In Focus: Nonbinary People
Nonbinary is an umbrella term. Nonbinary is a word used by people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the binary gender categories of “man” and “woman.” Many nonbinary people also call themselves transgender and consider themselves part of the transgender community. Others do not. Nonbinary is an umbrella term that encompasses many different ways to understand one’s gender. Some nonbinary people may also use words like agender, bigender, demigender, pangender, etc. to describe the specific way in which they are nonbinary. Always ask people what words they use to describe themselves. Nonbinary is sometimes shortened to enby. Do not use NB, as that is often shorthand for non-Black. Nonbinary may also be written as non-binary. Both forms are commonly used within the community and both are acceptable.
History and use of the word nonbinary. There have always been people whose gender identity did not fit neatly into the two binary genders of “man” or “woman.” In the past, those people used several words to describe their gender, including genderqueer and genderfluid. Because they were describing their gender identity, most of those people also used the word transgender to describe themselves and they considered themselves part of the transgender community. While genderqueer and genderfluid are still used today, it is now more common for trans people to call themselves nonbinary if they feel their gender identity is something other than “man” or “woman.”
In recent years, the word nonbinary has seen a surge in visibility. As more people use it to describe themselves, the term has come to mean different things to different people. Some people use it to describe their gender expression (rather than their gender identity). Others use it to convey their opposition to the idea of rigid binary gender roles. People who use the word nonbinary in these ways typically do not call themselves transgender.
Language to describe gender diversity is evolving rapidly. Today nonbinary can describe a segment of the transgender community, but it can also be used by people who do not consider themselves transgender at all. We recommend paying close attention to how someone uses the word nonbinary, and try to understand what it means to them. Many of them will be telling you that they are a transgender person whose gender identity is nonbinary, while others will be using nonbinary to describe different experiences, such as their gender expression or their beliefs about the socially constructed gender binary.
There is no one way to “look” or “be” nonbinary. Nonbinary people can have any gender expression. Some nonbinary people have conventionally masculine and feminine gender expressions, while other nonbinary people have a more androgynous gender expression. (See Gender Non-Conforming in the section Glossary of Terms: Transgender ) Some nonbinary people may medically transition with hormones and/or surgeries. Taking these steps does not change the fact that their gender identity is nonbinary. Nonbinary people also have sexual orientations. They may use terms which have a gendered connotation, such as gay or lesbian, but they might also be bisexual, pansexual, queer, asexual, etc.
Increasing visibility of nonbinary people
UCLA’s Williams Institute released a report in 2021 analyzing two different population surveys, and found that 1.2 million adult Americans (11% of all LGBTQ adults) describe themselvs as nonbinary. Of those nonbinary adults, 42% also call themselves transgender, while 58% of nonbinary adults do not call themselves transgender. Youth call themselves nonbinary at even higher rates. A July 2021 Trevor Project study of 35,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13-24 found that 26% said they are nonbinary.
Multiple surveys show that Gen Z and Millennials are much more aware of — and accepting of — gender diversity. A 2019 survey by Pew Research Center found that 50% of Gen Z and 47% of Millennials say society is not accepting enough of people who are not men or women. The same survey found that 59% of Gen Z and 50% of Millennials say that when a form or online profile asks about a person’s gender it should include options other than “man” or “woman.”
Legal recognition of nonbinary people
In 2016, an Oregon court granted a resident a legal gender change that reflected their nonbinary identity — the first known case of a U.S. court allowing someone to change their gender marker to anything other than male or female. The development spurred Oregon, along with several other states, to begin issuing driver’s licenses and state ID cards with a gender-neutral X marker in the sex field. As of December 2021, at least 21 states and Washington, DC, offer the X marker and, in October 2021, the U.S. State Department issued the first federal passport with an X in the gender field. That decision came after a federal court ordered the State Department to review its policy in a case brought by Colorado resident Dana Zzyym. The State Department announcement notes that the gender-neutral marker will be offered to all routine passport applicants in early 2022.
Use the pronoun that a person asks you to use.
