“They’re such a nice person.”
“Don’t you mean she’s a nice girl?”
“No, I don’t.”
Maybe you’ve had a conversation along those lines when speaking about someone you know. Maybe your parents don’t understand the new freedom of gender expression in our liberal Bay Area. Maybe you yourself are nonbinary. It’s a relatively new thing—expressing one’s nonbinary identity—and I’ve met several people who just don’t understand what it means.
A few weeks ago, on March 22nd, six members of CPS’s transgender (including nonbinary) community spoke as a panel during the faculty meeting. Being transgender isn’t just going from male to female or the reverse; it includes identifying with any gender other than that which one was assigned at birth. Thus, being nonbinary fits under the greater category of transgender.
Full disclosure here: I’m a cisgender (identifying with the gender I was assigned at birth) female. Can I know for certain the perspective of a nonbinary person? No, probably not. However, I’ve conducted interviews with a few of my nonbinary friends. The quotes used in this article are directly from the nonbinary community at CPS.
So…what does it mean to be nonbinary? Is it the same as being genderfluid? If not, what is genderfluidity?
“I define NB as exactly what it sounds like: a gender outside the construct of the binary. Genderfluid, to me, means fluctuating between genders, and the difference between it and NB is simply that genderfluidity can mean lots of genders while NB can be virtually anything that isn’t male or female.”
“NB [nonbinary] is just kind of an umbrella term for not fitting within the strict boundaries of male or female and within that there are people who are both male and female (bigender), or people who are no gender (agender), and basically anything else you can imagine.”
“I define nonbinary as anything other than male and female. So this includes a number of other gender labels, including agender, genderqueer, and yes, genderfluid.”
Now, some of you may be shaking your heads and saying “Wait, WHAT?” And that’s fine. I’m going to try to phrase it in an analogy to further your understanding. Look at the image below. It goes from black to white, but there’s a lot of grey in between, right? If male and female are black and white, respectively, then a nonbinary person is in that in-between space. They could be light grey, they could be dark grey, or they could be right smack in the middle. That’s what nonbinary means. You’re not black OR white. You’re gray. And gray is A-OK.
I asked a few students when they recognized themselves as nonbinary. Like being transgender, nonbinary isn’t a “choice” one makes. It’s a personal and legitimate situation.
“Before I knew that nonbinary was an actual thing, I was definitely sure that I wasn’t female, so I identified as male for a while but I never fully felt like a boy. Once I heard about ‘nonbinary’ I was like hey that’s me!!”
“I usually describe how I know I’m nonbinary as wanting to be equally accepted by both binary genders as one of them, but at the same time knowing that I just don’t fit either one.”
Let’s talk about the pronoun situation. The CPS mind, being trained so well grammatically, resists “they/them” as a singular pronoun. However, at the trans panel I attended, Sarah Herz (’19) made a really excellent and relatable point. To paraphrase: When you’re in a car and you see someone, say, run a stop sign, but you don’t know that person’s gender, you might automatically say “Why did they do that?” or something else involving they/them for a single person. It’s a normal response to not having enough information (not knowing their gender). When in doubt, just use they/them.
In other news, dictionaries are beginning to recognize they/them as a grammatically correct singular pronoun, so you can stop worrying, English teachers. A fairly recent movement has roughly drafted the pronoun “ze” as a gender-neutral term; we’ll see where that goes (for more info, see http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/14/opinions/mcwhorter-pronouns-gender-neutral/).
What kind of reception do nonbinary people get when they come out? And what is coming out like? How do they define their sexual orientations?
Negative responses to revealing nonbinary identity: “______, you’re a girl. Shut up.” “Oh god, another one?!” “I’m going to just call you a girl, because it’s easier for me.”
Positive responses to revealing nonbinary identity: “Oh cool, do you want me to start using they/them pronouns for you?” “I support you.” “Really? Me too!”
Classifying sexual orientation is especially difficult for nonbinary people. How would you describe a cisgender-male-attracted-to-nonbinary-people? It’s tough. Really, playing it by ear and listening to how each person feels is the most important way to make them feel respected. Each individual will have a different story, a different sexuality.
“Just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean you like boys, and that’s obvious. Once you get to genders outside the binary, there’s really no expectation for that, because that’s a more recent development. It kinda means you have to come out twice. I think it’s easier to come out with sexual orientation than gender orientation. One of them is like ‘you’re still the same’ and the other one is ‘you’re not the person we thought.’ ”
“Coming out twice, it kinda comes down to choosing what I want to say. Coming out with sexuality is generally like ok, but you say you’re nonbinary and someone is like ‘Whoa, that’s a bit too much for my brain right now.’ I’ve never felt the need to ALSO share my sexuality, since you can’t really say you’re straight if you’re nonbinary.”
Coming back to pronoun usage…let’s say you forget that your (biologically female) friend is nonbinary, so you refer to them as she/her. Should you apologize or leave it alone? Will they be offended, angry, hurt, or totally ok with it?
“It doesn’t matter so much to me, generally I will gently remind people and they can get back with it. If they won’t address me with my correct pronouns on purpose it does offend me, but usually a nice conversation will fix that.”
“No, I wouldn’t say it offends me. I know it’s really hard to change the way you perceive someone’s gender, particularly if you’re like me and generally present as more feminine.”
“Once my teacher said ‘she’ and corrected it to ‘they,’ and that honestly made my day, because it was a slip-up, apology, and moving on.”
Honestly, my goal in this article has just been to educate and inform. Our nonbinary community is vocal, friendly, and altogether an incredible and inspiring group of people. I hope you’ll share your new knowledge with more folks in the outside world; the greater amount of supportive people, the more welcome and respected each and every nonbinary person can feel.
An additional image of the gender spectrum for your edification: