Groups of people resistant to change seem to be frequently up in arms about “new” terms. A recent target of this is one simple word – they. There is animosity towards the use of the pronoun they to refer to a singular person.
People claim the use of they/them pronouns for a single person is new, strange and supposedly grammatically incorrect. History says otherwise. The first recorded use of the singular “they” dates back to c. 1350 in the english translation of the poem, “William and the Werewolf” written by the Poet William. New words and definitions are constantly being added to a cultural dictionary. One can assume medieval peasants did not have Mountain Dew Baja Blast, but that does not make it any less of a word.
Many people who use the singular pronoun “they” identify as nonbinary. For more information on what a pronoun actually is consider watching this Schoolhouse Rock video. A basic breakdown of nonbinary , means someone does not identify as part of the gender binary. This is a pretty broad term, one that is extremely open to interpretation and confusion.
In order to explore what nonbinary means to people, several students were interviewed about their personal feelings of their gender.
Q: To start us off with, let us know your name, pronouns, and how you identify.
Zeke: My name is Zeke, which is short for Ezekiel. I use they/he, either or. Broadly speaking I’m trans. To get more nuanced or with a lot of labels and stuff I’m a trans masculine, nonbinary, butch lesbian, but to the general person who asks, I’m just some guy.
Sergio: Sergio, I use they/he pronouns. I definitely identify as nonbinary. I used to identify as transmasc a while ago. I guess a part of me still does, like a little bit, because that’s always been an important part of me. But mainly just nonbinary.
Natalia: My name is Natalia Cruz, and I use they/them pronouns.
Lyd: Lyd, I use they/them pronouns. I identify as gender queer, I don’t personally identify as nonbinary, but I do fit the label.
Cash: My name is Cash and my pronouns are he/they but I’ve used a lot of different pronouns at different points in my life. I’m really happy with this now. This is such a hefty question because there are a lot of terms that I think cover fractions of my total identity like a pie. So like the identity of being queer is something that I claim and that covers a large fraction of the pie that I am. I’m also transgender and I would also consider myself transmasculine but I would also consider myself nonbinary and gender non conforming and also majorly agender.
Angelina: My name is Angelina, my pronouns, right now I’m using he/they but I don’t really have a preference as long as it’s not she. I use the term nonbinary because I don’t really think that anything else fits. I don’t necessarily know if nonbinary fits or will fit forever but I am just my own thing. Nothing really fits, nothing really clicks, so I am just Angelena.
Q: It’s a hefty question but, what does the nonbinary identity mean to you?
Natalia: I guess it’s more about existing in a place that is not as strictly defined as male and female. Not like an inbetween space, it’s a different space all together. For some people it may be like a spectrum but for me it’s not even on the gender spectrum. It’s just up there somewhere.
Lyd: I don’t want to put a label on my gender. Part of the problem for me personally and why I don’t want to use the nonbinary label for myself, is that it feels like assigning a label to something that I’m trying to leave unlabeled. It just feels unnecessary. I don’t want to put a label on myself in terms of my gender. Sometimes I have more fem days and some days I have more masc days in how I like to present and how I’m feeling. It’s hard for me to label it which is why I don’t want to. I’m just Lyd.
Angelina: I agree that it’s definitely different for every nonbinary person so for me it’s being able to not really have a definitive answer… Nonbinary allows me to try on things, try new pronouns. Like, I really enjoy he/they pronouns but I don’t feel like I’m a boy. I don’t feel like boy things fit me, I don’t feel like girl things fit me, and I feel like the term nonbinary is encompassing of my inbetweenness even if it’s not really a third option. Somewhere way outside of [the gender binary] but I enjoy mixing them together to kind of get an inbetween thing.
Q: When and how did you learn or figure out that you identified this way?
Zeke: Oh God, on tumbler.com at the age of 12 years old. And it was bad honestly… I remember the first thing I thought was, “oh man I’m going to have to do that forever?” Then I actually met other nonbinary people, got involved in a community of other people and I was like, “oh I’ll be fine, I’ll live.” There’s other people like me out there. For two years I was like, “I’m the only person in the entire world that’s ever felt like this.”
Sergio: To me, when I first found out I was nonbinary it was as simple as, I know I’m not a binary woman and I know I’m not just a binary man, and even transmasc might be pushing it, so I think I am neither. I guess at the time to me it meant that I was in between because my gender expression was in between but now it more is, not that I’m nothing but that I’m something more than just that. More not on [the binary gender spectrum] gender wise.
Lyd: I don’t know. So my brother is female to male transgender and when he came out he was just explaining all these different gender identities to me and I was like “oh that’s a thing?” I didn’t know that that was a thing. I’ve always felt this way but I didn’t have a way to communicate it until I learned about the different identities and stuff.
Q: Would you say that identifying this way affects how you are perceived by others?
Sergio: I feel like other white queers, white nonbinary people, they make a lot of quick assumptions about my gender and stuff like that which they definitely wouldn’t do for a white nonbinary person. A lot of white nonbinary, or white people in general, will take this assumption that black queer or black trans people are binary or very gendered. I learned that a lot this past year with playing around, experimenting with my gender. People will just throw whatever label at you, whether it makes sense or not.
Cash: Oh 100%. Unfortunately 100%. I have experienced this, actually a lot, lately medically transitioning. It’s getting really uncomfortable when people can tell. They’re like “oh you’re changing things aren’t you” and I think that’s true of people who medically transition and don’t medically transition. When you cross so many social norms of how you’re supposed to present based on what people assume your birth gender is, people treat you like shit, man. There’s this weird double standard that exists within the trans community that estrogen is this magical sacred potion that makes you into a blossoming flower and testosterone makes you a rat. Like, I don’t want to be a rat! I’m still me. I think it’s weird that we put cis gender norms on top of being trans. The very notion of being transgender is throwing away all the stuff we were just doing. Let’s not do that to each other. It’s so tiring.
Q: Do you think Identifying this way has affected how you perceive yourself?
Sergio: There’s been a lot of times in the past and even now sometimes where I wish I was binary and things were easier and I could just subscribe to one thing and call it a day, but I understand that that’s not me and ever since realizing I was nonbinary, it helped me see a lot more intricacies in myself and a lot more beauty that I wasn’t appreciating before. So I feel like it helps me see the parts of me that are really hard for even myself to see.
Angelina: Yeah it definitely makes me feel closer to the label that I would be trying to find but it also makes me comfortable not really using one at all. I do feel like I am a nonbinary person but when people ask me, that’s not always the answer I give, I kinda just don’t really give one. I feel like it definitely brings me a sense of peace knowing that I don’t personally feel like I have to pick any side.
Q: Would you consider the nonbinary identity to fall under the transgender umbrella?
Natalia: I say it’s if you feel like you fall under that trans-umbrella. I definitely feel like there’s people who identify as nonbinary who necessarily don’t feel like that because they feel like they were already born into the right body, so they’re not trying to transition into something else. The people I know who are nonbinary consider themselves trans, usually experience gender dysphoria or body dysmorphia to the point where they want to change stuff. At this point in my life I don’t want to change anything to my body, and I don’t think I will. Maybe down the line but right now it’s a no. Because of that I don’t personally identify as trans, I feel like it’s better for me to support rather than claim.
Zeke: I do think so. I’ve never really understood nonbinary people who are like, “yes I’m nonbinary but I’m not trans.” Not to disregard any other’s experiences, but I think identifying as anything other than what you were assigned at birth, that’s the nonbinary or transgender experience. You’re going through the same experiences, the same potential transphobia is going to apply to you. They’re very similar experiences.
Sergio: Yeah, every nonbinary person I know identifies as trans; I do, my other very good friend does. It feels like most nonbinary people I meet consider themselves trans because of how jarring the nonbinary experience can be, it really can make you realize “I am transgender, I am not my original gender,” even though you’re not just going from male to female or female to male… If anything it makes you more trans because you’re not going to something that is already pre established. It feels like you’re really making your own thing… Being nonbinary means that you have to specifically build your gender from the ground up. Because being nonbinary is not a gender, it’s just a word to describe the fact that you don’t have a gender. There’s something so beautiful and inherently trans about being nonbinary.
Q: People typically believe that for someone to be nonbinary they have to look androgynous, what do you think of that sentiment?
Zeke: There are so many ways to be trans or to be nonbinary, internally and also expression wise, it can look a million different ways. To assume it has to be androgynous or else you’re not really nonbinary is so silly. You’re going to take this really broad, vague concept of not being in a box, and then put that within its own box of what it has to look like.
Lyd: I hate it, I hate it so much because a majority of the time I present myself very femininely, that’s just how I like to dress, that’s how I like to look. Just because I look like this, people don’t even question it. You have long hair, you’re a girl, you’re she/her, not even going to ask you. I hate it, you don’t owe anyone androgyny. You can present yourself however you want. How you look on the outside, whether it’s the same everyday or different, it doesn’t affect who you are on the inside. I love dressing androgynously but I also love dressing femininely. Leave people alone, let them do what they want to do.
