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How People Who Identify as Non-Binary Navigate a World That Sees Gender in Binary Terms

Imagine living in a world that disallows you from expressing your true self and continuously feeling pressure to conform to societal norms. For example, imagine that we all lived in a world where it was the norm to dye your hair purple; however, if you liked your hair red and disobeyed the societal norms and dyed it red, you would get punished. Automatically this would manifest feelings of being trapped and sad because you cannot express yourself how you want to. You feel like you are being placed in a box with no way out. How would this make you feel? Probably angry and frustrated, and it will impact your self-confidence. These feelings that non-binary individuals may experience due to society shunning them for being their authentic selves. This article will explore this point further and discuss how individuals who identify as non-binary deal with the world around them.


It is essential to establish some definitions of key terms when discussing non-binary individuals. Two critical key terms many individuals struggle to distinguish between are sex and gender.

Sex can be defined as characteristics that are biologically defined and something that is assigned at birth. Generally, the sex of an individual consists of two categories: Male and female.

Now onto to defining gender and recognising key differences between this concept and sex.

According to the World Health Organisation, gender can be defined as the characteristics of women, men, girls, and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time. Gender is your internal sense of self. It is often linked to ideas of masculinity, femininity, stereotypes etc. Your gender can be expressed in several ways; some common examples include clothing, behaviour, and pronouns.

Now that the above two concepts have been defined, it is important to explore the definitions of non-binary and gender binary.

According to the LGBT Foundation, non-binary people feel their gender cannot be defined within the margins of male or female. They understand their gender in a way that goes beyond simply identifying as either a man or woman. Non-binary individuals do not conform to traditional binary beliefs about gender.

On the other hand, gender binary is a system of gender classification in which all people are categorised as male or female. It is a concept or belief that there are only two genders and that one's sex or gender assigned at birth will align with traditional social constructs of masculine and feminine identity, expression, and sexuality.

Being non-binary in a gender binary world:

Non-binary people have existed across time and place for decades; therefore, it is essential to recognise that the rejection that non-binary individuals have faced is a Western colonialist phenomenon, which further upholds gender as a social construct. Why has this rejection emerged? As the term ‘non-binary’ appeared in Western societies, it has been found that ideologies and systems did not support individuals breaking out of the binary. An explanation for this could be that there has been a lack of research on non-binary individuals and attitudes towards non-binary people being under-researched. Because of this, we will truly not understand people until we understand all types of people. This means there continues to be a lack of awareness, diversity, and inclusivity of non-binary individuals. As well as a lack of research, it is extremely rare for individuals to be taught about gender diversity early in life. Therefore, few people grow up with the ability to express feelings of existing outside gender binary. These early restraints could prevent people from exploring and using terms that match how they feel and may even influence the adoption of the labels later in life. Although in 2023, times are changing, and more people are becoming aware of the term non-binary, it is still not where it should be. This has negative impacts on individuals who identify as non-binary. Research has found that non-binary people may struggle to build support systems and feel a sense of belonging in their environments. Additionally, it has been found that non-binary individuals felt significantly lower social support and life satisfaction and are at more risk of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Furthermore, when people who do not identify as non-binary use incorrect pronouns when addressing a non-binary individual, this can produce negative feelings and significantly impact mental health.

What can I do to step up as an ally to non-binary people?

  • Introduce yourself with your name and pronouns.

  • Put your pronouns in your email signature or social media profile.

  • Instead of addressing groups of people with binary language such as ‘ladies and gentlemen’, try to use more inclusive alternatives such as ‘folks’ or ‘everyone’.

  • Not everyone necessarily uses ‘he’ or ‘she’ pronouns, and it’s essential to be respectful of people who use different pronouns. The most common gender-neutral pronoun is the singular ‘they’ (they/them/theirs). Using people’s correct pronouns shows that you respect them and who they are.


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