Due to the predominant narratives that we see in the media, when you think of a transgender person, it’s most likely that you think of a transgender woman, though public awareness of transgender men is also increasing. However, according to the 2017 National LGBT Survey, just under half of transgender people in the UK are non-binary1, with non-binary identities being more common among younger transgender people than among older transgender people. Non-binary identities are rarely discussed and often misrepresented, meaning that they are poorly understood by the wider public and often even in trans circles.
“Non-binary” is a very wide term which covers anyone whose gender identity is not 100%
male or 100% female 100% of the time. As such, “non-binary” can be considered an umbrella term, as well as being a gender identity in its own right. Non-binary people may have a fluid gender which moves between multiple fixed points, a gender which is a simultaneously male and female, a gender which is at some point in the middle of a male-female spectrum, a gender which is completely outside of a male-female spectrum, or no gender at all, to name a few examples. Some non-binary people will consider themselves to be transgender, while others may not (though it is unlikely that they will consider themselves to be cisgender).
Given this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is no single way to be non-binary. While some non-binary people will strive for stereotypical androgynous or else other-worldly presentations, others will be comfortable with traditionally masculine or feminine looks.
Some will use third person singular (they/them) pronouns, others may use neo-pronouns (such as ve/vim or ey/em), while still others will use the more common he/him or she/her pronouns - or even find multiple different sets of pronouns acceptable. Some non-binary people may choose to go through a medical transition while others won’t; those that do may undergo a standard transition path or may choose a more bespoke approach, picking only certain surgeries or reduced hormone dosages. Importantly, none of these choices affect whether a person is or is not non-binary!
Non-binary identities are commonly though of as being something very new and are often dismissed or denigrated as people just trying to make themselves different or special in some way. However, we have evidence of classes outside of male and female dating back to the earliest written human records - a third gender category is referenced in a Sumerian creation myth on a stone tablet dated to the second millennium BC2. Additional gender categories have existed in multiple different cultures from around the world; while many of these were lost through European colonisation, some have persisted, such as two-spirit Indigenous people in the Americas, Samoan Fa’afine and equivalents in other Polynesian countries, and south Asian hijras. While many of these identities may not have been the same as the non-binary identities that we know today, with many of these classes including professional, ceremonial or social roles, but the point stands that it appears that there have been people living outside of simply male and female for as long as there have been humans.
Why is all this background important? Because non-binary people face some shared challenges in the modern world with transgender men and women, and some different challenges...
Many countries do not have any legal recognition of non-binary genders, including the UK. Non-binary people who wish to transition can face additional difficulties accessing medical care, often ending up lying to medical professionals about their identity in order to be able to get access to hormones. And simply being a non-binary person trying to navigate a highly gendered world can be difficult.
Even ignoring the obvious issues which come up when discussing transgender people, such as bathrooms and changing facilities – how many times have you had to fill in a form which has a ‘gender’ tick box with just two options – male and female?
Most people complete these without even thinking about it, however for many non-binary people they pose an awkward dilemma. And this gives rise to a really easy way in which you can make life easier for them – when you see things which are unnecessarily gendered such as these forms, challenge them! But other than that, standard rules apply in order to be a good ally: believe people when they tell you who they are, respect and accept their identity even if you don’t understand it, use their pronouns, and don’t make assumptions about people who you don’t know!
2- Murray, Stephen O., and Roscoe, Will (1997). Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. New York: New York University Press.