In 2021, more than 44,000 people took the eighth annual Gender Census, a survey dedicated to exploring the language we use for nonbinary identities across English-speaking countries.1 Another 2021 demographic survey, conducted by UCLA’s Williams Institute, revealed there are at least 1.2 million nonbinary adults living in the United States.2 Nonbinary people have always existed, but our identities are becoming more and more visible in popular culture, media, and everyday awareness.
Whether you’re investigating your own sense of self or someone has come out to you as nonbinary, you may be wondering what exactly living outside of the gender binary is (or what the gender binary is in the first place). In this guide, we’ll break down the myths and separate them from the facts around the complicated topic of nonbinary gender identities while showing you what exactly it means to be nonbinary.
When someone is nonbinary, they exist as a gender that isn’t exclusively described as a man or woman. The term means different things to different people, functioning as an umbrella term for dozens of different gender identities. Some nonbinary people don’t have a gender. Others experience feeling like both a man and a woman at the same time or at different points in time.
Gender is a complicated social norm that helps us understand who we are, how we relate to others, and our role in society.3 Often, it is related to our assigned sex at birth (male or female, depending on your genitals), but it isn’t always. When there’s a difference between your assigned sex at birth and your deeply felt core gender identity, the labels we use are transgender and nonbinary.
Over the last several years, the concept of nonbinary identities has become more widespread. Celebrities like Demi Lovato, Sam Smith, and Janelle Monáe have all come out as nonbinary, and even Lil Uzi Vert has changed their pronouns. Studies suggest that young people are much more likely to be nonbinary. Three percent of people under 29 identified as such in a 2022 study, whereas about 1.3% of the 30-49 age category and 0.3% of those over 50 said the same.4 This is likely because of the changing attitudes toward nonbinary people; as representation improves and language becomes available to discuss topics like nonbinary identities, more people recognize those traits within themselves and can fully flourish.
Nonbinary genders are based on — and break free of — the idea of the gender binary. The gender binary is the belief that there are only two genders: man and woman. These genders are considered opposites, and there is no way to exist outside of being a man or a woman. Different expectations are placed on men and women through gender roles (such as women wearing dresses and long hair or men being looked down upon for expressing honest emotions like sadness).
Some view their nonbinary gender as a third option, creating a ternary (three-point) system. Others view it as something else entirely, removing themselves from the gender binary. Nonbinary is an umbrella term encompassing both groups, but the key point underlying both ideas is that gender as a concept is not binary (even if yours is).
Gender and sex are related terms referring to separate ideas. Sex refers most often to genitalia, sex organs (like ovaries and testes), and other physical characteristics like breasts, muscle mass, and body hair that come about because of sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone). It is a general way of classifying each other using biological traits (your genitals at birth). Most people are cisgender, meaning they identify their gender in line with their assigned sex at birth. For example, someone assigned female at birth who identifies as a woman is cisgender.
On the other hand, gender is a psychological phenomenon. It’s a complicated social construct that is separate from, but often related to, biological sex. While gender’s social construction doesn’t mean it isn’t real — things like family, money, and age are social constructs, too — it does mean that it exists in a flexible state based on the society and culture in which you live. In the 21st century, many cultures worldwide have similar or the same expectations of gender within a binary system, but this wasn’t always the case.
A man might wear a flannel shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, or a three-piece suit. This is an everyday example of someone’s gender expression: how someone publicly presents themselves. Both men in this example express their gender and personality through different clothing. Both men are men and signify this relationship to their maleness through cultural understandings of what a man is and does.
Clothing isn’t the only thing that can differentiate gender expression. It also includes:
Gender roles can be a bit tricky to untangle. A butch lesbian, for example, is a woman who expresses her gender through very masculine means (such as short hair, button-up shirts, suits, a lack of makeup, and a tendency toward “male” hobbies and jobs). Her masculinity may go beyond what would be considered acceptable for a female gender role, but her gender is still woman.
Gender identity and gender expression are two separate but related concepts. Gender identity is who you feel you are on the inside, and gender expression is how you show it to the world. You can’t always guess someone’s gender identity based on their expression: someone who appears to be a very masculine woman at first glance might be nonbinary, or she might be a lesbian, or she might be very passionate about handiwork and trucks.
Nonbinary people don’t all take androgynous approaches to their gender expression. Style can be as multifaceted as the nonbinary identity itself, mixing and matching pieces of other gender expressions or leaning completely into one category. None of these gender expressions make a nonbinary person less nonbinary.
Someone who identifies with a gender but expresses themselves outside of the confines of that gender’s roles may describe themselves as gender nonconforming (GNC). People of all gender identities can be GNC, as it’s a means of rejecting societal gender roles and standards and what that entails rather than expressing their gender identity.
Mixing up GNC and nonbinary identities is common, but the two are not the same. While there is significant overlap — 32.9% of participants in the Gender Census labeled themselves as GNC — someone who is nonbinary has a gender identity outside of the binary, whereas someone who is GNC has a gender expression outside of binary rules and roles.1
Some nonbinary people are transgender. Others aren’t. Like most gender-related things, transgender status relies on a personal interpretation of identity.
Since the term transgender is rooted in the gender binary, it doesn’t always make sense to apply this concept to nonbinary people. Ultimately, it comes down to personal identification whether or not a nonbinary person is also transgender.
When someone is transgender, their gender is different from the one tied to their sex at birth. A transgender man is a man assigned female at birth (AFAB), and a transgender woman is a woman assigned male at birth (AMAB). Traditionally, transgender people experience both gender dysphoria (a “sense of unease a person has because of a mismatch between their biological sex and gender”)5 and gender euphoria (a “sense of joy or comfort coming from being recognized or feeling like your true gender”).6 Centering definitions on gender euphoria allows for a much more poignant and optimistic view of transition.
A vast majority of the transgender representation in media and popular culture are binary transgender people. This means they have moved from one side of the gender binary to the other and are unshakingly a man or a woman, not nonbinary. (After all, the prefix “trans-” means across, as in across the gender binary.)
Since people who are nonbinary don’t fully identify with their assigned sex at birth, they fall under the transgender umbrella. Not every nonbinary person identifies as transgender; those who do are more likely to take steps toward medical transition, such as hormone replacement therapy (which can be safely administered at a low dose for androgenization) and gender-affirming surgeries. On the other hand, most transgender people seek gender-affirming healthcare and complete legal changes.
Just like how gender is a spectrum, sex is actually a spectrum too. Much like how there’s variation among eye color in people with blue eyes, there are often variations in a newborn’s genitalia. Having ambiguous genitalia means that the baby is intersex: between male and female in terms of their sexual characteristics.
Someone who is intersex may have:7
Some people are intersex and know from birth. Others don’t find out until later in life, such as during puberty or when trying to conceive, and others still never find out because it doesn’t impact their day-to-day life. When a child is born intersex, doctors will often perform surgeries on them to make them appear more in line with a binary gender.7
This doesn’t make intersex people transgender. In fact, most transgender people aren’t born with differences in their reproductive anatomy.8 Sometimes, the wrong gender can be picked for an intersex child at birth, and they may grow up to transition. That makes them both intersex and transgender. Likewise, some nonbinary people are intersex, but being intersex doesn’t mean someone is going to be nonbinary (and vice-versa).
Nonbinary people have always existed globally, and we’ve known about them for as long as we’ve recorded information. The earliest traces of nonbinary or third genders go back to 2000 BCE. Historically, nonbinary people were more common — or at least identified more readily — in Indigenous societies and those outside Europe’s influence. Often, nonbinary genders slipped back under the radar when these countries or cultures were colonized.
Here are a few examples of nonbinary or third genders in cultures across history. This is not by any means a comprehensive list, but it can provide some insight into the ubiquity of genders beyond the binary.
Ancient Egypt had three gender categories: man, sekhet, and woman. The term sekhet has come under further investigation in recent years. Originally thought to describe eunuchs, it’s likely that it also encapsulated childless gay men as well as androgynous people or those who didn’t conform to gendered expectations for men and women.9
Muxe is the term for a third gender in the Zapotec communities around Oaxaca, Mexico. A study in the early 1970s showed that about 6% of the population is muxe.10 While muxe have become less accepted in areas that have been colonized by Europeans, people (including the artist Frida Kahlo) still celebrate muxe’s role in Zapotec culture.11
Chibados, or quimbandas, are third-gender people from Ndongo (in what is now Angola). Historically, they were often shamans and would be called upon to make spiritual and, in some cases, military decisions, and were the ones who would lead burial services.12
One of the most well-known third genders, hijra have been included in South Asian history for hundreds of years. They are historically and culturally based in Hinduism, though hijra can be any religion (and several follow Muslim and even Christian practices). In 2014, it was estimated that three million hijra live in India alone.13 There are hijra communities separated from the rest of society, where they are taught how to perform rituals like dances at weddings and births as they have extraordinary religious powers.
Within Polynesia — especially among Indigenous Hawaiians (Kanaka) — there are two predominant nonbinary genders: māhūs and RaeRae. RaeRae are more similar to binary transgender women as we conceive of them now, but māhū has its own traditional gender role. They are generally seen as healers and excellent teachers, particularly of hula (with significant spiritual connotations).14
In South Sulawesi, an Indonesian island, the Bugis people have five mainstream genders that map onto the “five ways of living:” makkunrai (cisgender female), oronai (cisgender male), calalai (assigned female at birth within a male gender role), calabai (assigned male at birth within a female gender role), and bissu (representative of the entire gender spectrum). Unlike many other examples of nonbinary genders, bissu are considered a culmination of all genders or are unclassifiable, with myth suggesting that rather than separating into two people, they stayed whole as one being. Bissu are often religious leaders with a shaman-like role.15
Several Indigenous cultures across the United States and Canada share the concept of two-spirit people. The term two-spirit is a generalized one, coming from the idea that two-spirit people have both a man’s and a woman’s spirit or soul inside of them or were created out of supernatural intervention. While attitudes and connotations vary wildly across cultures, two-spirit people often have unique gender expressions and specialized work roles, taking on both traditionally male and traditionally female jobs. Several cultures, including Lakota, Mohave, Crow, Cheyenne, Anishnaabe, and Navajo, believe that two-spirit people are lucky in love and often hold high-power religious roles.16
The European West has always had its fair share of nonbinary people, though we are just now beginning to see proper recognition of nonbinary genders. However, there are examples from recent history such as the Public Universal Friend, a nonbinary preacher in the colonial United States.17 And while views on nonbinary and third genders vary widely across cultures, there is one important point to take home: the gender binary is an inaccurate and inflexible way of perceiving ourselves across time.
The language around nonbinary identities is as rich and plentiful as nonbinary people themselves. While 68.2% of those who answered the Gender Census are comfortable describing themselves as nonbinary, there are dozens of other labels that people use, too.1 Here are some of the most common ones:
NB isn’t suggested often as a term, as NB can also mean someone who is non-Black. Enby is a phonetic spelling of NB and is generally more accepted within nonbinary spheres.
Some people also use demi- as a prefix that they attach to another gender label. Demigender is an umbrella term used to signify that the person feels a partial connection to that gender but not enough to identify with the label completely. This might look like:
Likewise, some transgender nonbinary people refer to themselves as transmasculine or transfeminine. This label works similarly to the demi- prefix, signifying their relationship to their transgender status (having transitioned away from their assigned sex at birth) and nonbinary identity. A transmasculine person is someone who is AFAB and has transitioned but doesn’t completely identify as a man; a transfeminine person is someone AMAB who has transitioned but doesn’t fully resonate with the idea of being a woman.
