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A Short Guide to Non Binary

Dave Smith 1965 /

What does non binary mean?

Traditionally in Western culture, sex and gender are typically divided by a binary system: 

Male or female. Man or woman. Masculine or feminine. 

However many other cultures throughout history (predominantly indigenous peoples) do not subscribe to the “gender binary”, and scholars of both science and social philosophy back the notion that neither gender nor sex is legitimately binary.

(See: “Has Gender Always Been Binary?” and “Sex Isn’t Binary, And We Should Stop Acting Like It Is.”)

So to be non binary is to reject that system in recognition that your identity does not or cannot conform to such rigid categorisations. 

Non binary typically comes under the ‘transgender’ umbrella because many non binary people do not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, however non binary is itself an umbrella and can encompass many different identities, and not all non binary people consider themselves transgender.

What does non binary look like?

The short answer is: Anything. 

The long answer is: Aaaanythiiiiing. 

Over the last few years, as non binary as a term has become more prevalent in mainstream media, more stereotypes of what a non binary person looks like have developed. A common complaint is events that are labelled as tailored to “Women and Non Binary” people are actually targeted at the idea that a non binary person is just “Woman Lite”, ‘thus alienating a huge percentage of the non-binary population. 

A non binary person can have any type of body and may relate to one gender, more than one gender, no gender at all, or a completely fluid mix. The possibilities are genuinely endless. 

There are many different sub-categories that people may also use alongside non-binary, for example:

When it comes to pronouns it’s always best to both ask and introduce your own pronouns, as non binary people could use any pronouns including he/him, she/her,  they/them and it/its, but also neopronouns such as ze/zir, ze/hir, fae/faer, or a mixture of different pronouns.

Origins of non binary

Whilst the concept of gender/sex not being binary is as old as humanity itself, the term “non binary” is more modern in origin and appears to have originally gained traction in the 90s, though finding the exact etymology proves difficult. 

Non binary is sometimes shortened to “Enby” or “NBi”. 

(Please Note: “NB” is not recommended as it was already being used by the Black community to mean “Non-Black”, and some people find the term “Enby” infantilising, so always seek consent before using a term for someone.)

Gender Queer” was a term cited in 1990 (revised in 1999) in the book “The Welcoming Congregation Handbook” by Unitarian Universalist Association, but likely used earlier than this, and was commonly used before the popularisation of non binary.

The 1990 Bisexual Manifesto encouraged visibility and acceptance of non binary, genderfluid and other identities, stating; “Do not assume that bisexuality is binary or duogamous in nature: that we have 'two' sides or that we must be involved simultaneously with both genders to be fulfilled human beings. In fact, don’t assume that there are only two genders.” 

Kate Bornstein published her book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us in 1994, and in it, she detailed her experiences as a trans person who does not identify with the gender binary. 

In 1995, H. A. Burnham invented the term “Neutrois”, an identity centred on being completely genderless. 

(See: “The History of nonbinary gender”) 

The Non Binary Pride flag. Equal stripes of yellow, white, purple and black.

The non binary pride flag was created by Kye Rowan in 2014 to compliment the existing genderqueer pride flag and has since been widely adopted (though many other specific non binary identities have their own designs). 

The colours of the non binary flag represent: 

  • Yellow - Gender that exists outside of the binary
  • White - Many or all genders
  • Purple - A mix of male and female genders, and fluidity
  • Black - The nonexistence of gender

There are several different non binary symbols, one of which is the symbol above which represents a cross going through a traditional-style gender symbol. 

What issues do non binary people face?

If something negatively impacts the wider trans community, there’s a high chance that it also impacts non binary people, but there are a variety of extra problems that non binary people may also face. 

Non binary people that choose to undergo any form of medical transition will need to jump through the same pathologised hoops that any other transgender people have to go through, but there can also be added hurdles in the form of medical professionals either not understanding non binary identities, or even having an unconscious (or outright) bias against them, which at best results in extra gatekeeping steps, or at worst acts of discrimination and a complete refusal to provide gender-affirming medical care. 

Non binary people also do not have any legal recognition within the UK. More places in Europe and around the world have already taken steps to allow non binary citizens to have legal documentation that reflects their identity, however, in a 2022 parliamentary debate the UK deemed non binary legal recognition to not be a priority and so no plans are being made to catch up with more progressive countries. 

Whilst there are more visible non binary people than ever with celebrities opening up about their identities, this visibility is a double-edged sword as the concept of rejecting the gender binary is still widely misunderstood, and we have yet to reach a stage of mainstream acceptance. 

It is worth noting that non binary people are protected under the Equality Act 2010, but this does not automatically prevent the high levels of discrimination that non binary people are subjected to. 

Resources for Non Binary People

  • Gendered Intelligence is a charity that “exists to increase understandings of gender diversity and improve trans people's quality of life” and this includes non binary people. 

  • Mindline Trans+ is a helpline that provides emotional and mental health support to trans and non binary people. 

  • Spectra is a London-based service that offers counselling, support and advice to gender-diverse people. 

  • Stonewall’s article, “10 Ways To Step Up As An Ally To Non-Binary People

  • The Nonbinary Wiki catalogues a huge amount of non binary data and history. 

  • Galop is an LGBTQ+ anti-abuse charity that supports victims of discrimination and violence. 

  • Stonewall’s published list of QTIPOC organisations.


Felix, a non binary transgender person wearing a pink beanie hat with blue text reading

Felix F Fern

This article was written by Felix F Fern (He/They). Felix is a disabled, mspec and non-binary transgender activist and co-founder of the grassroots activism team Trans Activism UK.

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