There is a lot of confusion when it comes to gender identities. Today’s teenagers are often more open than previous generations to the possibility of someone’s gender identity not matching their biological sex. Non-binary gender means that someone’s gender identity is not exclusively male or exclusively female. If you are a teen, a parent, or someone who interacts with one or more people who identify as non-binary, read on for the information you need to know.
What Does It Mean to Have a Non-Binary Gender Identity?
At its core, the term “non-binary” means that someone doesn’t identify as only male or only female. This can be difficult to understand since most of us do identify as male or female. Those who are non-binary might describe feeling as though they are both male and female. Or they might express feeling that they are neither male nor female.
When a child is born, they are assigned as either male or female based on their genitalia. One out of every 2,000 babies is actually intersex; this means that they have physical genitalia that resembles both male and female anatomy. For everyone else, however, their genitals are what cause them to be assigned a particular gender at birth. Not all people identify as the gender that they are assigned, however, and these individuals are non-binary.
Is Non-Binary the Same as Transgender, Gay, or Bisexual?
There are many different types of terminology that are used to describe people based on their sex, their gender, and/or their sexual orientation. Since non-binary gender can mean different things to different people, it can be helpful to define some of these terms:
Gay/Homosexual: Someone who is gay is attracted to people who are of the same sex. This means that a man is attracted to other men and that a woman is attracted to other women. Being gay, in itself, has nothing to do with having non-binary gender.
Bisexual: Someone who is bisexual is attracted to people who are the same sex and also people who are the opposite sex. Again, this has nothing to do with whether someone is non-binary. Along the same lines is the term, pansexual. This means that a person is attracted to others regardless of their sex, gender, or gender expression and it does not mean that the person has a non-binary gender.
Transsexual: Usually, this means that an individual was assigned a gender at birth based on their genitalia but they are actually the opposite gender. Sometimes, those who are transsexual identify themselves as being non-binary.
Gender fluid: Those who are gender fluid feel that they can go between the male and female genders. It might be that they always feel that they are somewhere in the middle, or it might mean that at some times, they feel female and at other times, they feel male. This is a non-binary gender.
Agender: This means “without gender,” and describes someone who does not identify as either male or female. This is a non-binary gender.
Genderqueer: This is a term that can mean either gender fluid or agender. In some cases, people use it to mean transgender. It generally is considered to be a non-binary gender.
What About Pronouns?
Any non-binary individual might ask others to use a different pronoun when speaking about them. For example, an individual assigned “female” at birth might prefer the masculine pronouns (he/him/his) or gender-neutral pronouns (they/them/their). Others prefer different pronouns, such as ze/zir/zim. If you are unsure, you can ask by saying, “My preferred pronouns are (insert your preferred pronouns); what are yours?” This is a non-offensive way of getting to know someone’s preferences and a respectful way to honor their gender identity.
Do Some Cultures Recognize Non-Binary Individuals?
While biological sex is always male or female (except for when it is intersex), gender can take on a wide variety of expressions. This is only now being accepted in some subcultures of the United States, but it is accepted as a simple part of life in some other cultures and has been throughout history.
For example, in Sulawesi, which is an island of Indonesia, there are five distinct genders that are recognized and accepted. They are male, female, biological males who act as though they are female, biological females who act as though they are male, and people who encompass features of all of the other genders. In Hawaii, the Mahus are people who identify as both male and female. Native Americans also have a long-standing tradition of honoring two-spirited people, who identify as both male and female.
In other cultures, of course, this type of gender identity is not accepted at all; in some countries, it is illegal to outwardly identify as homosexual, transsexual, or non-binary.
How Can I Support Those Who Identify as Non-Binary?
The most important thing to keep in mind, whether or not you fully understand the concept of non-binary gender, is that individuals with a non-binary gender identity want and need to be respected and allowed to live their lives. Young people who identify anywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum (and this includes non-binary individuals) are more at risk than other teens to develop depression and also to die by suicide.
Family and community support is essential for these young people. Being shunned or unaccepted by the family is one of the biggest risk factors for these youths. If you have a teen or young adult child or loved one who has come out as non-binary, continue to treat them as you would if they had not come out. All people need love, honor, respect, and kindness, whether or not they are non-binary.
If you need counseling to come to grips with a loved one’s announcement that they are non-binary, you should seek it. An LGBTQ-friendly therapist will be able to help you understand your own reactions and help you support your loved one. If your loved one seems to be struggling with their gender identity, therapy can help them, too. Interventions to cause someone not to be non-binary do not work and can be extremely dangerous, but a supportive and knowledgeable therapist can help a young person accept their gender identity.
Paradigm Malibu is an adolescent mental health and drug treatment center dedicated to identifying, understanding and properly treating the core issues that impact teens and their families.