by Linda Herzer, Co-Founder
Transformation Journeys Worldwide
Did you know that this Wednesday, July 14—and every July 14th—is International Non-binary People’s Day?
And did you know that just last month a Williams Institute Study revealed that 1.2 million American adults identify as non-binary? Actually, the number was about 1,219,000 which—just for perspective—is pushing two times the population of my home state of Vermont!
Given the number of questions we get about non-binary people in our training sessions, and the increasing visibility of this growing demographic throughout the world, it’s important that we develop a deeper understanding of our non-binary friends, family members, students, patients, colleagues, clients, customers and congregants. So in honor of International Non-binary People’s Day, let’s broaden our understanding!
What Does it Mean to be Non-binary?
A helpful description of the term “non-binary” comes from the Queer Events website. It says, “Non-binary is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine — identities that are outside the gender binary. Non-binary people may identify as having two or more genders, having no gender, moving between genders or having a fluctuating gender identity, or being third gender or other-gendered, a category that includes those who do not place a name to their gender.”
If that description makes your head spin, don’t worry. Given that most of us were raised to believe in the gender binary (in the concept that there are only two genders) it’s not surprising that it’s a stretch for us to comprehend that there are people who do not experience themselves as strictly a man or as simply a woman. Such realities require us to embrace whole new categories for understanding gender, and that can be challenging. But the good news is that neither you nor I have to fully understand non-binary people in order for us to show them respect.
First Way to Show Respect to Non-binary People: Use Your Pronouns Everywhere!
Using your pronouns everywhere supports non-binary people by normalizing the experience of sharing one’s pronouns. This is helpful because, for some non-binary people, sharing their pronouns is the most effective way, or perhaps the only way they have of indicating their gender identity to others. In the book Non-binary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity Dr. Genny Beemyn, a 54-year-old, assigned male at birth, non-binary individual writes:
To the extent that nonbinary trans people are perceived by the larger society, it is because our gender “stands out”—i.e., because we are not readily able to be placed within a gender binary or our appearance sends “mixed gender signals.” The result is that only individuals who present androgynously or whose gender expression clearly violates societal expectations get to be seen as nonbinary. For me, this means that my gender identity is often invisible, especially as I age and look more male because of the long-term effects of testosterone. I am left wondering how to enact my gender in the absence of visible signs of gender nonconformity, as well as the absence of cultural images of older nonbinary people.
Dr. Beemyn goes on to share that many committee meetings where they work begin with attendees sharing their names and pronouns. They write, “I greatly appreciate that the chairs of these committees ask pronouns, so that I can indicate mine and hopefully not be misgendered by other group members.”
Along with keeping individuals from experiencing the microaggression of being misgendered, everyone sharing their pronouns supports non-binary people by lightening their burden of always having to be the one advocating for their basic human right to be seen and interacted with as the person they know themselves to be. Just think about spaces where you have been—or are still—the minority. Remember how exhausting it is or was, always having to advocate for the authority of your own lived experiences? Because non-binary people have only recently become consistently visible within many cultures (although they have existed throughout all time), they are constantly having to advocate for the validity of their very existence. You can help alleviate their advocacy exhaustion by using your pronouns everywhere—and inviting others to do the same.
So where can you use your pronouns? We recommend using them:
- In your email signature – Example: Linda Herzer, she/her
- Whenever you’re introducing yourself – Example: “Hi! I’m Linda Herzer and my pronouns are she/her” or “Hi! I’m Linda Herzer, she/her pronouns.”
- On your ID badges
- As part of your name in your virtual meeting platform (Teams, Zoom, etc.)
- In your LinkedIn profile (See what Forbes has to say about that – and then see our note on “preferred” pronouns in the next paragraph.)
- And if your organization has leaders’ bios on its website, each leaders’ pronouns should appear with their name
It’s also fine for you to ask someone about their pronouns, but note that it is no longer respectful to use the phrase “preferred” pronouns. The word “preferred” implies choice, and a non-binary person’s pronouns are no more of a choice than are a cisgender person’s pronouns. While the phrase “preferred pronouns” was considered appropriate as little as a year ago, this is one of the many gender-related terms that has evolved. Now the most respectful thing to ask is simply, “What are your pronouns?” or “What pronouns do you use?”
Second Way to Show Respect to Non-binary People: Use Gender-Neutral Language
Gender-neutral language is language that demonstrates that gender is more than just binary; that some people experience their gender as something other than just man or woman. For example, when you’re addressing a group, using gender-neutral language could mean replacing the typical binary opener, “Ladies and Gentlemen…” with phrases like “Honored guests…”, “Esteemed colleagues…” or simply, “Good afternoon everyone.” In our workplace consulting we recommend that organizations replace “he/she” or “him/her” language in written policies, job notices, etc. with the gender-neutral singular “they” or “their” – and yes, the rules of grammar have changed, and this is now considered grammatically correct. When working with spiritual communities, where binary language like “brothers and sisters,” and “mother/father God” are commonly used, we encourage the use of more inclusive phrases like “siblings in the family of God,” “members of the beloved community” or “loving parent God.” While expanding our use of gender-neutral language is not always easy, it is always more respectful and inclusive of non-binary people. (Go here to learn more about using gender-neutral language personally and to find resources for developing organizational guidelines.)
Third Way to Show Respect to Non-binary People: Educate yourself
The more you become aware of non-binary people and their joys, challenges and lived experiences, the more you will understand how respectful and supportive it is when you use gender-neutral language and use your pronouns everywhere. To begin building your awareness and understanding, read some of the articles and watch the brief videos by and about non-binary people linked off the RESOURCES page on our website. To take a deeper dive, read the personal stories of 30 different people with various non-binary gender identities in the excellent book Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity.
Fourth Way to Show Respect to Non-binary People: Offer All-Gender Restrooms
In a great video by the National Center for Transgender Equality, a non-binary person shares that, when there are no all-gender restrooms available, they have to make a decision on whether they’ll be safer in the men’s or the ladies’ room, based on their gender expression that day. Imagine the mental and emotional burden of having to figure out which restroom to use each day! That’s why offering at least some all-gender restrooms is a great way to show respect for non-binary people.
One easy way you can do this is to designate all single stall restrooms in your facility as all-gender restrooms. Then, be sure to add signs by sex-segregated restrooms indicating where the all-gender facilities are located. These locater signs can be helpful for everyone—including cis and trans people when a sex-segregated restroom is closed for cleaning!
If you rent the facility you’re in, considering asking the property owners to make these changes. Your organization could even offer to purchase new signs and pay to have them installed to make it easier for the property managers to say “Yes” to your request.
While wrapping our heads around gender identities that go beyond the binary can be a stretch, it’s not impossible. After all, non-binary people have done it as they have wrestled long and hard with understanding their own gender identities. And make no mistake; non-binary people are not confused. They have considered their gender much more carefully then probably most of us have, and they know exactly who they are.
So celebrate this International Non-binary People’s Day by taking action on at least one of these recommendations for showing respect to this rapidly growing demographic. It will be good for non-binary people and for your organization, because including everyone benefits everyone.