What Does Being Non-Binary Actually Mean? Your Guide To Gender Fluidity And Being A Good Ally

As Demi Lovato comes out as non-binary, here's everything you need to understand about the term, gender expression and how to show support.

Demi Lovato

by Georgia Aspinall |

This morning, Demi Lovato posted the first episode of ‘4D with Demi Lovato’ – a video podcast hosted by the singer featuring conversations with special guests including Chelsea Handler and Jane Fonda. The first episode was a special one though, as Demi used it to announce that they identify as non-binary and are officially changing their pronouns to ‘they/them’.

‘Over the past year and a half I’ve been doing some healing and self-reflective work, and through this work I’ve had the revelation that I identify as non-binary,’ Demi explained. ‘With that said I’ll officially be changing my pronouns to they/them. I feel that this best represents the fluidity I feel in my gender expression and allows me to feel most authentic and true to the person I both know I am and still am discovering.’

Demi’s announcement has quickly trended online, but even after a series of celebrities have come out as gender fluid – including Bimini Bon Boulash, Sam Smith and Jonathan Van Ness – it’s clear there is still a lot of misunderstanding over what ‘nonbinary’ actually means.

In fact, this morning ‘What is non binary’, ‘Non binary meaning’ and ‘Gender fluid’ were all breakout search terms on Google Trends. With so many people still trying to understand gender fluidity, we’ve decided to break it down for you.

What is the meaning of non-binary?

Well, the word binary is defined as ‘relating to, composed of or involving two things’. The gender binary then, in certain societies likes ours, involves identifying your gender as either male or female (whether you were anatomically born that way or not).

When someone identifies as non-binary then, it means that they don’t subscribe to the gender binary of male or female. They are more fluid in their gender, identifying as either or both male and female - or not identifying with either at all. Non-binary and gender fluid can therefore be used interchangeably.

‘People whose gender is not male or female use many different terms to describe themselves, with non-binary being one of the most common,’ the National Center for Transgender Equality website states. ‘Other terms include genderqueer, agender, bigender, and more. None of these terms mean exactly the same thing – but all speak to an experience of gender that is not simply male or female.’

How is gender identity different to gender expression?

When someone identifies as non-binary, that means they may choose to express their gender based on how they're feeling. If someone is presenting more masculine on one particular day, that doesn’t mean their gender identity has changed nor that they are ‘confused’ – gender identity and gender expression are two different things.

‘Gender identity refers to a person’s clear sense of their own gender,’ LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall explains. ‘This is not something which is governed by a person’s physical attributes. Gender expression is how you express yourself and just like the rest of society, non-binary people have all sorts of ways to express themselves and their identity. They can present as masculine, feminine or in another way and this can change over time, but none of these expressions make their identity any less valid or worthy of respect.’

What pronouns do non-binary people use?

When it comes to pronouns, there is no one pronoun all non-binary people use. Some may wish to be referred to as ‘they/them’ as standard, while others may switch between ‘he/his’ and ‘she/hers’ depending on the way they choose to present their gender on a particular day. Demi Lovato, for example, has expressed a wish to only be referred to as ‘they/them’ in future however Jonathan Van Ness is comfortable with people using ‘they/he/she’ to describe his gender.

Ultimately, if you’re confused about what pronouns to use when it relates to certain people, all you can do is ask (or if it’s a celebrity, research what they’ve said about it and respect that). Instagram also now has a feature where you can add your pronouns to your bio, so checking a person’s social media may be useful.

It’s not offensive to ask someone what pronouns they’re comfortable with you using, as long as it’s asked in a respectful and supportive way – for example, asking so you know what to refer to them as, not so you can debate their gender identity, which they may not feel comfortable doing nor are they obligated to do with anyone.

‘Different non-binary people may use different pronouns,’ the National Center for Transgender Equality website explains. ‘Many non-binary people use “they” while others use “he” or “she,” and still others use other pronouns. Asking whether someone should be referred to as “he,” “she,” “they,” or another pronoun may feel awkward at first, but is one of the simplest and most important ways to show respect for someone’s identity.’

What does being non-binary mean for your sexuality?

Given that ‘Demi Lovato pansexuality’ is also trending on Google right now, it’s important to note that gender identity is entirely separate from a person’s sexuality. Sexuality is about your capacity for sexual feelings and attraction, your gender is how you personally identify in society.

Demi identifying as pansexual then is simply a description of who they’re attracted to – them being non-binary is a description of how they present their gender to the world.

Is gender a social construct?

It’s also important to remember that gender is interchangeable because it’s a concept entirely made up by our society. This is sometimes hard for some people to understand because gender is so often confused with sex – which is based on someone’s biological and reproductive functions – but gender has nothing to do with our biology, it’s merely a representation of social norms associated with male or female stereotypes and characteristics.

‘Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed,’ the World Health organisation states. ‘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.’

Often, the incorrect idea that gender isn’t a social construct is used to invalidate transgender or nonbinary people’s identities and in turn can be used to perpetuate transphobic government policies and abuse. Understanding that gender is fluid regardless of how you personally identify then, is incredibly important in supporting the trans and nonbinary communities fighting for basic rights.

How can I support non-binary people?

With that in mind, educating yourself on gender fluidity is a great way to best support the people in your life that are trans or non-binary. If something is confusing, you’re allowed to ask questions in a respectful way.

Here are some other tips from charities about supporting non-binary people:

‘Introduce yourself with your name and pronoun,’ Stonewall says. ‘Stating your pronouns reminds people that it might not always be immediately obvious what pronoun someone uses. Put your pronouns in your email signature or social media profile and instead of addressing groups of people with binary language such as “ladies and gentlemen”, try more inclusive alternatives such as “folks”, “pals” or “everyone”’

‘Use words that define the relationship instead of the relationship and gender, for example, use “parents”, “partner”, “children” or “siblings”’ their advice continues. ‘Use the singular “their” instead of ‘his/her’ in letters and other forms of writing, i.e. “when a colleague finishes their work’ as opposed to ‘when a colleague finishes his/her work”’

Stonewall also states that the most common gender-neutral pronoun is ‘they’, and can be useful when someone’s gender identity isn’t immediately known. When pronouns are known, using them correctly is incredibly important to show respect and normalise fluid pronoun use – as is using the correct name a person states they are now using.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, other ways to respect non-binary people is to advocate for non-binary friendly policies in your workplace, school or public spaces. So many trans and gender fluid people face daily struggles cisgender people simply do not – understanding them and advocating for change is incredibly powerful in and of itself.

‘Understand that, for many non-binary people, figuring out which bathroom to use can be challenging,’ the NCTE continues. ‘For many non-binary people, using either the women’s or the men’s room might feel unsafe, because others may verbally harass them or even physically attack them. Non-binary people should be supported by being able to use the restroom that they believe they will be safest in.’

But most importantly, ‘talk to non-binary people to learn more about who they are. There’s no one way to be non-binary. The best way to understand what it’s like to be non-binary is to talk with non-binary people and listen to their stories.’

If you want to talk to someone about your gender identity, you can call the Mermaids helpline on 0808 801 0400, visit their web chat and website here or use their text chat service at 85258.

Read More:

'Elliot Page Inspired Me To Come Out As Non-Binary'

How Being Plus Size Affects Presenting As Non-Binary

'What I Learned When My Twin Came Out As Trans'

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