transgender.”
Someone’s gender is not the same as someone’s sex assigned at birth. As you may know, cis-gender is the term society uses to refer to people whose gender identity is directly associated with their sex assigned at birth. Transgender refers to a person whose gender identity is not associated with their sex assigned at birth, and their gender identity typically falls within the gender binary–but not always.
How does being non-binary relate to a person’s gender expression and sexual orientation?
Gender expression is the outward presentation of someone’s gender, rather than the core identity itself. You cannot make presumptions about someone’s gender identity based on your interpretation of their gender expression.
For example, a cis-gender woman may express her gender identity by wearing pants and cutting her hair short. In some ways, her gender expression may not follow historical societal norms, but she still identifies with the gender associated with her sex assigned at birth. A transgender man may express himself similarly, but without understanding his identity, a bystander cannot make an assumption either way.
Non-binary folks may express their gender in ways that may seem androgynous, or they could present in a very masculine or feminine way, which may or may not correlate with their assigned sex at birth. The bottom line is that gender expression may or may not conform in an expected way to a person’s gender identity.
In the same way that you can’t make assumptions about someone’s gender identity based on their gender expression, it’s impossible to understand anything about a non-binary person’s sexual orientation unless they disclose that to you. Someone’s sexual orientation is personal and unique in the same way that someone’s gender identity is personal.
What are some common non-binary pronouns?
The most common non-binary pronouns are they/them. Some people who identify as non-binary may also identify with the gender associated with their sex assigned at birth, so they might use he/him or she/her pronouns as well as they/them pronouns. Some non-binary people may not use they/them pronouns at all and will choose to use the pronouns associated with their sex assigned at birth or another pronoun. Other non-binary pronouns include but are not limited to ze/zir, ze/hir, and xe/xem.
They/them is a common way we refer to people in conversation when we don’t know their gender. So, though it might seem difficult to adjust to using these pronouns at first, it is grammatically correct and has been updated in our modern English language dictionary to reflect this usage. Other languages recognize third-gender pronouns or non-binary pronouns, too.
What are some things non-binary people struggle with in the workplace?
In general, society still operates within the gender binary, especially in gendered roles and language. So, your co-worker may not feel safe immediately revealing their gender identity to you. A non-binary co-worker may be uncomfortable using gendered bathrooms. They may even feel uncomfortable with the use of gendered language in emails or conferences, and they may not wish to participate in workplace conversations about issues related to gender identity.
7 ways to support your non-binary colleagues
- Use gender-neutral language like “folks” or “everyone” when talking to groups of people. Use “their” instead of “his/him” or “she/her” in writing. Create work documents using more gender-neutral language.
- Be an advocate for safer environments like gender-neutral bathrooms.
- Don’t misgender co-workers by assuming their pronouns. It’s considerate to use they/them pronouns when referring to someone when you’re unsure.
- Add your pronouns to your email signature and/or introduce yourself using your pronouns. This shows your co-worker you’re an ally and opens up a better organic opportunity for them to share their pronouns with you if they’d like.
- Help make it commonplace to use non-gendered titles like Mx. instead of Mrs./Ms. or Mr.
- Educate yourself about gender identity so you can help educate others, too.
- Be understanding and open to things that may be new to you, especially when someone’s gender expression doesn’t match your perception of their gender identity or sex assigned at birth. Everyone expresses their gender differently!
About the author
Alana Settle works as an educator and freelance writer in the Kansas City area where she lives with her wife and two kids. As a person who identifies as a non-binary lesbian, a mother, and a teacher, she understands first hand the challenges and rewards in learning to bridge our differences by choosing to communicate with compassion. You can find out more about her and her work at www.alanasettle.com.