March 17, 2018, by Simon Langley-Evans

Understanding non-binary gender


When it comes to talking about gender, I recognise that many people can be turned off by the many new and ever-changing terms so here are a couple terms I will be using in this piece that you can refer back to:

Non-Binary > NB > Enbie > Enby  –  Someone who doesn’t identify as strictly male or female

LGBT > LGBT+ > LGBTQ > LGBTQIA+  – A list of terms for “the community”.  As there are many recognised genders now, “T for Transgender” is no longer inclusive.  Realistically, I could call it the LGBTQQIAAPPPBgGfDgTfTm Community, and I still would have missed off many people!

Transgenderism > GenderQueerness – Both of these words can mean the same thing, as well as meaning something completely different.   Transgenderism is to identify as a gender that is different to the sex you were assigned at birth, but typically refers to only male and female.  GenderQueerness is to identify as gender that is different to the sex you were assigned at birth, but more commonly relates to non-binary genders.  However, some people use both words as broad, interchangeable terms for someone not cisgenger.

Cisgender – Someone who identifies as their birth sex.

Misgender – To use a pronoun or classification that is different to the pronoun that the person identifies with.

A Few Things to Know First

There are two things that must be understood when it comes to the topic of gender identity.

The first is that it has absolutely nothing to do with sexual preference.  People are more likely inclined to believe there is a relationship between the two due to a highly criticised and debunked study that claimed Transgender women were “hyper homosexual men”.

The second thing to understand that “gender” in its current definition differs from “sex”.  Sex is now used within the medical and scientific community to denote the biological classification of a person’s observable genetic makeup, whereas gender is a term that is used to classify a particular brain structure.

Brain structure?  Surely anything other than male or female and even transgenderism is mental health related?  For a time, this was believed to be the case.  Recently however, the medical community has been moving away from classifying GenderQueerness as a “mental disorder” as more studies in identical twins, compared to fraternal twins, have shown that there is a basis to pin gender identity (in all its spectrum) on genetics, rather than strictly mental processes.[1]  Studies into the limbic nucleus has also shown that those who identify as a gender that differs from their birth sex share similar neuron numbers to cisgendered people.[2] (E.G. A Male-To-Female Transgender woman will have a similar brain structure to a woman who identifies as female and was born female.)


 The Ever Growing Spectrum

With the general acceptance and publicity of transgenderness, people have been more open to exploring their own gender identities.  Naturally, this has led to an increase of people realising that they are neither cisgender, or traditionally transgender.  A few variations of a “gender spectrum” have been conceptualised with the express purpose of helping these people better classify and label themselves.

Linear-type graphs no longer fairly represent the full spectrum, so below is just one interpretation of a “complete” graph:



What this type of graph helps to show, is that people can experience not only being feminine or masculine, but how just how masculine and feminine they are in comparison to a lack of gender entirely.  A pangendered person may put themselves in the centre of the graph to denote that they feel like a perfect mix of fullygendered and agendered, while a bigendered person may put themselves squarely between masculine/feminine, feminine/agender, or masculine/agender.

Since people’s positions on the spectrum is so varied, the phrase or word with which people identify themselves with are similarly varied!  There are currently upwards of 60 different gender classifications that are recognised with most institutions.  The collective term for anything that deviates from the either “Male” or “Female” is “Non-Binary”.


The Useful Stuff

So, we know what enbies are and where gender stems from, but how do we interact with these people?

It comes naturally to address people who appear feminine as “she” and those who appear masculine as “he”, but what if someone looks completely androgynous and why would it matter?

To answer the latter first, the reason behind using correct pronouns is simple.  Gender Identity issues very often cause great mental strain for the person who has to deal with them.  They will, more often than not, grow up being told: “You are male/female.  This is what you are.  These are the toys you play with.  These are the clothes you wear.  Any deviation from what is accepted as male and female is wrong.”  Meanwhile their brain structure is saying: “Actually, I am X.  I shouldn’t look like Y.”

As they look in the mirror they see the disconnect between what they look like physically and what their brains know they should look like.  It causes an immense amount of uncomfortableness and often an insane amount of depression.  They begin the process of going through an amount of soul-searching and therapy, and eventually come to the realisation that the gender box they’ve been put in isn’t correct and start to make an effort toward matching their body to their minds.  It doesn’t matter how much time has passed since these people started crafting themselves, perfecting their looks, and moving past any uncertainty, the second someone misgenders them, all the feelings of uncomfortableness and depression come flooding back.

If you have any sense of empathy for another human, you wouldn’t wish those feelings on anyone.  So, how can you ensure that you don’t misgender someone?  The most common pronouns to use when you know someone is non-binary is “They/Them/Their’s”.  This provides a very clear disconnect to every gender, let alone just Male and Female.  Of course, some people do find these pronouns a little impersonal and will request that they go by newly created pronouns like “ze/zir/zir’s”.  It’s uncommon for someone to go by a gender-neutral pronoun like “ze”, but they do exist!

You should also remember that it’s highly unlikely a non-binary person would walk around with a flashing neon sign pointing out their gender, so it can be difficult to identify them.  This is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to meeting new people.  It’s a blessing in the sense that an enby would rarely blame you for misgendering them and would simply correct you (to which you would of course just apologise and let them know you will start using their correct pronouns).  The curse is that if you have even the slightest inkling that someone is non-binary (or even just transgender), you will very much have to consider your words carefully.  I find it helpful to do the following things when meeting new people:

  • Solely use their name when referring to them.
  • If you end up repeating their name, switch to “they/them/their” pronouns. Similarly use gender neutral job/profession pronouns e.g. “Alex is a really smart student, aren’t they?” as opposed to “Alex is a really smart guy, isn’t Alex?”
  • Wait for them, or someone they are very close to, to use their pronouns first. Chances are if someone does have atypical gender markers, they will let you know relatively early to save any misgendering.

Humans are very comfortable putting things in boxes in our head, particularly binary “yes/no” boxes, so when something comes along that doesn’t fit into a pre-prepared box, we have to create a new one, and then try extremely hard to access this box when we need to.  Even knowing all of this information and making a very conscious effort to follow my rules, I do slip up and absent-mindedly open the wrong one.  It’s the nature of humans to mess everything up once in a while!  Should this happen to you, just apologise!  Don’t make a big deal out of it, just try again harder next time!  Because it can be very hard to grasp!


Alice Johnson

Posted in EDI