Non-binary: An introduction to another way of thinking about identity

Do not assume you can tell someone’s gender identity just by looking at their gender presentation.

Through all of the public debate this last week arising from some unsavoury journalism, through the progressive blog series on this very website you will notice an absence of one term: non-binary. Can anybody easily tell me what this means? No? I didn’t think so. Don’t worry, that’s ok, I’m here to educate.

I’d like to sit with you and explain with eye contact, anecdotes and genuine sharing what Non-Binary is, but for now I’m going to contend with sharing the facts. They are so unknown I have to use this opportunity to help you understand. Hopefully there will be another time for me to share my own story.

Trans is in fact an umbrella term which incorporates many different identities, including transsexual, transvestites, transgender and non-binary. We are taught that both sex and gender exist within a binary model; male/female or man/woman. When the mainstream media talk about the trans community it is within the confines of these binary identities - “WOMAN BORN A MAN” or something similar.

But, if you start thinking about gender and what it means to move across genders and how we present our gender identity, imagine what it would be like to remove the idea of gender completely – to exist beyond or between the binary.

There is a staggering lack of knowledge amongst the majority of the public on this. I’m not sure if this is because we don’t or can’t allow our minds to wander. Whatever the case, in my role as one of NUS LGBT Officers I spend a lot of time educating and sharing what I know with students. I also do this in the pub, in the shops, in the library, with my friends and even with my family.

Like other trans people, non-binary people sometimes experience a sense of dysphoria (the sense of their body being wrong in terms of sex) but it doesn't necessarily correlate to firm ideas of "male" and "female" in the same way that it does for some trans women and men.

As part of a non-binary identity, gender may be a more fluid concept, so the idea of a "fixed" gender would not be fitting. Because of this fluidity, someone’s identity and how they see themselves in the world might change over time.

If you exist beyond or between the binary of male/female or man/woman, then the use of common pronouns or titles may not feel comfortable for you, (Mr/Miss/he/she). I am a firm believer that while language is sometimes seen as set, it is in fact malleable, and can and should be used to adapt to new identities. In the case of non-binary, it is possible to use Mx or M as a title, and while used sometimes in the plural sense "they" is usually the easiest pronoun to use, while some do choose other pronouns to suit their identity.

As far as I am aware, legally trans people are covered in the sense of existing within the binary or medically transitioning. However the Equality Act doesn’t seem to cover people who are not medically transitioning from one defined gender to another.

We don’t drop bombs, we don’t crash economies, and this education is actually free. But we remain unequal, largely unrecognised, without public debate or widespread recognition. I hope this is one small step to change that, even for a handful of people.

This was a very brief lesson in non-binary and can I just ask you to take the following points home and dare I hope it – share with your friends?

Do not assume you can tell someone’s gender identity just by looking at their gender presentation. In terms of asking an individual about their preferred pronoun, my advice would be to ask everyone within a group their preferred pronoun or ask no one. Choosing an individual whom you read as trans may be isolating and might "out" their trans status without meaning to. If you have questions, try to remember that this isn’t just theory but often someone’s personal life and experience.  Invite someone to come and do training in your workplace, college or university. If you are compiling data or creating a form to collect research try to include identities beyond the binary. Options could include male/female/prefer not to say/other. 

Sky Yarlett, 23, is one of two NUS LGBT Officers. You can follow both on Twitter as @NUS_LGBT

Where can I find out more information?

Each person’s identity is individual to their experiences but there are lots of resources which can help to provide information and a basic understanding.

Often most helpful is to hear personal experiences.

This is a useful link which provides information and guidance on non-binary:

This is a website in which peoples’ experiences are documented and individuals’ questions can be asked and answered:

This is the "Think Outside The Box" website which provides guidance and examples to including Trans and Non-Binary identities within forms:

This is the NUS LGBT Trans Students guide which provides a brief introduction to Trans and the issues Trans students may face and how to include Trans people within the LGBT society:



The majority of the public isn't aware of the issues around moving beyond gender completely. Photograph: Getty Images
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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood