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Nonbinary People: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Isabel Lowell, MD on September 13, 2022

Lots of us grow up in societies that recognize two genders: female and male. That idea is called a gender binary. But what if you don’t feel like you’re strictly a man or a woman in your heart and mind?

Nonbinary people identify as being a gender that’s not exclusively male or female. You might see yourself as mix of both genders, somewhere in between them, or neither. The way you perceive your gender may not align with traditional views of the biological features (sex) you were born with.

Nonbinary is an umbrella term. Some people use other words to describe the exact way in which they’re nonbinary, like:

  • Genderqueer
  • Gender fluid
  • Agender
  • Bigender
  • Demigender
  • Pangender

Like anyone else, nonbinary people have sexual orientations that reflect who they’re attracted to. They can be straight, gay, bisexual, asexual, or whatever sexuality they feel best describes them. It's important to note that one’s gender identity and sexual orientation are unrelated. A person of any gender may have any sexual orientation.

In a 2021 report, an estimated 11% of LGBTQ adults in the U.S. – about 1.2 million people – identified as nonbinary. Most of them were younger than 29, urban, and white.

What Else Can Nonbinary Mean?

Some people use the term to describe their “gender expression” instead of their gender identity, according to GLAAD, an organization that works toward greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Gender expression refers to the ways you outwardly convey gender through things like your clothes, haircut, voice, or behavior.

Other people say they’re “nonbinary” to show they’re opposed to the idea of there being two fixed gender roles.

How Are Transgender and Nonbinary People Different?

Most transgender people identify as being male or female, and they don’t consider themselves nonbinary, the National Center for Transgender Equality says. But it’s become more common for trans people to call themselves nonbinary if they feel their gender identity is different from strictly “man” or “woman,” GLAAD says.

Many nonbinary people also call themselves transgender and feel part of the transgender community, GLAAD says.

Is There a Certain Way to ‘Look’ Nonbinary?

No. Some nonbinary people dress, talk, or carry themselves in conventionally masculine or feminine ways. Others express themselves in more androgynous ways, meaning with both female and male traits.

Some nonbinary people choose to get surgeries or hormones to medically transition their bodies. Those who physically transition may still identify as nonbinary people, though.

What Pronouns Do Nonbinary People Use?

Many use gender-neutral pronouns (like they/them) instead of pronouns you’d usually associate with men (he/him) or women (she/her). Some nonbinary people use he, she, or other pronouns like ze/zim and xe/xir. Still others use both a gendered pronoun and they/them.

It can be a sign of respect to ask someone for their pronouns if you’re not sure. To start the conversation, you could introduce yourself and say what your pronouns are, and then ask the other person what pronouns they use.

If you know someone who uses two pronouns (like he/them), you could ask them if they’d prefer for you to use one pronoun consistently or alternate between using both.

If you accidentally use the wrong pronouns for someone, it’s kind to apologize.

And if you can’t ask someone what their pronouns are, or you don’t feel comfortable doing so, avoid using pronouns.

What Types of Stigma and Stress Do Nonbinary People Face?

When you’re a nonbinary person, you might encounter unique types of discrimination and misconceptions, compared to other LGBTQ people.

A few myths about nonbinary people are:

  • They don’t exist.
  • They have a mental illness that makes them who they are.
  • They’re in search of attention.

Along with the pain that myths like these can cause, many nonbinary people also face the stress of things like:

  • Deciding whether they should come out and who to come out to
  • Teaching other people about nonbinary identities
  • Being called a wrong pronoun they don’t identify with
  • Feeling like they have to defend or prove their identity
  • Feeling left out of gendered LGBTQ spaces

How Can You Show Your Support for Nonbinary People?

If you aren’t a nonbinary person, you can follow these tips:

  • Show nonbinary people the same decency and respect you’d show anyone else, even if you need more time to understand them.
  • Get to know some nonbinary people. Ask them about their lives to gain a better sense of how they see themselves and what struggles they’ve been through.
  • Along with using their correct pronouns, use the person’s preferred name. Some nonbinary people change their name to better reflect their inner sense of their gender. Don’t ask them what their old name used to be.
  • Think about speaking up in favor of anti-discrimination policies that help nonbinary people feel respected at school, work, and in public.
  • Be aware that many nonbinary people face challenges when deciding which bathroom to use. Either the women’s or the men’s room may not feel safe for them, because there’s a chance that other people might harass or attack them. You can show them support by accepting that they should be able to use whichever bathroom makes them feel safer.

What if Your Child Says They’re Nonbinary?

If your child thinks they may be nonbinary, they might be exploring their gender identity. This is normal and can change and evolve over time.

Reach out for help if your child identifies as nonbinary and they:

  • Seem distressed
  • Stay home from school
  • Avoid doing things they used to enjoy

It’s important to get medical care if you notice signs like these. A 2020 survey of 40,000 LGBTQ people 13 to 24 years old found that over half of nonbinary and transgender youths had seriously thought about suicide and 60% had harmed themselves in the past 12 months.

Some hospitals have programs that offer health care specifically for gender-diverse children and teens. A care team could include professionals like a doctor and nurses, a gender health expert, psychologist, and social worker.

The American Psychological Association also has tips to help parents find gender-competent therapists for their children.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Human Rights Campaign: “Transgender and Non-Binary People FAQ.”

Boston Children’s Hospital: “What it means to be non-binary: A guide for parents.”

GLAAD: “In Focus: Nonbinary People,” “Glossary of Terms: Transgender.”

National Center for Transgender Equality: “Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive,” “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Definitions.”

The Society for the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity: “Nonbinary Fact Sheet.”

University of California, Los Angeles: “1.2 million LGBTQ adults in the US identify as nonbinary.”

Social Psychological and Personality Science: “Defending the Sex/Gender Binary: The Role of Gender Identification and Need for Closure.”

The Trevor Project: “National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2020.”

News release, Children’s Minnesota.

American Psychological Association: “10 Considerations for Finding a Gender Competent Therapist for Your Child.”

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