You might have come across the term nonbinary in your community or in the media. If you find yourself feeling unclear about what it means, you are not alone. Even as popular use of nonbinary has recently skyrocketed and some schools and districts have taken steps to recognize nonbinary identities, many educators aren’t confident they know what this term means or how to use it correctly.
It may feel simpler to dodge the word entirely in classroom discussions. Perhaps you want to protect your students from comments by ignorant classmates. But any impulse we feel to sidestep the word nonbinary only reveals why we need to learn more about it. Students are socialized to consider non-normative gender identities “uncomfortable”—and you are in a position to change that.
As a nonbinary-identified individual, my experience of my own gender has not wavered since I realized it at the age of 3. What has evolved, however, is others’ ability to honor and acknowledge my gender identity based on the language available at the time.
Language and identity are distinct, yet they inform each other. As the terms in common use improve, so does the potential for others to see me as I am. When others use the term nonbinary to describe my gender identity, it signals a deep, sincere understanding of my experience—an understanding that is often denied the nonbinary community and one I never take for granted.
We all rely on language to communicate our deeper selves. And as our language evolves to more adeptly express the human experience, we have a responsibility to our students to use the most accurate possible terms to describe their identities.
So let’s talk!
Sex? Sexual Orientation? Gender Identity? Gender Expression? Knowing the difference can make all the difference to students who do not conform to binary norms.
Nonbinary is a gender identity, just like male, female, androgynous or any other. Perhaps the clearest way to define nonbinary is to define what it is not. The term itself hints at a crucial point: a push back against the idea that everyone fits into one of the two binary genders, male and female. Nonbinary folks also don’t think of their gender as falling along a spectrum with the two poles of male and female at either end. Instead, nonbinary people identify with the more fluid aspects of gender identity and a boundless range of possible gender identities.
To better understand nonbinary identity, think of a favorite image. Now consider the difference between how it would look as a silhouette, a black and white photograph and an oil painting.
Just as a gender binary divides people into male and female, a silhouette divides an image into two colors. Every part of the image is either black or white; there is no in between, and the boundaries between the two colors are crisp and clearly defined.
The gender spectrum is more like the photograph. Parts of the image may be black or white, but there are also splashes of light, deep shadows and an incredible range of shades between the two. It’s difficult to say where one ends and another begins. Those who see gender as a spectrum see a range of possible gender identities between male and female. Phrases like “masculine of center” and “feminine of center” explain where different identities fall on the spectrum.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Nonbinary gender forsakes both the binary and the spectrum. In the analogy, it is more like the painting. Black and white may be present, but they are two colors out of many. And like an oil painting, nonbinary gender is experienced in an endless variety of textures, colors and shapes. It is vivid, three-dimensional and boundless.
Nonbinary and Transgender
While nonbinary describes a type of gender identity, the terms transgender and cisgender describe the relationship between our gender identities and our assigned sex. Cisgender people have a gender identity that aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender people have a gender identity that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Some transgender folks identify within the gender binary (you may know someone who identifies as a trans man, for example, or a trans woman) or along a gender spectrum. Others don’t. Some nonbinary people identify as trans. Others don’t.
Some people identify as nonbinary, some as transgender and some as transgender and nonbinary. These categories are distinct; and yet for some, they overlap.
Supporting Nonbinary Students
Now that you understand what nonbinary identity means, you can begin to think about how you can support nonbinary students in your school and classroom. Here are three things you can start doing today—and if you are still reading this, you are already on your way to tackling the first, essential step.
1. Learn and use the right vocabulary.
To support nonbinary students, the most important step is to learn and understand the right terms and identification. Language is the way we express, understand and validate identity.
Note: Some people abbreviate nonbinary as “NB” while others spell it out phonetically as “enby” to differentiate it from the phrase “non-black.” If you do not identify as nonbinary, it is always safe and respectful to stick to the standard term.
2. Model inclusive language and pronoun use.
Make space for nonbinary genders by using the singular they both aloud and in writing. Ask your students what pronouns they use, and follow through by using them. When students use singular they in writing, don’t automatically assume a grammatical error—checking in with them to determine their intent shows your respect for the use of they as a singular pronoun.
When speaking or writing to students, families and colleagues, keep an eye out for binary language. Instead of terms like “men and women” or “ladies and gentlemen,” try referring to “people of all genders” or simply “everyone.”
If you’d like to go further, you can decentralize cisgender identity by stating your own pronouns, conducting pronoun check-ins or beginning the year with a student survey that asks students about pronoun use in different situations.
3. Understand you may make mistakes—but be ready to correct them.
When you begin using more inclusive language, you may slip up and accidentally fall back on binary terms. You may even refer to a student by the wrong pronoun.
If you do, apologize briefly, correct yourself and move on. Note your error without calling attention to it. Do not over apologize. This co-opts a moment that should be about the student and re-centers it around your own guilt. If you overhear a coworker or student misgender someone, correct it in the moment. If this is not possible, model the correct pronoun in conversation afterward.
As a member of a community whose identities are so variegated that we’re sometimes dubbed the “endless acronym,” I get it. But when we learn and use the proper terms, we show that we stand with nonbinary students. These recommendations will get you started. You can find more suggestions and tips for supporting nonbinary students in our guide Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students.
Ehrenhalt is grants and school programs manager at Teaching Tolerance.