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5 Ways to Explain Nonbinary

If someone you love publicly identifies as nonbinary it won’t be long before somebody asks you to explain just what nonbinary means.

Given the name, nonbinary would seem to be so simple—not this, not that, not one or the other, both together or neither—but for the generations steeped in gender duality there can be a vacuum when it comes to trying to process that gender expressions other than masculine and feminine actually exist. There are many ways you can go in responding to someone who asks you to explain what you mean when you say nonbinary and how you choose to respond is likely to change depending on the situation, who is asking, and the energy that you feel coming at you along with the question.

“It is not the job of marginalized folk-or those that love them-to educate the rest of us. We have the internet for that!.”

Although it’s not your obligation to educate anyone else, if it feels appropriate there are several different ways that you can elaborate on the basic statement that nonbinary means you don’t identify as being exclusively either a man or a woman. In doing so you can contribute to someone’s understanding of a concept with which they are unfamiliar. Here’s five ways to frame the discussion to consider:

1. Personally

Depending on your relationship with the person and your expectation of their reaction, you may want to share part of you or your loved one's gender journey story and the unique points on the path that led to feeling that the gender binary norms didn’t fit. This is best done when you’re confident what you share will be met with love, not judgment. Making it real and personal can increase empathy and compassion along with understanding.

2. Scientifically

In the face of a belief that everything other than male and female is somehow invalid, it can be useful to point out that even when we are talking “sex” and not “gender” there have always been people that did not fit into the binary male/female categories, which scientists labeled as “intersex” because of their different numbers and combinations of chromosomes.

3. Educationally

There are people who haven’t spent much time thinking about how we use the terms “sex” and “gender” as though they are interchangeable when they actually describe two different things. This discussion may be an opportunity to make the distinction. It could very quickly become a BIG conversation but it can also be kept short and sweet by noting that sex is assigned at birth based on the physical genitalia present, whereas gender is broader and more complex, embracing the legal, cultural, and societal expectations of characteristics, actions, and behaviors that are attached to one’s assigned sex. Understanding nonbinary as a gender concept may make it easier for someone to understand.

4. Demographically

If validation comes via strength in numbers, it may be useful to point out just how many people identify as nonbinary. For example, a June 2021 report released by UCLA Law’s William’s Institute estimated 11% of LGBTQ adults in the U.S.—approximately 1.2 million people—identify as nonbinary.

5. Metaphorically

This can be useful if you sense that trafficking into discussions of gender and sexuality are going to quickly get either uncomfortable or confrontational in this particular situation. You can relate the concept to something that steers clear of that altogether, like which hand we write with, by saying something like: “It’s just like some people write with their right hand; some people write with their left hand; and a much smaller percentage of people are ambidexterous!”

To all this I will add a sixth way to answer the question. It is the way that is—in my opinion—most important. Lovingly. To you. To them. And to all nonbinary folk.

That may sound like a tall order, but instead embrace it as an intention. In any interaction you are only in control of the energy offered, not the energy received, but you are in control of the energy offered. Remember, it’s completely up to you to determine whether you even want to have this conversation with this person and the level of detail with which you want to respond. Stick with what makes you comfortable. Whether or not it is judged sufficient for the other person is their issue. It is not the job of marginalized folk or those that love them to educate the rest of us. We have the internet for that!

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