What is a non-binary person? What does non-binary mean? And how to support non-binary people

Here’s what is means when someone identifies as non-binary.

Non-binary people have been around since ancient times, but it is only in recent decades the term has been coined.

Famous names like Sam Smith, Demi Lovato, and Elliot Page have raised the profile of the identity.

However, there is still some confusion and misinformation out there about what non-binary actually means.

Here's what it means to be non-binary (Getty Images)

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Here’s what it is, what they/them pronouns are for, and how you can be an ally to non-binary people.

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What does non-binary mean? Is it to do with sexuality?

Non-binary is an umbrella term for when someone identifies outside or somewhere in between the ‘binary’ genders of men and women. Binary simply means something that is made up of two parts.

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Sam Smith has spoken out about his non-binary identity (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)

They feel they do not neatly fit into one of the two designated gender categories of male or female. Some non-binary people identify as both male and female, while others identify as neither.

“I've always had a little bit of a war going within my body and my mind,” said singer Sam Smith, "I'm not male or female, I think I flow somewhere in between. It's all on the spectrum.”

It’s important to remember gender is not the same as a person’s sex, which is based on physical biology. Neither is it about a person’s sexuality, which is who they are attracted to. Gender is based around a sense of self, whether that’s male, female, or something different.

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Non-binary is an umbrella term covering lots of different identities. Some non-binary people feel their gender changes over time, which is what the term genderfluid refers to.

Demi Lovato announced in 2021 they are non-binary and has changed their pronouns to they/them (Rich Fury/Getty Images for OBB Media)

Agender people feel they have no gender at all or that their gender is neutral. Meanwhile, genderqueer is another umbrella term – similar to non-binary – for people who feel they have an unconventional experience with their gender.

What is the difference between non-binary and transgender people?

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Being non-binary is not the same as being transgender. Trans people are those whose gender does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth.

While some trans people identify themselves as being non-binary, others feel they do identify as either a male or female. Equally, some non-binary people do not consider themselves trans, while others do.

Just as all people are different, the identities and language people use to define themselves are different. LGBT+ charities advise people to respect how people choose to describe their identity.

What pronouns do non-binary people use?

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Non-binary people can use a mixture of pronouns. Some prefer to be referred to as ‘they/them’ while others use ‘she/her’ or ‘he/him’ – or even a mixture of these with ‘they/them’.

In terms of titles, non-binary people generally like to be referred to as the gender neutral Mx (pronounced mix or mux). It depends on the individual. The easiest way to find out is to politely ask.

What is the non-binary flag?

The non-binary flag has four horizontal bars with the colours: yellow, white, purple, and black.

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Yellow represents gender without the reference to the binary, white represents many or all genders, purple represents gender between or a mix of female and male, and black represents a lack of gender.

How to support and be an ally to non-binary people

One easy way of supporting non-binary people is to respect their pronouns and the language they use to describe themselves.

LGBT+ charities encourage everyone to introduce themselves with their name and also their pronouns, reminding people it’s not immediately obvious what pronouns someone uses.

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If you’re uncertain about someone’s pronouns, ‘they/them' is usually the most useful way to go.

You can also put your pronouns in your email signature or social media bio to show support for non-binary people.

Educating yourself about LGBT+ history, activism, and language is an important start to being an ally. Below are a number of resources.

- Stonewall – national LGBT organisation

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- Mindout – LGBT mental health service

- LGBT Foundation – support services and healthcare

- LGBT Youth Scotland – supporting young people

- Equality Network – LGBT human rights in Scotland

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- Scottish Trans Alliance – Transgender and non-binary rights

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