Q: There definitely seems to be a big issue, especially within online LGBTQ+ spaces, about what different identities supposedly need to look like, what are your thoughts on that?
Zeke: I think going back to, everyone expects that if you’re nonbinary you’re expected to be, not even necessarily androgynous but “woman-like” is thrown around. Where you’re expected to be thin and dainty and pre-testosterone. The second you present masculinity, like hard masculinity and taking hormones to make you more masculine, people tend to be like, woah that’s toxic, we don’t want that, that’s not safe… It’s an obsession with pre-testosterone transmasc nonbinary people. They’re cute and they’re smol beans and they’re king until they start T [testosterone] and they get a big tummy with a lot of fuzz on it and a lot of muscles and go to the gym and they sweat… It’s all based on the same bioessentialism of masculine bad and feminine good. Like, grow up.
Sergio: The idea that someone needs to look a certain way is such bullshit. I’ve had people my entire life telling me I should be looking a certain way or a different way. It’s never made me feel good about myself, it’s never made things easier, and it just sucks.
Natalia: I think that’s kinda bullshit because if you don’t even consider the trans-ness of it all, even cisgendered people have a variety of looks that they can have and still be cis, so why are you going to put a limit on everyone else if there’s not really a limit for cis people. There’s plenty of cis, heterosexual girls I know who have short hair or are tomboy-ish and on the other end I know plenty of guys who probably have a better hair routine than I do. Whatever you feel, there’s no one way to be a person.
Angelina: I think that this goes for any identity, whether you’re a part of the LGBTQ community or not, whether you’re nonbinary or not not, whether you’re cisgender or under the trans-umbrella in any way. It’s just really strange to me that you’re trying to put your own take on what something should be, especially when it comes to gender or sexuality… People are just uncomfortable with differences in other people and they want to see someone do exactly what they think is right, but we all have our own experiences and we all have our own perceptions of life.
Q: Have you ever felt unaccepted by members of the queer community for being nonbinary?
Sergio: Very much so, especially from other nonbinary people. Obviously from cis people but it does really have a specific hurt or sting when it comes from binary trans people. Like, “oh you’re nonbinary, you make things worse for us blah blah blah,” like no we’re actually holding hands right now, we’re fighting the same fight, we’re standing right next to you, matter of fact I’m also trans, I just have another word added to it, we are not separate, we are together. As for the cis people in the community, sometimes they might as well be cishet with the way they act and talk and the way they think about things. Like how a lot of cis, queer people don’t end up breaking that heretonormative patriarchy in our heads. That cis-normativity? They don’t break that. So they just carry it with them everywhere they go.
Natalia: No, not for [being nonbinary]. For being not white, yes, but not for my gender identity.
Angelina: Not necessarily for being nonbinary, definitely for using he/they pronouns. I’ve had, not bullying or anything like that, but I’ve had people confused about why I would use he/they pronouns but still very obviously dress mostly feminine or do my makeup mostly feminine or still have feminine interests that I’m really really into still. I think it’s just a lack of understanding, maybe a lack of confidence from not knowing themselves, so it doesn’t really hurt me.
Q: To wrap things up, do you have any advice for anyone questioning their gender who believe they might be nonbinary?
Sergio: I know it’s really scary and terrifying, because everything in the world is built up and based around gender and so it’s hard to change that. Being on the other side, it’s like actual genuine freedom. Being able to be yourself and not putting other people’s words first and their ideas first. Everyone should question their gender no matter what, even if you end up being cis that’s okay. Really appreciate your inner beauty while you question your gender, don’t focus on the “oh but I look so ugly when I’m this.” No, focus on the good parts, the amazing gender euphoria of it all.
Lyd: Don’t be scared to just go to the mens section and get shorts that go down to the knee. I just got a pair of shorts that go down to the knee and I was wearing them with just a baggy t-shirt the other day and I was like “oh my God I feel so good.” Don’t be afraid to just present yourself however you want to present yourself. Wear what you want to wear. Life is too short to be confined by what people say you should be. Which is very easy for me to say as a usually pretty femininely presenting white person, I know my privilege. But if you can, just do what you want to do.
Cash: Spend time alone! Spend time with yourself and explore the parts of you that are uncomfortable with what you’re currently doing and follow your instinct. If you want to wear certain clothes or experiment with makeup that makes you feel affirmed or if you want to stop doing that all together, do it by yourself first without any outside voice and get really really comfortable with yourself. Build that confidence because being trans is fucking hard. If you are not really really sticking to your guns, people are going to want to rip you down and you cannot let them. What you are exploring about yourself is a beautiful, wonderful process and someday I hope it’s just as normal as being gay.