Understanding what it means to identify as non-binary

In this article we’ll cover:

What does ‘non-binary’ mean? How do I know if I’m enby or non-binary?What can help me feel good about my non-binary gender identity?Are there any non-binary celebrities?What should I do if people don’t acknowledge my non-binary gender identity?

Sometimes, feeling like you have to be a certain way because of the expectations around the sex you were assigned at birth can make you feel stuck and unsure. If you don’t believe that your gender defines you, you’re not the only one.

Identifying as non-binary means that you exist within gender as a spectrum, or even outside of gender altogether. There are other kinds of gender identities that go beyond the male–female binary, and there are endless ways to express them. 

young non-binary person with short brown hair and a rainbow strip painted their face sitting against an orange brick wall.

What does ‘non-binary’ mean? 

‘Non-binary’ is an identity that sits outside of the male–female gender binary. It recognises a whole spectrum outside of, between and beyond male and female genders. 

Some non-binary people experience themselves as being between two genders, embracing and rejecting parts of both – even at different times. Others identify as existing outside of this system altogether, while some non-binary people are agender and identify with no gender at all. Non-binary people can also be fluid in how they identify, so it doesn’t always mean the same thing for everyone. You might hear some non-binary people calling themselves – or being referred to as – ‘enby’. ‘Enby’ is a phonetic version of the initials ‘NB’. (The acronym ‘NB’ already means ‘non-black’ in a US context.) 

Being non-binary is a gender identity or a genderqueer identity, and doesn’t determine someone’s sexuality. So, when someone is non-binary, this doesn’t tell us anything about who they’re attracted to, but it does tell us what gender identity they identify with.

A great visual way to understand the difference between gender identity, gender expression and assigned sex is The Gender Unicorn.

the gender unicorn infographic

How do I know if I’m enby or non-binary?

If you are asking yourself or searching for answers to the question, ‘Am I non-binary?’, chances are you have a non-normative relationship to gender. This could mean that you’re non-binary – but not necessarily. 

There’s no rush or pressure to define your gender identity. Your relationship to gender might change over time, and this doesn’t make your gender identity less valid or ‘just a phase’. 

Start by being as honest as you can about who you feel like inside, away from all the external chatter. Journalling and reading about other non-binary people’s experiences can be a great way to start. You might also want to talk with a trusted friend or adult, or you may feel more comfortable chatting to someone you don’t know personally. In this case, and if you’re over 18, you could speak anonymously with an experienced peer worker through ReachOut PeerChat.

What can help me feel good about my non-binary gender identity?

Coming out as non-binary can be very validating. It can also be scary, because it’s hard to know if people around you will be supportive. Waiting until you feel safe and ready to come out is perfectly okay and doesn't make your identity any less valid. You can be non-binary even if you haven’t told anyone. 

If and when you feel ready, here are a few things to try.

Ask people to refer to you by your chosen pronouns

To feel at home in your gender identity, it can be helpful to hear the people around you validate and reinforce your pronouns. You could start by letting some close friends know what your pronouns are (this might be ‘they/them’, or another combination of pronouns such as ‘he/they’). It might take family and friends a while to get used to your pronouns; be patient with them, and trust that they’re doing their best.

Gendered words are also important. Asking to be called a ‘person’ or a ‘kid’ instead of a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ can help you feel more aligned with your gender identity. Other useful gender-neutral terms are ‘child’ instead of ‘daughter/son’, ‘sibling’ instead of ‘brother/sister’ and ‘nibling’ instead of ‘niece/nephew’.

Ask people to refer to you by your chosen name

Your given name might feel at odds with your gender identity. Many non-binary people choose a gender-neutral name that feels right for them. It could be a more gender-neutral version of your given name, or a name that is meaningful within your family, or something altogether different. 

You don’t have to choose a new name in order to be non-binary. You can also use your birth name as well as your chosen name. If you do choose a new name, asking people to refer to you by that name can be another powerful way to feel validated in your identity. 

