When we’re old enough to understand the concept of gender, we’re taught that there are two genders, male and female. It’s an idea known as the gender binary—or having two parts. The construct is grounded in absolutes like birthdays or holidays. But the reality is, not everyone fits neatly into a box labeled either “male” or “female”. And in fact, many people identify their gender as not 100% male or 100% female, which is referred to as nonbinary (or NB or enby).

“Someone who has a nonbinary gender could describe themselves as having no gender, multiple genders, a masculine or feminine gender, or any other gender that is not fully male or fully female,” says Austin Texas-based clinical psychologist Jo Eckler, PsyD, RYT, author of I Can’t Fix You—Because You’re Not Broken, who goes by the pronouns they/them.

For the cisgender among us, those whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth (so, say, if your birth certificate says “female” and you feel 100% female, then you are cisgender), understanding nonbinary gender, as well as the labels and language surrounding it, can be confusing. And as the lexicon evolves, not every person who identifies outside the scope of traditional male and female genders prefers the same descriptors. Other terms include genderqueer, gender nonconforming, agender, or bigender. These all describe an experience of gender like nonbinary and are simply a matter of preference.

The Origin of Nonbinary Gender

What is important to realize is that gender variation is extremely common in nature—and therefore in humans, Eckler says. Just like humans vary in height and eye color, nonbinary gender is simply a matter of diversity and not an affliction or disorder. “At present, we really don’t know how many nonbinary and gender fluid people exist,” they say. “Surveys will often leave off a nonbinary response option, which makes it hard to determine how many people fit that category. What we do know is that nonbinary people have always existed, and in some cultures, they hold an honored role.”

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The latest statistic is from a 2015 United States Transgender Survey, which included 27,715 respondents of whom 35% reported a nonbinary gender identity. But, as our concept of gender grows, the visibility of nonbinary people also becomes more prevalent.

Though the terms are often used interchangeably, gender and sex are not the same things. Doctors label sex on your birth certificate based on genitalia and chromosomes; gender identity is who you feel you are as a person at the very core of your being. Also, keep in mind, nonbinary gender identity is separate from sexual orientation. “Gender identity is our internal experience of our gender; sexual orientation is who we are attracted to. One does not determine the other,” Eckler says.

For a person who is nonbinary, it is a little difficult to ‘pin down’ a sexual orientation, says Margaret Nichols, PhD, president of Nichols Counseling and Psychotherapy in New Jersey and founder/president emeritus of the Institute for Personal Growth. “If you are nonbinary, there is no ‘opposite’ or ‘same’ sex. Nonbinary people can be attracted to men, women, both, and/or other nonbinary people.”

How Do I Know If I’m Nonbinary?

Until recently, at least in the United States, there weren’t words to describe what people who did not identify as male or female were feeling. “So, there are several generations of people who are just now learning that there are terms to describe how they have been feeling for years. As these concepts become more common, more people may start figuring out their gender identity at younger ages,” Eckler says.

[Click to Read: The Gender Identity Terms You Need to Know]

Realizing your gender exists on a continuum between male and female is a process that can take some time. “People who are nonbinary often go through a period of time where they feel ‘different’ without realizing why. They determine they are nonbinary when they recognize that they don’t feel either male or female—and that those feelings don’t just have to do with gender presentation,” Nichols says. In other words, they realize that, for example, they aren’t just boys who want to wear dresses, but individuals who feel neither fully male nor fully female, she says.

Most people tend to become aware of alternative gender identities in adolescence. However, “there are younger kids who are somewhat or totally aware they don’t fit into the male/female binary; they tend not to have the language to know what that means,” Nichols says. “However, as the concept of nonbinary becomes more well known, there will undoubtedly be children who ‘come out’ as nonbinary.”

Is Gender Fluidity The Same As Nonbinary?

Gender fluidity is the fluctuation between the binary of male and female. “It involves shifting between gender identities in some way, which for some people can happen frequently and for others might be a slower or less frequent shift,” Eckler says. “This shift may be completely internal, or a gender fluid person might express themselves externally in some way, like changing how they dress to fit their current gender.”

Gender fluidity does not determine sexual preference, nor is it the same thing as being transgender, when a person’s gender identity differs from the one they were assigned at birth. And, it’s also not about being fickle (“I think I’ll be a girl today”). It’s about not having a fixed sense of gender, so it can change over time. While it’s under the same umbrella as nonbinary, gender fluidity is not the same thing.

Gender fluidity is also different from androgyny, which refers only to gender presentation or expression. For example, “you could have a totally solid identity as a woman but prefer to dress and present yourself in an androgynous way.” Nichols explains.

The term androgyny is used by different people to mean different things. “Some people use it to describe how someone expresses gender (looking/acting like a blend of masculine and feminine aspects), while other people use it to describe their internal experience of their gender (identifying as a blend of masculine and feminine aspects),” Dr. Eckler says. “A gender fluid person might choose to express their gender by having an androgynous appearance at times, or a gender fluid person might experience themselves as androgynous at times,” they say.

They Them & Other Pronouns

Pronouns, or the way people describe themselves, are a very personal thing, especially to those who are nonbinary. “The only way to know what pronouns anyone of any gender uses is to ask them,” Eckler says. Gender-neutral pronouns they/them are used by some nonbinary people, but someone who is nonbinary may prefer to use a binary pronoun like he/him. Some people are comfortable with two or more pronouns, such as she/they. There are newer neo pronouns as well, like xe/xem/xyr, ze/hir/hirs, and ey/em/eir, Eckler says. Titles like Mr. and Mrs. indicate a binary gender of male or female; many nonbinary people use the title Mx, which is gender-neutral.

Someone who is gender fluid could use one pronoun all the time or their pronouns may shift with the sense of their gender, Eckler says. “But everyone is different, so you can’t make an assumption. If you ask respectfully, many people will be glad that you did and will tell you their pronouns. Make sure to tell them yours as well (we all have them). Once you know someone’s pronouns, make sure to use them even when thinking about that person and when referring to them when they’re not around,” they say.

Nonbinary FAQs

What does it mean when a person is nonbinary?

Being nonbinary is identifying gender as not 100% male or 100% female. Someone who has a nonbinary gender could describe themselves as having no gender, multiple genders, a masculine or feminine gender, or any other gender that is not fully male or fully female.

How do you know if you are nonbinary?

Realizing your gender exists on a continuum between male and female is a process that can take some time. “People who are nonbinary often go through a period of time where they feel 'different' without realizing why. They determine they are nonbinary when they recognize that they don't feel either male or female—and that those feelings don't just have to do with gender presentation,” Nichols says. In other words, they realize that, for example, they aren't just boys who want to wear dresses, but individuals who feel neither fully male nor fully female, she says. Most people tend to become aware of alternative gender identities in adolescence. However, “there are younger kids who are somewhat or totally aware they don't fit into the male/female binary; they tend not to have the language to know what that means,” Nichols says.

What does enby stand for?

Enby or NB is simply an abbreviated way of saying nonbinary.

What is cisgender?

Cisgender is when your gender identity (male or female) matches the sex you were assigned at birth (so, say, if your birth certificate says “female” and you feel 100% female, then you are cisgender).

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Last Updated: Nov 20, 2020