A person’s gender label is personalized to their experience. The same label may mean two different things to two people, but there’s a significant overlap between many terms people use to describe their gender. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask the person directly.
Everyone has pronouns. However, nonbinary people have unique flexibility in picking their pronouns. They may use he or she, singular they, or something else called a neopronoun. Some people may not use pronouns at all, instead asking you to use their name exclusively. A nonbinary person’s pronouns are up to them, and it’s important to respect this identifier. It’s a hot-button topic, but pronouns are one thing that outwardly signals and helps others understand their identity. It’s a powerful way to advocate for yourself among gendered expectations.
Below, we’ll discuss the two kinds of pronouns most commonly used by nonbinary people and answer a few common questions about pronouns.
Singular they is when you use they, them, and theirs to refer to one person, such as “they went to the store” or “have you seen their backpack.” You may have learned that singular they is grammatically incorrect. It might sound like a new invention or new use of the word. However, this thought is incorrect. Singular they has been used since at least 1375 when it was first spotted in the poem “William the Werewolf.”18 It’s likely that it was used in conversation earlier, making the grammatical form at least seven centuries old. In fact, it’s a recommendation in all major written style guides, including APA, AP, Chicago, and MLA, as well as dictionaries like Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary.
You probably already use singular they without thinking about it. Casual conversation lends itself well to singular they. Saying “he or she” is often bulky, and you might slip into using singular they without thinking when you don’t know someone’s name or gender. For example, if a friend tells you that she’s frustrated with a new doctor she saw, you might ask, “what did they say?”
In 2019, one in five people reported knowing someone who uses singular they pronouns.19 This figure has likely grown in the few years since. A 2020 study by The Trevor Project found that almost one in four LGBTQ+ youth use pronouns outside of he and she, with nearly two-thirds of those youth using a combination of he, she, they, and neopronouns.20
Before singular they was taken up as the preferred pronoun of a majority of nonbinary people, many used alternative pronouns not found in other parts of English known as “neopronouns.” Some examples of neopronouns include, but are not limited to:
Neopronouns function identically to mainstream pronouns he, she, and they. This might look like:
While neopronouns used to be more common in LGBTQ+ spaces, the widespread use of singular they as the go-to nonbinary pronoun has limited this. The 2021 Gender Census found that almost 20% of participants used neopronouns. 8.5% of these use xie or xe, and other neopronouns were split depending on age. (Those over 30 were less likely to use neopronouns by a margin of less than 5%.)1
There are a few easy steps anyone can take to become more open, welcoming, and inclusive, but the biggest thing you can do is to be open and flexible while modeling ally behavior. Standing up for nonbinary people in your workplace or classroom, correcting others when you hear them using the wrong name or pronoun for a nonbinary peer, and simply treating them as you’d want to be treated are some of the best ways to make the environment more accepting for nonbinary people.
You can make it a habit in the office to share your pronouns in places like your email signature, Slack name, and business cards. When starting team meetings, you can also introduce yourself with your name and pronouns. Of course, people don’t have to share their pronouns if they aren’t comfortable with it but allowing the space for people to share is encouraging.
A nonbinary person knows their gender best. Don’t make assumptions about what you can and can’t call them; apologize quickly and move on when corrected. At the same time, consider the kinds of questions you’re asking. Whether they were assigned male or female at birth is irrelevant to you unless you’re their doctor — especially considering the question is, at its core, asking about their genitals.
It sounds simple, but nonbinary identities are real and have been throughout human history. Talking to someone isn’t the time to question their legitimacy. Be considerate, don’t overstep their boundaries, and don’t assume it’s a phase or a fad — it’s who they are.
If you aren’t sure you’ll remember to use someone’s pronouns as they’ve asked, start by practicing. You don’t have to practice out loud (though doing it yourself can help the act feel more natural); you can practice writing sentences involving their new pronouns. This habitual practice can help you rewire old pathways and re-learn who they are.
Using gender-neutral language regularly in general conversation can also help nonbinary people feel more included.
The Trevor Project has a comprehensive guide on allyship to transgender and nonbinary people (with a focus on youth) with dozens of great ideas as well. Don’t be afraid to familiarize yourself with the literature and common concerns brought up by transgender and nonbinary people so that you can step in to help without stepping on someone.
Innerbody uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
Gender census 2021: Worldwide report. (2022, July 13). Gender Census. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.gendercensus.com/results/2021-worldwide/
Wilson, B. D. M., & Meyer, I. H. (2022, June 1). Nonbinary LGBTQ adults in the United States. Williams Institute. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/nonbinary-lgbtq-adults-us/
World Health Organization. (2022). Gender and health. World Health Organization. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.who.int/health-topics/gender
Brown, A. (2022, June 7). About 5% of young adults in the U.S. say their gender is different from their sex assigned at birth. Pew Research Center. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/06/07/about-5-of-young-adults-in-the-u-s-say-their-gender-is-different-from-their-sex-assigned-at-birth/
Garg, G., Elshimy, G., & Marwaha, R. (2022, May 5). Gender Dysphoria. NIH National Library of Medicine. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532313/
Austin, A., Papciak, R., & Lovins, L. (2022). Gender euphoria: A grounded theory exploration of experiencing gender affirmation. Psychology & Sexuality, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/19419899.2022.2049632
Schneider, M., Bockting, W. O., Ehrbar, R. D., Lawrence, A. A., Rachlin, K. L., & Zucker, K. J. (2006). Answers to your questions about individuals with intersex conditions. American Psychological Association. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/topics/lgbtq/intersex.pdf
FAQ: Intersex, gender, and LGBTQIA+. interACT. (2020, May 18). Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://interactadvocates.org/faq/intersex-lgbtqia/
Viverito, C. V. (2021, February). Nonbinary gender identities: A diverse global history. Out & Equal Workplace Advocates. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://outandequal.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Nonbinary-History.pdf
Stephen, L. (2002). Sexualities and genders in Zapotec Oaxaca. Latin American Perspectives, 29(2), 41–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/0094582x0202900203
Beyond gender: Indigenous perspectives, Muxe. Natural History Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://nhm.org/stories/beyond-gender-indigenous-perspectives-muxe
Epprecht, M. (2010). Heterosexual Africa?: The history of an idea from the age of exploration to the age of AIDS. Ohio University Press.
The third gender and Hijras. Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School. (2018). Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://rpl.hds.harvard.edu/religion-context/case-studies/gender/third-gender-and-hijras
Stip, E. (2016). RaeRae and Mahu: Third Polynesian Genders. Santé Mentale Au Québec, 40(3), 193–208. https://doi.org/10.7202/1034918ar
Stables, D. (2021, April 12). Asia's isle of five separate genders. BBC Travel. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20210411-asias-isle-of-five-separate-genders
Indian Health Service. (n.d.). Two-spirit: Health Resources. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Health. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.ihs.gov/lgbt/health/twospirit/
Boomer, L. (2022, July 8). Life story: The Public Universal Friend. Women & the American Story. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://wams.nyhistory.org/settler-colonialism-and-revolution/settler-colonialism/public-universal-friend/
Baron, D. (2019, March 29). A brief history of singular 'they'. Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/
Geiger, A. W., & Graf, N. (2020, July 27). About one-in-five U.S. adults know someone who goes by a gender-neutral pronoun. Pew Research Center. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/05/gender-neutral-pronouns/
Pronouns usage among LGBTQ youth. The Trevor Project. (2020, July 29). Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.thetrevorproject.org/research-briefs/pronouns-usage-among-lgbtq-youth/