Chances are good that you’ve heard the word “nonbinary” before. After all, more than one in four Americans knows someone personally who uses gender-neutral pronouns1. But you may still have questions, or find the term confusing or vague. Even folks familiar with the concept of gender transition can have trouble understanding a gender that isn’t male or female!
“Nonbinary” doesn’t actually refer to a single gender; it’s an umbrella term that includes genders that don’t fit neatly into the male/female binary. A nonbinary person may be a little bit of both male and female; they may have a separate gender that has nothing to do with either; or they may feel that they have no gender at all. Some people may have a gender that varies from day to day or moment to moment. Terms like “genderqueer,” “genderfluid,” and “agender” can all fall under the nonbinary umbrella.
Plenty of cultures have or have had genders that aren’t simply male or female. From Kinnar communities in the Indian subcontinent, to the Zapotec people’s muxe, to the Native American umbrella term “two-spirit,” plenty of gender systems have more than two options. I wouldn’t necessarily apply the term “nonbinary” to these culturally-specific identities, but they demonstrate that nonbinary people in the United States are not an anomaly!
Some nonbinary folks consider themselves trans, because they identify as a different gender than what they were assigned at birth. Others don’t use the term. However they identify, nonbinary people face similar challenges as trans folks. For example, as the use of gendered bathrooms becomes more heavily policed, nonbinary people with ambiguous presentations face potential violence no matter which bathroom they choose. More than half of nonbinary adults report experiencing physical violence before age 18, and at least 4 out of 5 nonbinary adults report emotional abuse before age 182. The same study reports 68% of nonbinary adults not making enough money to make ends meet, and 39% report that they have attempted suicide.
On International Non-Binary People’s Day, we hope you consider the challenges facing folks outside a male/female system. We embrace gender diversity across the globe and throughout every era of human existence. Nonbinary genders encourage us to look at gender systems not as a binary, but rather a constellation of possibilities informed by internal identity, self-expression, culture, and history.