What does it mean to be non-binary? Someone who identifies their gender as “non-binary” is someone who feels their gender doesn’t align with the traditional notion of binary gender – man and woman – that has been generally accepted in American society.
What does it mean to be non-binary? Gender brings up lots of ideas. Maybe it makes you think about ideas of masculinity versus femininity. Maybe it causes you to consider the many visual ways that people express gender – clothing, hair, make-up, facial hair. It may conjure thoughts about how gender is assigned to us when we are born – or even before we are born – with some people even celebrating the gender they have chosen for their new child. It also might make you consider how gender in our society has a profound impact on the choices that are available to us and can steer the direction of a person’s entire life.
What does it mean to be non-binary? Gender can be complicated in a society with strict rules about how people should feel, behave, and express themselves based on their assignment to one or the other of two genders. But many people, more than you realize, don’t find that their experience of gender fits well with either of these ideas of ‘male’ or ‘female.’
What does it mean to be non-binary? Gender is simultaneously a public experience and a deeply personal, private one. We tend to think of two aspects of gender because of this: gender identity and gender expression. Gender identity is our own perception of our gender and is related to how we see ourselves in our inner world, how we relate to others, and how we navigate life from one situation to the next. Gender expression is how we communicate that gender identity to others, through language, through appearance, and through behavior.
What does it mean to be non-binary? Gender is what we call ‘socially constructed,’ meaning that it exists because people have created it. We know this because every culture in human history has had different ideas about gender, and even today, the idea of gender is different from place to place, culture to culture, and is even highly nuanced within cultures. The concept of gender is impacted by history, geography, religion, and politics. Groups of humans have organized society around two genders, three genders, multiple genders, and even no gender. And these ideas of gender have changed over times, constantly fluid as human history unfolds.
So it is hard to argue that gender is a fixed point, or a biological absolute.
But just because something is socially constructed doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful and impactful. Morality is socially constructed, as is religion and ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, and these are concepts that guide most of us in our daily lives. Geographic and political divisions are socially constructed, yet our emotional and physical ties to a place are powerful and form parts of our essential identities. Traditions – the way we organize our lives, our families, and how we celebrate life and one another - are also socially constructed and carry deep, important meaning for many people.
Gender is socially constructed, but it isn’t arbitrary. It is an intrinsically meaningful part of how we understand ourselves and how we relate to others.
But I feel comfortable with the gender I was given – it works for me.
Most people align with the gender they were assigned at birth, and feel comfortable both identifying and expressing that gender throughout their lives. You will hear these people referred to as cisgender. ‘Cis’ is a Latin root that means ‘same’ – or in other words, a person’s gender is the same as the one that was assigned at birth.
Transgender people – ‘trans’ being the Latin for ‘moving in between,’ such as transportation or transient – identify with a different gender than the one assigned to them at birth. Many transgender people take steps to publicly express their true gender, and so may change their name, their appearance, their voice, or even their physical body in order to live more authentically as their true selves. For many trans people, they find comfort and peace aligning with one or the other of the traditional binary genders.
What does it mean to be non-binary? Non-binary people are people experiencing a gender identity that doesn’t fit easily into these binary gender categories.
Like most things in life, gender exists on a spectrum, and all people fall somewhere along that spectrum. Most people tend to land near either end of the spectrum, but many do not.
Like transgender people, some non-binary people choose to express their gender in ways different from how they might be expected to. Non-binary people may choose to use a different name, or ask you to use different pronouns when referring to them. They might dress differently, or not. Like transgender people, and cisgender people too, for that matter, non-binary people are individuals and make individual choices about how they choose to express their identity to others. They make choices to manage the gender dysphoria they often feel when their gender expression does not match their gender identity.
What is gender dysphoria, and is it really that big of a deal?
Gender dysphoria is an important part of the experience of most transgender and non-binary people, and it is a big deal. Gender dysphoria occurs when there is incongruence between two things: how a transgender or non-binary person perceives their own gender and how a transgender or non-binary person’s gender is perceived by others.
Gender dysphoria exists because our cultures often provide a rigid framework of acceptable behaviors and expressions that don’t reflect the incredible diversity of human experience.
Here is an example:
Sam does not identify with being a man or a woman, and perceives their own gender as not being associated with either of those binary options. So, Sam identifies as non-binary, and because of this uses they/them as their personal pronouns and avoids gendered honorifics like Mr, Ms, Sir, and Ma’am. Sam likes to keep their hair short and usually grows a short beard. At the corner market the other day, as Sam was leaving through the front door, a young person coming into the store accidentally bumped into Sam, but apologized immediately saying, “I am so sorry, sir.” Sam felt a sudden sense of anxiety and discomfort, and the word ‘sir’ rang heavy in Sam’s ears, and they thought about it intently during their walk home.