Try wearing gender-neutral clothing, hairstyles, makeup and other forms of gender expression

It can be really empowering to play around with your appearance, to make your outside presentation match how you feel on the inside. Makeup is a great option and can be a lot of fun. (There are plenty of YouTube tutorials out there for tips.) You might also try combining clothes that align with different genders, or that feel more gender neutral. Having said this, you can’t tell if someone is non-binary by looking at them, and there is no one way to dress or look to be non-binary. 

I choose to wear clothes that I genuinely like, disregarding gender stereotypes, creating a space where my authenticity shines through.

Anonymous, 17

Celebrate International Non-Binary People’s Day

Gathering with other non-binary people and allies to celebrate International Non-Binary People’s Day can be a powerful way to feel good about your gender identity and to connect with a community who share similar values to you. 

Some non-binary people will choose to consider hormones, surgery and other types of gender-affirming care in order to feel aligned with their gender identity. These are options you can raise with supportive professional help. However, not everyone who is non-binary or trans needs or chooses to be on hormones or to have surgery in order to feel at home in their body.

Are there any non-binary celebrities?

Yes, there are many non-binary celebrities! Some well-known ones include Janelle Monáe (they/she), Alok Vaid-Menon (they/them), Sam Smith (they/them), Liv Hewson (they/them), Zoe Terakes (they/them), Amandla Stenberg (she/they) and Jacob Tobia (they/them). Keep in mind that even these celebs might change their gender identity in the future. 

“Wearing more gender neutral clothes, reading work from non-binary authors, watching how non-binary celebrities are being celebrated more and more, extending myself the same kindness I would give to a non-binary friend [helps me embrace and feel good about being non-binary]” - Anonymous, 25

What should I do if people don’t acknowledge my non-binary gender identity?

If people don’t acknowledge your non-binary gender identity, especially if they are close to you, you might feel hurt and invalidated. If this is happening to you, here are some things you can try.

Find your non-binary community. Connecting, either online or IRL, with other young non-binary and queer people who understand and can relate to your experiences can help you feel supported. It can also give you insights into how others have approached similar challenges. ReachOut’s OnlineCommunity can be a great place to start.

Get professional support. Talking with a mental health professional or counsellor who has experience working with people in the LGBTQIA+ and non-binary communities can also be helpful for getting practical support for managing your mental health. This can be especially helpful if people you care about are deliberately not acknowledging your gender identity or expression of it. 

Encourage those around you. Sometimes people can forget new information about someone they’ve known for a long time – such as your new pronouns. Often, they’ll be trying their best, but you can correct them gently whenever they refer to you by your old pronouns or name. If you feel safe, have a conversation with them about how much it means to you that they acknowledge this part of you. 

Set your boundaries. Sometimes, people might not accept or acknowledge your gender identity, for reasons you may or may not understand. When this happens, it’s important to set clear boundaries to minimise any harm to yourself (or even to the other person). This might mean that you don’t hang out with a certain person as much, that you excuse yourself from certain events, or that you set other boundaries. You might want to workshop your boundaries with a therapist over time if you feel you might need to change them.

I try to be empathetic and put myself in their shoes. I try to educate where appropriate because I do think these mistakes are often accidental and made from ignorance but at the end of the day, someone who purposely misgenders me or anyone is not someone I want to have in my life.

Anonymous, 25

If you know someone who is non-binary and want to support them better, learn how to be a better LGBTQIA+ ally in this article and check out how to be a trans ally in this great guide from Minus18.

Whether or not someone else accepts or acknowledges your identity, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t make your identity any less real, true or valid. The experience of being non-binary looks and feels different for everyone, but the great thing is: you’re not alone. If you need to talk to someone now, you can call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (24 hours, 7 days a week) or QLife on 1800 184 527 or via their webchat (from 3 pm to midnight, 7 days a week). 

What can I do now?

  • If you need some more support, find more LGBTQIA+ support services here.

  • Share your story and learn from others in ReachOut’s OnlineCommunity..