Nonbinary Life

Nonbinary meaning: not a man or woman

Are you wondering about the word “nonbinary?” Maybe you have a nonbinary friend or family member, or are questioning if you are nonbinary yourself. But what exactly is the meaning of nonbinary?

Read on to learn about nonbinary meaning people who are not a man or woman.

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Nonbinary meaning: not a man or woman

“Nonbinary” meaning

The meaning of “nonbinary” is pretty simple. A nonbinary person is someone who is not (entirely) a man and not (entirely) a woman. Why did I add “not (entirely)”? Because some nonbinary people relate to some aspects of being a man or being a woman.

Why would someone be nonbinary?

“Nonbinary” encompasses a huge range of people’s genders. It’s not a very specific term because it can mean different things to different people. Here are some examples of why someone would call themselves nonbinary:

  • It doesn’t feel right to be called either a woman or a man
  • A trans person who has not taken steps to change their appearance may feel “nonbinary” is the best way to describe this situation (for example, a trans man, who is read as a woman by the general public, might describe themselves as a nonbinary person)
  • A person who doesn’t have strong feelings about their gender and/or suspects they feel differently about gender than most people might call themselves nonbinary

Are people trans or nonbinary to avoid sexism? Not generally. This is a common question to people who were socialized as female growing up. For example, did they transition so they’d have more opportunities at work? I have not yet met anyone who transitioned to avoid sexism. Gender is innate to a person and for the most part is not influenced by sexist behavior.

Photo by Wesley Carvalho

Is it hard to imagine someone who’s not a man or woman?

It may be hard to imagine what it means to be someone who’s not a man or a woman. As a thought exercise, imagine someone who is not a man or a woman. You may feel a slightly uncomfortable dissonance. Your imaginary person doesn’t fit into the comfortable binary categories of man or woman.

Great. Let’s step back and examine: where does that discomfort come from? Stick with me for a minute. We’re going to talk about history, colonialism, and racism. This is the only way to explain where binary gender roles (“you must be a man or a woman”) came from.

Photo by Hanh Hoang

A brief history of binary gender roles

Our story starts with societies of Indigenous people all over the world. These societies have ways of describing people who are not men or women. Way before the internet, before our modern set of words to describe nonbinary people, societies acknowledged people with a variety of non-binary gender expressions. We exist in the historical record.

European colonizers forced their culture on the remaining occupants of the land they moved into. One aspect of that culture was (and is) the gender binary. To the colonizers, a respectable person had to be either a man or a woman. Men and women had to perform their duties within the narrow confines of gender roles. This facilitated the patriarchy. Men were able to keep control. Women could not have bank accounts, vote, wear pants, etc.

Binary gender roles in early colonial America are heavily linked to race. The ideal of being a woman meant being a white woman. White people used binary gender conformity to form a distinction between their “upper-class” society and Black and Indigenous people and people of color.

Who is nonbinary?

Nonbinary simply means anyone outside of the binary genders. In our modern world, there are many ways to be a woman or a man. If you consider yourself a woman or a man, regardless of your gender presentation, you are not nonbinary. As soon as you decide you are nonbinary, that you are not entirely a man or woman, you are nonbinary. That’s it. There’s no entrance exam. If you think nonbinary is a useful way to describe yourself, then you are nonbinary.

Photo by Tomaz Barcellos

Is nonbinary a sexuality?

Nonbinary is generally a word for describing gender identity, not sexuality. Being nonbinary can influence your sexuality. If a nonbinary person dates…anyone, it’s not a straight relationship, right? But primarily the word indicates your gender identity. Some other words to describe non-man and non-woman gender identities include both gender and sexuality. Describing gender and sexuality are not separate in some cultures.

Hopefully this post helped illuminate nonbinary meaning. Whether you are nonbinary yourself, have nonbinary friends and family, or are just wondering what nonbinary means, this is one starting point for learning more.


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