We all use pronouns, and pronouns convey gender information. If you say “He went to the store” and “She went to work,” your audience understands you to say that a man went to the store and a woman went to work. Cisgender people rarely think about pronouns because the gendered pronoun people use for them is aligned with the sex they were assigned at birth and with their gender identity. However, for transgender and nonbinbary people, social transition may involve asking others to refer to them with new and different pronouns in order to better reflect their true gender. Simply respect the pronouns people ask you to use and use them as requested, as you would strive to pronounce someone’s name correctly. If you are not certain which pronoun to use, you might say to a person, “My pronouns are she/her. What pronouns do you use?” It is also acceptable to use the singular they to describe someone when you do not wish to assign a gender. For example: “I haven’t met your friend Miguel. What pronouns do they use?” Please note that the trans and nonbinary community no longer uses the phrase “preferred pronouns,” as it implies that people’s pronouns are a preference, not a fact.
Many nonbinary people use the singular they pronoun.
It is increasingly common for people who have a nonbinary gender identity and/or gender expression to use they/them as their pronoun. The singular they/them pronoun does not have gendered connotations. For example: “Devin writes eloquently about their nonbinary identity. They have also appeared frequently in the media to talk about their gender expression and the way people react to the way they dress.” The singular they has been adopted in all leading style guides, including AP, APA, MLA, and Chicago, and now appears in many dictionaries as well.
Some people may use both a gendered pronoun and they/them. For example, “My name is Jose and I use he/they pronouns.” People who use multiple pronouns may wish you to choose one of those pronouns and use it consistently, or they may wish you to use both pronouns interchangeably when referring to them. For example, “Jose is an excellent co-worker. He always turns in projects on deadline, and they also volunteer to organize the office holiday party every year.” For more about what it means to be nonbinary, please see “Glossary of Terms: Transgender.”
Neopronouns and honorifics. Other pronouns like ze/zim and xe/xir exist and some nonbinary people use them. Sometimes they will use them together with they/them, depending on the situation and who they are talking to. Sometimes they will use neopronouns online or in written documents, but not when speaking. The honorifics Mr., Mrs., and Ms. are all gendered. Nonbinary people may ask for the gender-neutral honoific Mx. or ask that no honorific be used.
Understand the difference: intersex and nonbinary
Intersex refers to someone with one or more innate sex characteristics — including genitals, internal reproductive organs, and chromosomes — that fall outside of traditional conceptions of male or female bodies. An intersex person can have any gender identity: man, woman, nonbinary, etc. Never assume that a nonbinary person is intersex, or that an intersex person is nonbinary. (See In Focus: The Intersex Community)
Culturally specific terms for gender diversity
Throughout history and in cultures around the world, there have been words to describe people who live as a gender different from the sex they were assigned at birth. When talking to people from other countries or to people in the U.S. from certain cultures, you may hear words that describe a gender diverse experience. For example, when speaking to a South Asian person, they may talk about the hijra community. Someone from Samoa might speak about being fa’afafine. A native Hawaiian might speak about being māhū. A person from Oaxaca in southern Mexico might talk about being a muxe. Many Native communities have words that describe people of diverse genders (e.g. wíŋkte, nádleeh, ininiikaazo, etc.). Two-spirit is also a word used by some Indigenous and First Nations people who are not cisgender and/or heterosexual. Judaism recognizes four genders in addition to man and woman: androgynos, tumtum, ay’lonit, and saris. It is important to be aware of the cultural specificity of these terms.
People from these cultures may default to calling themselves trans men and trans women when they are outside their own cultural context, but they will use the culturally specific term when they are among those who understand its meaning. It is also important to acknowledge that many indigenous traditions of gender diverse people were criminalized or eradicated by colonizers. Work continues in those cultures to remember and revive pre-colonial traditions, and to undo the stigma, criminal laws, and harm created by colonizers. In many Western cultures, gender diversity has either been distorted by observer bias or erased from history books completely. This erasure feeds the false anti-trans ideology that being transgender and/or nonbinary is a new phenomenon. It is not.
Please reach out to the below organizations — or GLAAD (firstname.lastname@example.org) — to learn more and connect with spokespeople: