Non-binary identity and gender-neutral pronouns: a guide

by Holly Thompson
Colourful letter cubes that spell out non-binary

Non Binary Letters for gender identity - Alexander Grey via Unsplash

A common question that people engaged in the LGBTQ+ community are often asked, is: ‘why do people use different pronouns?’ As some celebrities and people in the public eye have recently come out as non-binary, you may have wondered what ‘non-binary’ means, and why it is important. In this blog post, I will explain non-binary identity, and the different pronouns people might use and what you can do to support non-binary friends and colleagues.

What is the Gender Binary?

To understand non-binary identity, it is often helpful to first understand what the gender binary is and how it impacts our society and culture.

The categorisation framework ‘gender’ is based on two fundamental assumptions:

  1. Biological sex, i.e. the reproductive organs what one is born with, automatically dictate which gender, male or female, one belongs to.
  2. Society and culture has organised and given meaning to differences of sex. ‘Gender’ is this organisation and meaning — it is the application of the human-made construct onto the sexed body.

‘Male’ and ‘female’ gender norms have been societally constructed with behaviour, characteristics and desires deemed ‘appropriate’ for each respective gender. This is also thought of as ‘gender stereotypes’. Those who do not adhere to their proscribed gender, dictated by their sex, are seen as abject, i.e. abnormal and other.

People for whom their sex and their gender do match are referred to as ‘cis’.

Some people may identify as trans if their sex and gender do not match but they feel that their gender is the opposite of their sex.

What does ‘non-binary’ mean?

Psychologists Emmie Matsuno and Stephanie Budge have defined non-binary identity as follows:

Non-binary is a term that defines several gender identity groups, including (but not limited to): a) an individual whose gender identity falls between or outside male and female identities, b) an individual who can experience being a man or woman at separate times, or c) an individual who does not experience having a gender identity or rejects having a gender identity.

Emmie Matsuno and Stephanie Budge

Non-binary means that a person does not ascribe to the gender categories ‘male’ or ‘female’.

Philosopher Robin Dembroff has identified that this may be expressed in the following ways:

  • using gender-neutral pronouns, e.g. zie or them
  • presenting themselves with gender non-conforming aesthetics, i.e. dressing androgynously
  • making gender categorisation assertions, i.e. stating which gender category or none they belong to.
  • queering their personal relationships — either with their sexuality, behaviour or traits
  • eschewing sexuality binaries, e.g. identifying as pansexual
  • space switching between gendered spaces, i.e. participating actively in both male and female spaces

To put it simply, a non-binary person is someone who does not participate in or actively rejects the gender binary.

Non-binary is just one identification term. Other similar terms to denote a person’s rejection of the gender binary are:

  • agender
  • genderqueer
  • pangender
  • gender-neutral
  • gender-fluid

Issues that non-binary people encounter

Identifying as non-binary is not yet fully accepted in western society.

Non-binary people can and do experience:

  • Aggression and hostility
  • Pressure to conform to gender stereotypes
  • Being frequently misgendered
  • Having to pick a gender to participate in society, for example when using a public bathroom
  • Feeling alienated and like they do not belong because they do not belong to either ‘male’ or ‘female’
Binary is for computers sticker on a table at a bar

Binary is for computers - Delia Giandeini via Unsplash

Why are pronouns important?

Gender-neutral pronouns allow non-binary people freedom of expression without being misgendered.

This means that others can address and refer to them correctly without imposing the male or female gender on them.

Pronouns used for non-binary people include (but are not limited to):

  • zie/hir
  • they/them
  • xe/xem

A common title used by non-binary people is ‘Mx’, which is short for ‘Mixter’, in place of Miss, Mr or Mrs.

What does this mean for me?

If you’re a cis-gendered person, then you don’t need to worry about using other pronouns for yourself. However, it is important to be mindful that others may not use the same pronouns as you, and be sensitive to others’ feelings about their own gender or none.

Things you can do:

  • When you meet someone, do not assume their gender by their appearance
  • Introduce yourself using your own pronouns, “Hi I’m Holly, she/her. What’s your name?”
  • Include your pronouns on your email signature
  • If in doubt, use the gender-neutral pronouns ‘they/them’ until it has been confirmed what pronouns someone uses
  • When someone tells you what their pronouns are, be sure to use them and do not repeatedly misgender them (though sometimes mistakes happen!)

Further reading:

10 Ways to Step Up as an Ally to Non-Binary People, Stonewall

Losty, Mairéad; O’Connor, John, “Falling outside of the ‘nice little binary box’: a psychoanalytic exploration of the non- binary gender identity”, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy 32.1, (2018): 40–60.

Matsuno, Emmie & Budge, Stephanie, “Non-binary/Genderqueer Identities: a Critical Review of the Literature”. Current Sexual Health Reports (2017).

Dembroff, Robin, “Beyond Binary: Genderqueer as Critical Gender Kind”. Philosopher’s Imprint 20.9 (2020).

Photo 1 by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Article written by Holly Thompson, posted on May 17th 2020