What Sam experienced – that emotional reaction to being perceived differently by others than by themselves – is gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria can be triggered by intentional sleights – like being misgendered on purpose by someone trying to inflict harm – or, as in the example above, by interactions with others where the sleight is not intentional. The young person in the example above wasn’t trying to hurt Sam, but their behavior does reflect that we are socialized in American culture to gender strangers and to use gendered language as a default. The young person in the example could easily have said, “I am so sorry.” The assignment of a gender to Sam was unnecessary and the removal of the word “sir” does not change the meaning of what is being said.
It is important to remember that dysphoria about gender doesn’t come from within. It is a reaction to social rules that are too rigid and don’t reflect the true breadth of human experiences. If binary gender wasn’t so ingrained in daily life, with people, places, and things constantly and relentless gendered, and these norms so zealously enforced – sometimes through violence - then dysphoria about gender might not even exist.
Aren’t non-binary people just being too sensitive?
No, and we know that because research has provided insight into the impact of gender dysphoria on transgender and non-binary people.
Not every transgender or non-binary person experiences gender dysphoria, and from person to person, the experience of dysphoria can be very different, and can be more intense or less intense depending on a specific context. We know that the experience of gender dysphoria is difficult for many transgender and non-binary people to navigate, and that for some, the experience of gender dysphoria can be intense, debilitating, and dangerous.
What does it mean to be non-binary? Research has linked poorer mental health outcomes to these feelings of dysphoria. Trans and non-binary individuals experience substance abuse, self-harm behaviors, and thoughts of suicide at far higher rates than cisgender people. Trans and non-binary people often face structural barriers – discrimination, isolation, marginalization, and even violence – simply for attempting to live authentically as their true selves.
What does it mean to be non-binary? It is important to remember that gender norms and rules are maintained and enforced in many ways, and society has often turned to violence to ensure conformity with these rules. The pathway to expressing oneself for transgender and non-binary people is difficult, dangerous, and sometimes deadly. It is important to remember that the stakes are very high for transgender and non-binary people, and by disclosing these identities to you, they are taking an incredible risk to be authentic and honest with those they love.
So how can I support the non-binary people in my life?
Listen. It is difficult to tell others that you identify as non-binary. People face ridicule and scorn and may risk being isolated or rejected by friends and family. They may face discrimination at work, in trying to access health care or housing, or when trying to advocate for themselves in the public sphere. The person who is sharing this identity with you is taking a leap of faith, so meet that faith with patience and understanding, with an open heart and an open mind.
Learn more. In several ways. Reading this article is a good start – it shows you are curious about what this means and that you are trying to understand the experience of someone you know, someone you may care about or even love. The internet is filled with non-binary people doing the emotional labor of teaching others about gender and the unique experiences they are having. Learning more about gender identity and expression can help you better understand the ways that people feel they need to show up in the world.
Be patient with yourself. We have all been raised with ideas of gender gleaned from cultural norms, tradition, religion, and the way our family and communities are organized. So, it takes time to unpack and explore our feelings about gender. Give yourself some time and allow yourself to feel confused and challenged. Be patient. Be kind.
Be supportive. You don’t have to understand someone to love them. To give them respect. To honor their right to make choices about the life they are living. To provide safety for them within the relationship you have with them. To be kind to them. It can be hard to understand someone else’s experiences, or to see the world from their perspective.
Use the correct pronouns. It may not seem like much to you, but language can have a powerful impact on the mental health of a transgender or non-binary person. Research shows that when non-binary people are in environments where their gender identities are affirmed, they have better mental health outcomes. It may take practice but small shifts in language, like using different pronouns for someone, can have a large impact.
How can a professional counselor help?
Maybe you are struggling with understanding your own gender and ways to embrace and express it. Maybe a friend or loved one is struggling with their gender, and you are finding yourself challenged by their experiences, or at a loss of how to support them. Maybe a loved one has ‘come out’ to you as non-binary, or transgender, and you are not sure what this means for your relationship with them. A professional counselor can help you navigate these questions and explore ways to improve your understand of yourself and others.
At TCFG you can schedule directly online with a therapist or by calling (215) 922-LOVE (5683) ext 100 and speaking with our intake department. Lastly, you can call our Director, “Alex” Caroline Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW at (267) 324–9564 to discuss your particular situation. For your convenience, we have six physical mental health counseling / therapy offices. We provide mental health counseling and talk therapy both inperson and virtually.
- Ocean City Therapy Office
360 West Ave, Floor 1, Ocean City, NJ 08226
- Mechanicsville Therapy Office
9044 Mann Drive, Mechanicsville Virginia, 23116
- Providence Therapy Office
173 Waterman St. Providence, RI 02906
- Society Hill Therapy Office
233 S. 6th Street, C-33, Philadelphia PA 19106
- Art Museum / Fairmount Therapy Office
2401 Pennsylvania Ave, Suite 1a2, Philadelphia PA 19130
- Santa Fe Therapy Office, 2204 B Brothers Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 87505
- Telemedicine: We have therapists who are licensed to work in Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia.
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