International non-binary people’s day 2021 takes place on 14 July. The day celebrates people who identify as non-binary.

For many people, gender identity is a complex and personal topic and they may feel that the established traditional concepts of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ do not wholly reflect how they see themselves. In this article we explore some of the basic ideas around sex, gender, and non-binary identities.

Sex, gender, and identity

To better understand non-binary identities, it can be useful to think about the relationship between sex and gender. The terms sex and gender are closely related but are generally accepted to be different concepts.

Sex is a biological concept that includes the two sexes male and female and those individuals who may be intersex. The Government defines sex as “referring to the biological aspects of an individual as determined by their anatomy, which is produced by their chromosomes, hormones and their interactions”. It is something that is assigned at birth.

In contrast, gender refers to social concepts around what it is to be a man or a woman and these can vary between different societies. The Government defines gender as:

A social construction relating to behaviours and attributes based on labels of masculinity and femininity; gender identity is a personal, internal perception of oneself and so the gender category someone identifies with may not match the sex they were assigned at birth.

The term gender identity was coined in 1964 by Robert Stoller. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) explains that it refers “to an individual’s personal concept about their gender and how they feel inside. It is a deeply held internal sense of self and is typically self-identified”. Gender identity differs from sexual identity and is not related to an individual’s sexual orientation.

In practice, the terms sex and gender are sometimes used interchangeably, and for many people their sex is the same as their gender. However, for some people their sex and their gender are different.

What does the term non-binary mean?

The LGBT+ campaign and rights group Stonewall describes non-binary as an umbrella term for those people whose gender identity does not sit within the traditional binary of man or woman. Individual people who identify as non-binary may hold aspects of both masculine and feminine identities or they may not identify with concepts of either. The Government has said that it defines a non-binary person as someone whose gender identity is neither exclusively male nor female. It has also stated that non-binary people may feel that they are neither a man nor a woman, or that their gender identity may be fluid.

Stonewall explains that non-binary is not synonymous with the term trans. It says that whilst the term trans generally includes people whose gender identity is not the same as their sex assigned at birth, some non-binary people don’t consider themselves to be trans. Stonewall has argued that it is important to respect the language someone uses to define themselves.

There are several other terms which people may use to define identities that can fall under non-binary as an umbrella term including, but not limited to: genderqueer, genderfluid, and agender.

Expression of non-binary identities

As a part of the expression of their gender identity, some non-binary people may choose to use pronouns other than ‘he’ or ‘she’. One of the most common alternatives is ‘they’. For example, if referring to a non-binary person who uses the they pronoun, rather than “He/she is reading the Library magazine”, you would say “They are reading the Library magazine”.

Whilst the use of they as a singular pronoun has become more common in recent years, the BBC has reported that its use in the singular is not novel. It has cited the use of the singular they in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example. The BBC said that “while these pronouns weren’t used historically to define people as gender neutral, ‘they’ was used to specify a role being undertaken by a person”. In September 2019, the American dictionary Merriam-Webster expanded its definition of they to include its use “to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary”. The Oxford English Dictionary includes a similar definition.

Using a person’s preferred pronouns is an inclusive way of recognising that person’s gender identity.

Well known people who have recently said they are non-binary include the singers Sam Smith and Demi Lovato. In an episode of the reality TV competition Drag Race UK, aired earlier this year on the BBC, two of the contestants discussed their non-binary identities. In an interview for Attitude magazine, one of those contestants, Bimini Bon Boulash, explained their identity:

I heard the term ‘non-binary’ and I think it’s a good umbrella term for a lot of people that feel gender-queer or gender-neutral or anything that’s under that kind of umbrella. I think when I first heard it a few years ago I was like ‘OK, that makes sense to me’.

My gender feels neither here nor there, it’s very much one day I feel more masculine, one day I might be more feminine. To me it’s not really an issue, but I know to a lot of people it’s a ‘new’ thing and it’s different to what they’ve always learnt.

They also said that they thought it was “important to hear [about non-binary identities] from people who actually experience it rather than having a debate or a discussion from people that haven’t lived that or don’t understand it”.

Cover image by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.