Gender and sexuality, while sometimes intertwined, are two separate and unique concepts, and this can sometimes be confusing, even for those who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
In itself, the umbrella acronym for people who do not identify as entirely straight has evolved over the years to try and be more inclusive. Today, the officially accepted full acronym reads LGBTQQIAAP (short for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally and pansexual), but this is not to say that it will not be expanded in the future.
When Dr. Alfred Kinsey developed a scale to determine where people lie on the spectrum of human sexuality, one thing became abundantly clear: sexuality isn’t always black and white, and many people fall somewhere between being exclusively gay or exclusively straight.
With that being said, gender also often tends to fall somewhere outside of being exclusively male or exclusively female. Transgender people are born with a gender that they do not identify with later in life, while people that are born intersex display characteristics that are both male and female.
The term “gender non-binary” has attracted a lot of attention of late, with a great many celebrities, including Ruby Rose and Rose McGowan, deciding to opt for this description in terms of their gender identity.
It’s rather ironic that gender non-binary has become a label that people use to describe themselves, as this specific form of gender identity is actually devoid of any one label.
Gender non-binary: a quick breakdown
To identify as gender non-binary in terms of one’s gender means that a person’s gender identity is not exclusively feminine or masculine and falls outside of the traditionally accepted gender binary (the classification of sex and gender into two opposite and distinct forms of masculinity and femininity). In short, being gender non-binary means that a person does not identify as cisgender. That is to say, someone does not identify as exclusively male or exclusively female.
In an interview with them, Ian Fields Stewart poignantly describes what being non-binary means to them:
“Many people might say that nonbinary is like the grey area of gender — undefined space between more defined areas. However, because grey is a mixture of black and white, it is inherently defined by the constructs of the colors it is comprised of. I think nonbinary is the whole crayon box. It is every paint on the easel. It is everything and nothing and a couple things. Nonbinary is limitless.”
People who identify as non-binary may want to medically transition to another sex, or they may not. They may be intersex, or they may not be intersex. They may prefer the use of they/them pronouns, they may prefer other gender-neutral pronouns, they may have a preference for a pronoun that defines their masculinity or femininity, or they may not care about pronouns at all. They may experience gender dysphoria, or they may not. They may prefer to only identify as gender non-binary, or they may identify as gender non-binary, as well as male or female.
Non-binary also encompasses a range of other gender identities, like genderfluid (meaning someone whose gender identity varies over time), genderless or agender (someone who identifies as gender-neutral, or does not identify with one particular gender identity), pangender (someone who identifies with a range of different genders), bigender (someone who has two gender identities – either simultaneously or switching between them), demigender (someone who has a partial or weak connection with a particular gender – they may refer to themselves as demigirls or demiboys, for instance), third-gender (someone who identifies with a legally recognised or societal gender that is not male or female, like the Two-spirit in Native American cultures, or the Hirja in India), or amalgagender (someone who was born with mixed female and male anatomy, an intersex person).
The terms “non-binary” and “genderqueer” are often used interchangeably, and this gender identity is becoming more mainstream and recognised as time goes on. Even in South Africa, Wits recently decided to refrain from using the titles Mr, Mrs and Ms in their correspondence to students, with the aim of being more inclusive of all gender identitities.
To learn more about being non-binary, check out In Their Own Words, a platform where people who identify as non-binary share their stories.