Growing representation in mass media in recent history is putting non-binary people on the map like never before. This seemingly sudden appearance of non-binary people in society gives an illusion of novelty or newness, but this could not be further from the truth. 

The use of the term “non-binary” is vast and ever-changing. It encompasses a broad range of identities that do not align with binary ideas of gender, including people who fluctuate between identifying as a man or woman, those whose identity falls outside or between conceptualisations of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ and those who experience no gender at all. There are many issues specific to the non-binary community, such as managing external perceptions and stigma, dealing with internalised transphobia, and negotiating gender identity and expression. As is evident for other identities that exist in between or outside binaries (such as bisexual people), non-binary people face issues with feeling invisible, erased, and dismissed and are under constant pressure to legitimise their experiences. Despite the many differences between non-binary people’s experiences, there are some things that are relevant to many along their personal gender journey. 

Although the use of the word non-binary itself is relatively new, gender diversity has existed for centuries. Written and oral records document non-binary identities in different  cultures spanning across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas, with examples such as the Hijra community in South Asia, Muxes in Mexico, and two-spirit Native Americans. Although some of these people suffered from discrimination within their communities due to their gender identity, many were revered and respected, holding a special spiritual position within their societies. However, mainly due to the colonial violence perpetuated by European settlers, the imposition of laws repressing gender and sexual diversity, and the spread of Christianity, many indigenous cultures have suffered great losses. As this diversity was seen as barbaric and unnatural by European settlers, indigenous people were forced to conform to binary expectations of sexuality and gender. European gender systems, steeped in binary, racial, and Christian expectations, were extended and imposed upon the communities they invaded. This process also wiped out the ancestral knowledge of gender diversity within different cultures, leaving a consensus among the general public that there are only two genders today, as well as across cultures and throughout history. 

Nowadays, language is one key element in gender exploration and expression. Some languages, such as Finnish, are gender-neutral, meaning the personal pronoun (in this case, “Hän”) does not specify the gender of the person being spoken about. However, in many languages there is a dearth of ways in which to verbalise and discuss trans and non-binary issues, feelings, and identities. This difficulty stems partially from the deep inscription of the gender binary in certain languages or the masculinisation/feminisation of words in others. These gender binaries are so keenly ingrained in our ways of speaking and defining things that they in turn shape how we make sense of reality, and thus make communicating non-binary identities incredibly difficult. The development and use of different labels to express gender identity – such as trans, non-binary, and genderqueer – as well as pronouns like ‘they/them’ are tools for non-binary people to establish a rejection of the gender binary and to indicate to others that they cannot be restricted to traditional gender norms or binary identities. 

There are a myriad of ways to play with gender identity and expression, and all play a role in navigating other people’s perceptions of queer bodies. Gender expression varies greatly within the non-binary community, meaning there is no one-look fits all so to say. Nonetheless, gender is referential and is expressed to and built through the perceptions of others. Therefore, adjustments to body language, behaviour, and physical appearance can aid in making one’s gender identity more understandable to others. Some use markers like jewellery, hair styles, clothes, while others undergo physical transitions in order to express themselves, to avoid being misgendered, and to distance themselves from traditional binary conceptions of gender identity.  

Many queer communities struggle with exclusion, prejudice, and stigma. Trans and non-binary people specifically often experience issues with discrimination that discourage them from being open about their gender identity. Visibility is a double-edged sword, it allows some emancipatory freedom while simultaneously increasing the threat of stigmatisation. Walking through the streets demands them to balance between presenting themselves in a way that aligns with their sense of self  and ensuring their personal safety within different contexts. 

Non-binary communities also face systemic barriers in their access to legal documentation, healthcare, and education, and frequently suffer from verbal, physical, and sexual violence due to their non-conforming identities and expressions. Non-binary people face rejection from both cisgender and binary queer spaces, leaving them wondering whether they fit within society as a whole (of course they do). Even queer spaces can become stigmatising environments. Some feel uncomfortable in and excluded from queer and trans spaces because they are targeted for not being “trans enough” to occupy those spaces, or accused of identifying as non-binary because it is currently trendy. In terms of exclusion from cis-dominated spaces, non-binary people face issues of othering and misgendering in most areas of their lives and within their relationships. In order to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation, many non-binary people create their own safe spaces; befriending other trans and queer people with whom they share experiences of exclusion, and finding nurturing communities – especially online – where they can safely express themselves.

Seeking to address the cultural, medical, political, and legal inequalities affecting non-binary folks, genderqueer and non-binary activism began to gain traction in the United Kingdom and North America in the 1990s. The non-binary movement is still in its early phase, however, collective engagement made possible by the internet has meant that the movement has been growing consistently in visibility and effect, as well as expanding geographically, especially across Europe. Prominent issues activists wish to address include campaigning for rights, making public spaces gender-neutral, the legitimation of non-binary-friendly language (such as gender-neutral honorifics and pronouns), awareness-raising and education of non-binary issues throughout the general public, providing more resources and support in accessing appropriate medical services and healthcare, and addressing the importance of intersectionality in non-binary experiences. 

That being said, unfortunately for now, non-binary people continue to navigate a world that does not accommodate them, making even day-to-day living a challenge.