Non-binary is a term for individuals who do not feel solely male or female.
Special collaboration: Alex Simon is an American-born and Montreal-based student interested in LGBTQ+ and trans realities. They themselves being non-binary, they proposed the idea to GrS Montreal of writing articles on their blog TransAvenue.
For as long as we can remember, humans demonstrate the need to categorize that which is part of their day-to-day life. Whether it be the social class we find ourselves in, the subset of religion we adhere to or something as simple as the kind of food we eat, many find comfort in being able to distinguish the characteristics of one thing to the next. Human beings, however, are not so simple. We have the unique quality of being so vastly different from each other, each person having multiple dimensions and nuances to their personality, sense of self and expression. Yet, from biological and sociological perspectives alike, it would be overly simplistic to assume that one’s gender identity can without exception be categorized as man or woman.
We are all assigned a gender at birth, meaning a medical professional decides whether or not our genitalia are characteristic to that of a male or female. Intersex individuals, meaning those whose sex characteristics are ambiguous to a certain degree, are often victims of non-consensual surgical procedures in order to align their genitalia to what it “should” look like (these surgeries are typically cosmetic in nature, are not essential to a baby’s survival and can actually cause serious medical consequences). The sex that we are assigned at birth fails to take into consideration other characteristics, such as hormonal levels, internal reproductive structures and genetics.
The sex that we are assigned at birth has repercussions on the way we live our lives. Different societies project different gender roles onto youth and adults depending on their assigned sex. While many individuals’ gendered sense of identity is coherent with the way they were assigned at birth, that’s not always the case. This is what differentiates cisgender and transgender people: those whose gender is the same as their sex assigned at birth, and those whose gender is different.
For binary transgender individuals, those who are assigned female at birth tend to identify as male, and vice versa. However, there are individuals who regardless of how they were assigned do not feel like their gender (or lack thereof) is exclusively male or female. Bring forward the word non- binary.
Non-binary is a term for individuals who do not feel solely male or female. It can be used either as an umbrella term for more specific identities, or it can be used to label an identity itself. Some might think of a gender spectrum as being female on one side and male on the other, with a gray area between the two. More accurately speaking, the spectrum can be seen as a multi dimensional sphere, with infinite possibilities of finding your sense of self within. This view allows people who don’t define as male or female at all to find themselves among the spectrum, as supposed to settling with a midpoint halfway in between male and female.
Non-binary identities are not specific to Western society. In fact, Indigenous people in North America have an identity specific to their culture, named Two Spirit. A third gender known as Hijra is legally recognized in the Indian subcontinent, and Fa’afafine is a feminine-aligned gender identity acknowledged by Samoan jurisdiction.
For those who aren’t accustomed to non-binary realities, it can be easy to get lost in the numerous labels and terminology. What’s important isn’t the exceptionalism of your knowledge, but rather your willingness to learn about and from non-binary people. Keep in mind however the emotional labor taken on these people who may feel like they have to constantly educate others on their own existence, so remind yourself that other resources are at your availability for your questions as well.
It’s important to also remember that someone’s expression of self, romantic or sexual orientation doesn’t equate to their gender identity. A woman having short hair doesn’t make her less of a woman, and a man who enjoys wearing dresses or makeup doesn’t make him less of a man. While gender expectations have slowly become less demanding over time, the remainder of said expectations and stereotypes tends to fall upon transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people. If we don’t conform well enough with the norms of our assigned sex, we’re seen as abnormalities. If we don’t conform to the standards of our gender identity (for instance, a transgender man who is seen as too feminine), we’re told that we’re not “trying enough” to fit in or that we aren’t “trans enough”. Even though the concept of passing, meaning that we are perceived by others as our true self rather than our assigned sex, can be a matter of safety in a very cis and binary-dominated world, our validity as trans people shouldn’t have to rely on the very same stereotypes that non-transgender people have been working themselves away from.
Pronouns for non-binary people differ from one person to the next. While some may choose to go with neutral options like “they/them”, “ze/hir” or “xe/xem”, others may choose to use “she/her” or “he/him” pronouns. Choosing to use these pronouns doesn’t make a person any less non-binary than using gender-neutral pronouns.
Some individuals may choose to undergo hormone replacement therapy (HRT), such as testosterone or estrogen. They may decide to undergo gender affirmation surgery, such as a double mastectomy (top surgery), a phalloplasty or a vaginoplasty, just to name a few examples. Some may choose to have neither or have both. There are as many narratives to trans people’s medical transition (as well as any type of transition) as there are trans people, so every experience is unique.
Navigating the world as a non-binary person is a challenge in itself. Being able to access gender-affirming care can mean having to pay fees for reference letters, prescriptions and/or surgeries. Not all medical professionals have proper training to treat us, meaning that we can be subjected to evaluations meant to deem us ‘’worthy enough” to access vital healthcare. Many regions do not yet allow modifications to official documents like birth certificates, making any legal process a challenge. This is particularly the case for trans and non-binary migrants. The current educational system rarely makes mention of non-binary individuals, leading youth to be further ostracized and isolated from gaining access to resources about their own self. All of the strains mentioned above, among others, contribute to systematic discrimination of transgender and non-binary people, making the simple act of existing a genuine act of resistance. It shouldn’t have to be this challenging and draining to exist.
Regardless of where you are on your journey to self-discovery, one of the most crucial aspects to blossoming as a non-binary person is having an adequate support system. Whether it be family members or friends, having people you can count on as you learn more about yourself and build your self-esteem to express yourself to the fullest is of utmost importance. They’ll be the ones by your side as you get your first haircut, take your first hormone shot or accompany you to the doctor’s office to get your bandages removed. You are not alone; we all have a chosen family with us.