Sex & Relationships

What It Means to Be Non-Binary

There's more ways to identify outside of male and female

Author Sam K. Mackinnon posing in a park

(Writer Sam K. MacKinnon. Photo: Courtesy of the author)

As a young kid in elementary school, I knew I was a girl because that’s what I was told. In my understanding of gender at the time, I felt like a girl because I liked crafts and dressing up. I also knew I was a boy, feeling at home when I played football and climbed trees with the boys who lived on my street. But without the language to explain my feelings, it took me decades to truly accept and understand my non-binary trans identity.

My first formal introduction to the word “transgender” was during an abnormal psych class in university. I had previously heard the word used as a joke or insult, but here it was presented as a form of mental variance. We watched Becoming Chaz, a documentary profiling the gender transition of Chaz Bono, the child of Cher and Sonny Bono. While I didn’t connect with every part of Bono’s story, and was discouraged by the way the course presented transness through an “abnormal” lens, this lecture sparked my gender awakening.

A few years later, I met a non-binary person for the first time—an experience that became another key moment in my understanding of my own identity. After learning about their identity, I scoured the internet, hoping to find more information about what it meant to be non-binary. When I discovered someone’s personal essay describing their non-binary identity, I felt a connection I didn’t expect.

This was the first time I realized I might be non-binary, and it was also the first moment I truly accepted that there are more than two genders. Something just clicked.

I now avoid using the phrase “identify as,” because while non-binary is an identity, it is also simply who I am. A cis woman generally wouldn’t say she “identifies as a woman”; she would say she is a woman. It took years to find the terms that describe who I am, and for many trans folks, words are deeply personal. Here’s some basics on what it means to be non-binary.

The difference between “trans” and “non-binary”

First of all, it is best to use the term a person uses for themselves, so always ask someone how they identify.

Transgender is a term that means one’s gender identity is different than the identity they were assigned at birth. The term acts as an umbrella to include the multitude of trans identities: you can be assigned female at birth based on your genitals, for example, but still understand yourself as a man (i.e. a trans man). It’s also important to note that some trans folks use the term “transexual” and not “transgender.” Important note: “transexual” isn’t an umbrella term and many transgender people don’t identify that way, which is why it’s so important to ask people what term they prefer.

Non-binary, on the other hand, refers to someone who does not fit into rigid gender categories. A non-binary person is neither female nor male. They can identify with aspects of either gender, or have an identity completely outside the binary. Their gender identity can also change and evolve over time.

Non-binary is also an umbrella term that refers to a multitude of identities that aren’t strictly male or female, including agender (without a gender or a specific gender identity), demiboy (someone who is a boy, sometimes), demigirl (someone who is a girl, sometimes) and genderqueer, which is often used interchangeably with non-binary, and can mean someone with a gender outside a male-female binary.

So why do some non-binary folks also use “trans” and some don’t? Ultimately, the words we use for ourselves are the ones that we connect with and make us comfortable. While non-binary is under the trans umbrella, some non-binary folks may not feel they are transgender or connect with trans narratives.

As someone who uses both trans and non-binary, I can only speak for myself. In part due to the dominant transgender narratives that privilege binary identities, I connected with the term non-binary years before I understood myself as trans. A few years ago, non-binary identities were not as included in trans discourse as they are today. Before understanding the true meaning of “trans,” I struggled to connect with a word that I felt would imply I was strictly male.

Now I understand that I am trans regardless of the fluidity of my gender. I am trans simply because my non-binary gender does not match what I was assigned at birth.

Why do pronouns matter?

The simple response to this question is that referring to an individual in the way they have requested—regardless of whether they are cisgender, transgender and/or non-binary—is a matter of basic human respect. When a cisgender person introduces themselves, it is accepted that we should refer to that person by the name they have stated. The same logic should follow with gender pronouns.

The more complicated response is that words have deeply entrenched, coded meanings for every individual. Pronouns immediately categorize and label an aspect of someone’s identity—as does assigning gender at birth. When we hear “he,” we tend to think “man.” This thought process happens naturally in response to social and cultural norms, which favour a two-gender binary.

When a non-binary and/or trans person shares their pronouns, not only are they sharing the language that makes them comfortable and happy, but they are also categorizing themselves in relation to a social group. Given that non-binary people do not fall strictly into a male or female box, non-binary people may use pronouns such as “they” or “ze,” which are outside the two-gender system entirely.

It is hurtful to use incorrect pronouns for a trans and/or non-binary person. Using incorrect pronouns (or “misgendering”) is an assertion of cisgender privilege that tells trans people their understanding of who they are is not important. It reminds us of every moment in our lives where our sense of self was denied because a cisgender person thought they knew better.

I use the pronouns they/them. When I hear my pronouns used, I feel euphoric, validated and free. When I hear the wrong pronouns, I experience a wave of debilitating dysphoria, a profound feeling of unease that can sometimes last days. I am forced to go into damage-control mode, practicing extensive self-care and reminding myself that I am valid, despite hearing every single day that I am not.

Identification inequities in Canada

Despite both provincial and federal governments recognizing that Canadians deserve to live free from discrimination based on gender identity and expression, laws still erase non-binary folks. In Manitoba, where I live, provincial identification, such as driver’s licenses and health cards, requires one to select either male or female as a sex/gender option.

Each time I present my ID, whether to pick up a package, enter a bar or travel, not only do I experience personal distress, but I am placed in a potentially dangerous situation. My gender expression differs from what is expected of a cisgender woman. I am constantly evaluating my surroundings, wondering whether my identity, my transness, will be debated, questioned, or reacted to with violence by the person checking my ID.

I began lobbying the Manitoba government to include an “X” gender option on identification for non-binary people in March. A bill to amend the province’s Vital Statistics Act and add an option for non-binary people was introduced by the Manitoba’s Opposition NDP on April 25, but it did not pass. In the meantime, myself and many others are left with inaccurate identification that causes great stress.

As a non-binary trans person, I both want—and deserve—the same rights that cisgender folks in Canada have. I want to live freely as myself, and be recognized for who I am without judgement or debate.


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