Nonbinary is an umbrella term used to describe a gender that is both male and female, somewhere in between male and female, or something different than male and female.
Of the 27,715 transgender individuals who responded to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, over one-third (that means over 9,200 people!) identified as nonbinary. According to a recent study, 56% of people 13 to 30 and 43% of people 28 to 34 said that they knew someone who went by gender neutral pronouns. With increased information available about the spectrum of gender (as opposed to the male/female binary), more people are understanding who they are as somewhere in between male and female. Although the word nonbinary has only recently entered mainstream media's vocabulary, nonbinary gender is not a new tend. Nonbinary gender has been recorded as far back as the 3rd century, when Hijras — people in India who identified as beyond male or female — were recorded in ancient Hindu texts.
Some nonbinary people identify as trans (or transgender), while others do not. This may sound confusing, but when spelled out, can actually be very simple:
Trans (or transgender) is a word used to describe someone who does not identify with the sex (male, female or intersex) assigned to them at birth. A trans girl/woman, is someone who does not identify with the sex assigned to her at birth (trans) and is female (girl/woman). A trans boy/man, is someone who does not identify with the sex assigned to him at birth (trans) and is male (boy/man).
A trans nonbinary person is someone who does not identify with their sex assigned at birth (trans) and also has a gender that can’t be categorized as exclusively male or female (nonbinary).
A nonbinary person who does not identify as trans may partially identify with their sex assigned at birth, and have gender that is not strictly male or strictly female.
There is not just one type of nonbinary experience, but many. Some nonbinary people were assigned male at birth (AMAB), while others were assigned female at birth (AFAB). Some nonbinary people use binary pronouns (he/him/his and she/her/hers) while others use gender-neutral pronouns (they/them/theirs, ze/hir/hirs, ze/zir/zirs). Some nonbinary people change aspects of their appearance or body while others feel their appearance and body have absolutely nothing to do with their gender. Some nonbinary people know they are nonbinary at an early age, while others come to understand their gender later in life. Each person's experience of nonbinary gender is rich, varied, and valid.
Everyone has the task of understanding who they are and how they fit into the world. "Where do I belong?" is a question each of us uses to guide our lived experience. As time goes on, we learn the labels and identifiers that help us (and others) group those who are similar. We also become more aware of the ways we may be different from the norm or majority. Whether because of appearance, race, culture, religion, age, socioeconomic status, sexuality, ability, many of us know what it feels like to be put in a box. Sometimes the box fits and sometimes it does not. But when it comes to sex and gender, we were taught everyone must fit into one of two boxes, and the only options were male and female. The idea that someone could be both or neither was rarely considered (until recently). Science and history show us the experience of being both male and female is not only a viable option, but actually fairly common.
One in every 2000 people are born with biological traits, chromosomes, or anatomy that have both female and male characteristics (also known as intersex). Intersex conditions are proof that there are biological sex options beyond just male and female.
Cultures across the world (such as the Hijra, Māhū, sistergirls, brotherboys, and Two-Spirit) serve as evidence that those options beyond male and female do not just exist in biology, but in also society. Many people have an internal gender that is somewhere in between male and female or masculine and feminine, despite the fact their body was labeled one or the sex other at birth.
The lack of information available about gender beyond male and female, leaves many nonbinary people to grow up with an sense of feeling different. It is not uncommon for nonbinary people to struggle to find the language to describe who they are. Many nonbinary people find they can more easily explain who they are not. Without enough examples of nonbinary gender in television, books, and movies, we have few (if any) opportunities to see reflections of this experience in our environment. But the growing amount of awareness and media attention on nonbinary gender helps our understanding of gender evolve to include nonbinary as a legitimate and real experience.
Gender inclusive environments are spaces where each person's gender (male, female, both, or neither) is accounted for and affirmed. Asking how someone likes to be referred to and ensuring there is a gender neutral restroom option available in your workplace or school are easy ways to be inclusive of nonbinary people. There are currently few places in the world where nonbinary people feel they can be acknowledged for the person they truly are, as opposed to the gender others assume of them. When the environment fails to account for someone's experience, it is important for a person step in to show support. We each have a role to play in adapting our behavior and surroundings to include gender options beyond the male/female binary.
To truly explore and discover one's gender is to think beyond the body. Oftentimes, our bodies feel like the primary and perhaps sole indicator of gender. When someone's body is labeled as a gender that doesn't match up with who they are internally, it can cause dysphoria and discomfort. This leads some people to want to change their body (through surgery or hormones) in order to feel a sense of wholeness both in their body and the world. Other people don't feel as if they need to make physical changes to feel comfortable in their body and gender. There is not one way or a right way to explore and actualize your authentic gender.
Think of exploring gender like exploring uncharted territory using a compass. It can be scary, with lots of unknowns and many different directions to go. Looking at each aspect of gender as a point on the compass can be a helpful tool for understanding. The northern point is gender identity, or someone's internal gender. The eastern point is gender expression, which is how someone expresses their gender through appearance, clothing, hairstyle, makeup, and accessories. The western point is gender roles, which includes includes our interests and behaviors. For example, historically if someone plays football, that would be considered a "manly" interest. The southern point is assigned sex, which is the male/female/intersex label given at birth. In order to get a true sense uncharted territory, or in this case, gender, we need to explore and understand our relationship to each point on the compass.