On our own terms: allowing for complexity in how non-binary people identify and relate

A close-up photo of a patch of small moss growing, contrasted with an occasional stone and blade of grass.
A close-up photo of a patch of small moss growing, contrasted with an occasional stone and blade of grass.

What it means to be non-binary is as expansive as what it means to be a person. There is absolutely no single way to be non-binary, including how we act and are perceived, the pronouns we use, and the general & relational terms we use as well (such as uncle, girl, brother, mother, and so on). Some view ourselves as something more “between” the binary, while others view ourselves as something detached from it entirely — I personally think both can be true in a wonderfully contradictory way. As non-binary people, we find in ourselves the ability to define for ourselves, unbound by the encaging norms of cisheteronormativity, who we truly are and how we want to relate with the world.

Individual & interpersonal complexities

On an individual level, there isn’t necessarily any one standardized way any of us want to relate with others. We’re allowed to embrace different pronouns, gendered nouns, and relational terms based on the different relationships we hold with others. For example, as a non-binary person, I do not feel comfortable with people referring to me as as a man, brother, or anything of that sort. That said, I have some family, especially found family, who I know see me in my full self, and for some of whom I don’t mind them calling me “brother”. This might seem like a contradiction, but it is a contradiction that feels right and full. This is because of the relationships we’ve personally cultivated with each other — and just because they can refer to me this way doesn’t mean anyone else gets an automatic pass.

As non-binary people, we’re allowed to set our own rules based on our individual relationships, and do not have offer a generic, “one-size-fits-all” package of our gender to the world. We do not have to flatten ourselves to make things easier for those around us.

Things may change, too

As our understandings of who we are and our relationship with gender expand, how we wish to be identified and referred to is liable to change as well. Someone who used “they/he” pronouns one day may switch to only “she/her” the next. Someone you may have referred to as a “sister” may ask you to only refer to them as “sib” or “sibling”. This can make things more complicated, but, as people, we are inherently complicated. It’s a matter of whether you value us and our relationships enough to prize and embrace our complicated selves. Changing the terms you use for others as their understanding of themselves changes is only difficult when you do not truly value them.

Ask, although you are not owed an explanation

When in doubt, simply ask someone what pronouns they use and how they like to be referred to — this doesn’t have to be some long, drawn out scene, and can really be quite simple and everyday. Ask when you’re unsure. Ask when you’re fairly sure but just want to double-check. Ask even when you’re sure that you’re sure, to see if their understanding of themself has evolved. Ask those who you might think are cis, as there is truly no way to know whether someone is trans &/ non-binary unless you ask (respectfully, of course), and many cis people also have pronouns & term preferences that deviate from rigid norms.

That said, know how much to ask (and when). There is no prescription for this, and how much to ask is based on your relationship to that person. I have found family who I can ask intimate questions about their gender, and it will be a mutually beautiful and enriching conversation — I wouldn’t dare do this with a stranger I’m not yet in relation with, though. There are two key questions to ask yourself: 1) What is my relationship with this person, and how comfortable have they been talking about gender in the past? And, 2) what is my purpose for asking? Is it to genuinely learn more about this person I’m in relation with, or is it for some self-gratifying educational mission?

Beauty in complexity

As non-binary people, every day we challenge oppressive norms around gender and what it means — what it can mean — to be a person. Every day we cultivate new worlds with our words and our relationships. Our complexity and our imaginations feed into each other so that we can dream up better lives for ourselves, our communities and those who will come after us.

Our complexity can be a lot to handle, as it is highly personal, intimate, and every-evolving. But in this complexity, in this messiness, there is profound beauty. To my non-binary family reading this — do not dim your intricacies. Let your complexities flourish in a way that feels genuine and abundant to you, the rest of the world be damned.

Boricua/Taíno via LBC | PhD student in NREM, UH Manoa | B.S. & M.S. in Earth Systems, Stanford ’17 | financially support at https://cash.me/$Fisky

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