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An LGBTQ Therapist Explains: What Does Non-Binary Mean?

Updated: Dec 4, 2023


an lgbtq therapist explains non-binary identity

Non-binary is actually an umbrella term that can mean any number of things. Many people identify as non-binary and also describe their gender in other ways such as “non-binary and transmasculine” or “non-binary and agender”. In a general sense, non-binary means not identifying with a binary gender, ie. believing there are more options than being a man or a woman. A non-binary person may be someone who does not want to conform to gendered expectations about behaviour or appearance associated with being a man or a woman. Some people believe they were born non-binary, and others believe that non-binary is a way of seeing the world: the belief that there are more than just two genders. Non-binary identity is separate from sexuality, and you cannot assume the sexuality of someone who is non-binary.


Gender Identity vs. Gender Expression

You cannot tell by looking at someone whether they may be non-binary. There is no one specific non-binary “look.” Non-binary is a gender identity, which is something that one can only know for themselves, similar to sexuality. Gender expression is the way we express our gender to the outside world, and includes clothing, hairstyle, mannerisms, speech, and social roles.


Is Non-Binary a New Thing?

Non-binary may be a new term for many people, but non-binary people have actually been around since the earlier parts of recorded history. Celebrities like Sam Smith, Janelle Monae, and Demi Lovato have recently come out as identifying as non-binary, increasing the visibility of the identity, even though it is not new at all. Non-European cultures have other words for people who do not identify as male or female, but something in-between. In Canada, Indigenous people may use the term “two-spirit” which means having the spirit of both genders within them. Historically, two spirit identities were treated with reverence in many Indigenous cultures, and two spirit people held positions of honour or leadership in some communities. Outside of Canada, other examples of non-binary identities include the māhū in Hawaii and the Hijra in India.


Pronouns

There is no one specific pronoun that “goes with” being non-binary. Non-binary people may use she/her, he/him, they/them, or a “neopronoun” such as hir/sie. Many non-binary people use the singular “they” as their pronoun. You may have learned that this is grammatically incorrect, but it has actually been used since at least 1735. Most major written style guides recognize the singular “they” as grammatically correct.


It is important to use the correct pronoun for non-binary people in your life just like it’s important to use someone’s correct name. You wouldn’t meet someone and say “You look like a Brian” and call them Brian if their name was Joanne. It’s basically the same with pronouns.


If you are a non-binary person, there is no specific process to change your pronouns. If you are in the process of coming out as non-binary, you may want to find an LGBTQ therapist near you in order to receive support about how to have conversations about new pronouns with work, family, and friends. Depending on where you live, you may be able to change your gender marker to "X" instead of male or female on documents such as your driver's license and passport.


How Can I Support Non-Binary People

There is a myth floating around right now that non-binary people “don’t exist.” The most important thing you can do if a loved one comes out to you as non-binary is to believe them, and to treat their identity like it’s valid (because it is!). Your loved one may ask you to use a new name or pronouns for them. While this can be hard to get used to, it makes non-binary people feel like you see them for who you really are when you use their name and pronouns correctly. If you make a mistake, it’s okay. Just apologize briefly and then move on, and try to remember for next time. Non-binary people may also be impacted by transphobia. If you hear someone saying something intolerant or unkind about non-binary people, speak up. The less that transphobia is normalized, the safer trans and non-binary people are.


If you are trying to find an LGBTQ therapist near you who is supportive of non-binary identities, or can assist you with the exploration of your own gender identity, book a free consultation with one of our therapists today. We offer LGBTQ therapy in-person in Vancouver and online throughout British Columbia.


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