What Does Being Non-Binary Mean?: The History of Non-Binary Identities
Updated: Nov 1, 2021
Recent conversations around gendered language and non binary identities may feel new to some people, but this is a phenomenon that has existed for hundreds of years throughout history.
In this guide, we'll be taking a look at what being non-binary actually means, the gender binary that exists in modern society, and the impact it has.
What is the difference between sex and gender?
Sex refers to a person's biological characteristics, for example, having a penis or a vagina. Mainstream society teaches us there are only two distinct sexes: men or women, which is not entirely accurate.
Gender refers to the range of characteristics differentiating between femininity and masculinity. Different societies define specific 'roles' or 'behaviours' for genders, usually Men and Women, which can be presented through names, pronouns, clothing, haircuts, behaviour, body characteristics, or how one interacts with others.
What is the gender binary?
A binary is something that has only two parts.
The gender binary is, therefore, when societies only recognise genders that present as male or female. Society also generally expects your gender to correlate with your sex. Thus, someone with a penis should use he/him pronouns, wear male clothes, and act in a 'masculine' way.
The gender binary excludes many identities, including intersex people, who have mixed genitalia, therefore existing outside the binary due to their biological characteristics. Around 1.7% of people across the world are intersex, close to the same amount of people born with red hair.
Many 'corrective' surgeries currently take place at birth, which can cause long-term effects on health, all to ensure a person conforms to male or female genitalia. Little consideration is given to the fact that people may not want these surgeries or even exist outside the stringent definitions of sex.
What does non-binary mean?
A non-binary person exists outside the gender binary due to their social characteristics. Non-binary people consider themselves to have a mix of different genders, no gender at all, or that their gender fluctuates over time. Ultimately this is defined by the person, and they don't believe the gender binary can accurately reflect their gender.
How do non-binary people refer to themselves?
Non-binary people use the pronouns they/them/theirs and Mx, a gender-neutral title (pronounced mux or mix). Some non-binary people also refer to themselves as enby.
'They' is used in the same way that women use the pronouns 'she/her/hers', and men use 'he/him/his'.
Although trans people consider their gender different to the sex they were assigned at birth, not all non-binary people consider themselves trans.
Where did non-binary identities come from?
Non-binary people have been visible for thousands of years. Society would have you believe that gender non-conforming people are a new phenomenon in our current world, but they have always existed; their identities were erased during European Colonisation.
The gender binary was primarily native to Europe, and Europeans introduced it and imposed it across the world. Colonialism erased open gender non-conforming identities and attached shame and stigma to these people, which continues today.
As far back as 400BC, we can see references in the Kama Sutra to the Hijra of South Asia, who do not consider themselves male or female and maintain a strong community today.
Within indigenous communities, in what is now known as the Americas, there are many gender-variant identities, including Two-spirit people who identify as having a masculine and feminine spirit, who held significant roles in their indigenous communities before European colonisation.
The Māhū of, what is now known as, Hawaii also embrace feminine and masculine traits, which is highly valued in Kanaka culture. It wasn't until colonisers arrived on these lands that gender fluidity became a taboo subject. The film A Place in the Middle discusses Māhū identities.
What does being non-binary mean to enby people?
Actor Amandla Stenberg stated that, by coming out, they hoped to "show people who follow what I'm doing that you don't have to conform to those constructs to be valid or be worth something."
Bex Taylor-Klaus referred to being non-binary as giving them more freedom. "I love the term non-binary for myself personally because it's such an umbrella term […] meaning I am not of the binary — I am something else, which allows me room to learn and find a more pinpointed label if I so choose or otherwise stick with my umbrella."
"You do not identify in a gender. You are just you." - Sam Smith
Singer Demi Lovato, who changed their pronouns to they/them in 2021, stated on their 4D podcast: "there is nothing more freeing to me than to be unattached to a role that society wants me to play". Demi stated that their new pronouns capture "the fluidity I feel in my gender expression, and allows me to feel most authentic and true to the person I both know I am and still am discovering".
Singer Sam Smith said, "when I saw the words' non-binary' and 'genderqueer' and I read into it, and I heard these people speaking, I thought, f*CK — that is me […] [they] mean to me that you do not identify in a gender. You are just you. You are a mixture of all different things. You are your own special creation."
Being Non-binary in the UK
Some figures in the UK show 1/3 of people do not believe themselves to live within the gender binary. However, in the UK currently, non-binary people are not legally recognised, meaning only male or female options can be chose for passports or even insurance quotes.
Many argue for legal recognition, which some consider would help those continuously unrecognised or misgendered. Whereas, at the same time, some are asking for genders to be removed completely. Recently, the government amended the Equality Act to protect Non-binary people.
How can you be an ally to non-binary people?
Stonewall is an organisation in the UK that provides support and drives change around LGBTQ+ issues. They wrote 10 ways to step up as an ally to non-binary people as a guide for those wanting to be allies to non-binary people.
For more resources on how to be an ally, check out our dedicated LGBTQ+ Rights & Issues section.
Edited by Christophe Locatelli