For some teens, exploring their gender identity is an important part of figuring out who they are. Most people are familiar with two gender identities – man and woman. But some cultures recognize a third gender identity. They view gender as something that can be more complex than two categories allow. The term non-binary is used to reflect the idea that people can view and describe gender in ways that go beyond woman or man. Although the idea of a non-binary gender identity might seem confusing at first, asking a few simple questions and learning a few core concepts about gender can help you feel confident about supporting your teen as they explore the way they think of and express their gender.
What does it mean when someone says they are non-binary?
Being non-binary means different things to different people. For most people who say they are non-binary it means that they don’t feel a full connection to the gender they were assigned at birth. A non-binary person who was labeled female or a girl at birth might feel like they have more traits and interests in common with people who were labeled as male, but not enough in common to think of themselves as a man. The same goes for a non-binary person who was labeled male at birth. They might enjoy and identify with things that are more commonly associated with women, but still not feel fully connected to that gender identity either.
A non-binary person might describe themselves as a mix of the traditional genders of man and woman. They might describe themselves as being neither a man nor a woman. The best way to understand how a non-binary person understands their gender identity is to ask them to describe it.
Because there are so many different ways that non-binary people understand their gender, there isn’t any right or wrong way to be non-binary. Non-binary people might have short hair or long hair. They may wear makeup or not. They may love all kinds of different clothes and activities. If your teen is just beginning to explore their non-binary identity, they might want to try a very different gender expression. They may wear a dress outside of the house. Or they may cut their hair cut very short. Regardless of whether that change is something they decide to stick with, it’s important to recognize that trying it out is an important part of figuring out who they are and how they want to express themselves.
My teen wants to use “they” as a pronoun instead of “he” or “she.” Why does that matter?
When a non-binary person decides to change which pronouns they use, they’re taking a big step in expressing their identity. The pronoun “they” has a long history of being used to refer to just one person. The use of “they” as a singular personal pronoun is also gaining acceptance in all kinds of communities and professional contexts. The New York Times covered the rising use of “they” in this article about the Merriam-Webster Dictionary naming “they” as it’s word of the year.
It’s important to remember, however, that not all non-binary people use “they” as their personal pronoun. Some might use “he” or “she”. Other non-binary people have adopted new pronouns to use, like “ze”, “xe”, or something from this list. Again, the best way to know which pronouns to use for your teen (or any non-binary person) is to ask how they would like you to refer to them.
I keep messing up my teen’s pronouns and now they’re asking to go by a different name, too. How should I handle the times when I get things wrong?
It can take a little time to adjust to change!
If you accidentally address someone using the wrong name or pronoun, correct yourself, offer a quick apology, and move on. Just like any skill, you can practice using a person’s correct name and pronoun to get better at it. Correct yourself at any time that you use the wrong name or pronoun, even if you’re not talking to that person at the time or just thinking something about that person in your own mind. It feels really exciting and affirming for someone who is using a new name or pronoun to hear other people use it, so focus on how happy you can make that person instead of dwelling on the ways you might accidentally hurt them.
Is non-binary the same thing as transgender? Are non-binary people part of the LGBT community?
A transgender person fully identifies with a gender other than the one assigned at birth. Many transgender people, but not all, change their name, their personal pronouns, and the way they express themselves with their clothes, mannerisms, and the activities they participate in as part of identifying with that other gender. Some non-binary people think of themselves as having changed in the same kind of way when they started to identify as non-binary and so they might describe themselves as being both transgender and non-binary, or trans non-binary. But not all non-binary people think of themselves as transgender.
What’s the best way to know whether someone identifies as both non-binary and transgender?
You guessed it: ask them!
Most non-binary people see themselves as belonging to the LGBT community. Since non-binary people don’t fully identify with the traditional genders of man or woman, they might view the romantic or sexual relationships that they have as being different from what most people think of as straight relationships. While the familiar LGBT acronym doesn’t have the letter N in it, non-binary people can find support, information, and connection at LGBT centers and events close to home and around the world.
Where to Learn More About Gender and Gender Identity
There are lots of ways of thinking about gender beyond man, woman, transgender, and non-binary. The organization Transgender Student Education Resources has a great visual representation of gender identity that you can check out here, and this article digs deeper into the history and details of transgender and non-binary identities in cultures around the world. Finally, the National Center for Transgender Equality has this guide for how to support the non-binary people in your life.