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Being Nonbinary

By Eric Dorsa

What does it mean to be nonbinary? What are common misconceptions about being nonbinary? Share one person’s experiences and lessons learned about being nonbinary while in the process of recovering from an eating disorder.

Misconceptions about being nonbinary

Being nonbinary is an identity that I have recently uncovered about myself thanks in large part to my recovery from an eating disorder. What I know today is that my disordered eating behaviors had nothing to do with the food and more to do with how unsafe I felt occupying my body as a queer person. In the absence of safety, I found something I could blame for my discomfort and in turn control. In my own journey toward understanding myself, I have experienced many misconceptions about what it means to exist as a nonbinary person.

What does being nonbinary mean?

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, nonbinary individuals are “people whose gender is not male or female and use many different terms to describe themselves, with nonbinary being one of the most common. Other terms include genderqueer, agender, bigender, and more. None of these terms mean exactly the same thing -- but all speak to an experience of gender that is not simply male or female.” Societies like those of the West typically only recognize two genders, male and female, based on an individual’s biological sex or genitalia. As a nonbinary individual, I identify as neither male nor female even though I was assigned male at birth. Just as there is no one way to be a man or a woman, there is no one way to be a nonbinary person. Gender is individual and all gender identities deserve respect.

You can have more than one gender identity

Just because someone identifies as nonbinary does not mean that they cannot identify with their gender assigned at birth based on sex organs. Being nonbinary does not mean that you are not comfortable with your gender or that you can’t feel feminine or masculine. It means that you experience gender in a multitude of ways in the binary and outside of the binary. There are individuals who identify as nonbinary men or women or transgender people. There are people who identify as nonbinary outside of the common male and female gender binary. I am someone who was assigned male at birth and experienced life more on the feminine side of the gender spectrum. As part of my identity and experiences, I hold both masculine and feminine identities and both are true for me at the same time. This is not true for all gender identities including men and women and other trans identities.

Being nonbinary doesn’t have a look

How someone presents their gender is not the same thing as their gender identity. Just because someone looks like a man or woman does not mean that they identify as such. We have been socialized to gender everything from clothing to deodorant and razor blades. Being nonbinary is not the same as androgyny or the absence of gendered presentation such as women wearing dresses and men wearing pants. You cannot tell someone’s gender based on how they present, which is why it is important to ask in a way that is respectful. Someone can be assigned female at birth and love to dress and celebrate their identity in a socially female sense and still identify as nonbinary. A trans individual can undergo the course of gender-confirming procedures and still be nonbinary. It is important to note that not all individuals have the means or the access to such affirming care and use other ways to affirm their gender.

Not everyone who is nonbinary has gender dysphoria

Not every person who identifies as trans/nonbinary experiences gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is defined as a sense of unease and distress that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity. Gender is not the same thing as biological sex organs. I was assigned male at birth other parts of my body that make me look “male.” There is often a misconception that if your sex organs don’t match your gender identity there is discomfort or distress. I know many trans/nonbinary individuals who are comfortable with their bodies. Again, sex organs do not define someone’s gender, nor do they always invalidate it. There is no one way to be nonbinary and therefore this identity can match many different bodies.

Not all nonbinary people use they/them pronouns

The only way to know how someone identifies and what pronouns they use is to ask in a way that is authentic to your relationship and respectful of their identity. The most authentic way is to lead with your pronouns and make room for them to use theirs. This does not mean that someone must disclose to you their identity because it is not always safe to do so. There are many individuals such as me who feel validated by using they/them pronouns. There are also those who use she/her, he/him, no pronouns, or a variety of other pronouns. A person’s pronouns do not determine their identity. A person can be assigned female at birth, use she/her pronouns, and still be nonbinary.

Being nonbinary is not a phase or social trend 

Contrary to many people’s understanding, genderqueer and nonbinary identities are not new or a popular trend among younger people. In fact, there is a rich history across many cultures in which multiple genders outside of male and female have been celebrated and expressed for thousands of years. In my culture of indigenous Mexico, there is a long history of two-spirited individuals who exist outside of the binary. Often, I have found that it is difficult for people to understand the feelings of someone who identifies as being in the middle of the gender binary or outside of the gender binary. Just because something is hard to understand does not make it invalid. Respecting a person’s experience is not contingent on understanding it.

Gender identity is not the same thing as sexual orientation

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing. Gender identity is how you see yourself and sexual orientation is who you are attracted to. Just as there are a multitude of ways to identify as nonbinary, there are a multitude of ways someone can be attracted to different genders. Just because someone is nonbinary or transgender does not make them gay or straight. Like gender identity, sexual orientation is personal to an individual and should be respected. Identity is a process for many queer people who have experienced harm for being themselves. It is okay to take time and explore your authentic gender and orientation. These can also change over time and that is more than okay. 

Written by

Eric Dorsa

Eric Dorsa is an LGBTQ advocate, actor, comedian, and drag queen currently living in Chicago, Illinois. As an advocate for the LGBTQ community, Eric travels around the country sharing their…