Eight Gender Critical Misconceptions About Non-Binary People

Today is Non-Binary People’s Day. Non-Binary is still widely misunderstood as a gender identity, despite a long history and increasing visibility of non-binary people in public life. Writer and non-binary educator Ben Pechey stages a take-down of some of the more common misconceptions about what it means to be non-binary. 

We’re in the midst of a gender-critical climate. A so-called gender expert resides in every corner of  the internet. In law, the very legislation put in place to protect gender diverse people can now be used  against us. The media sees us as an ‘issue’, and not as people. Our government is rallying against LGBTQIA+ support. Put simply, it is a tough time to be trans and non-binary in the UK right now.  

One of the best ways to understand things outside of your own experience is to listen to those who have differing experiences. So for this year’s International Non-Binary People’s Day, I wanted to share with you eight Gender Critical Misconceptions about non-binary people that affect the community daily.  

There are only two genders!

The wild fact about this statement is that it is complete rubbish! 

However, no amount of lived experience or actual history seems to appease people. It may come as a  shock to many of you reading this, but people have said this to my face on countless occasions. What is so bizarre to me, is that people chose this hill to die on. Completely disregarding the person in front of  them is not only ignorant, but it is also pointless.  

Just because you have never experienced the need to self define your gender identity, doesn’t mean that this need doesn’t exist for other people. This is the very definition of privilege! So try to put yourself second in interactions with  people who have different experiences of the world – trust me, they always know better than you do! 

Okay, so non-binary must be a 50/50 mix?

If you can finally pull the gender-critical round to see your identity as a real thing, you then get the 50/50  question. It really amuses me that people conflate non-binary to be half-man, half-woman! I always try to explain with patience that gender is a non-linear spectrum, and we exist anywhere on that spectrum.  

This is of course a little bit complex for some people, so then I try explaining with colours. Assuming male genders are blue, female pink and non-binary… Before I finish this, usually, they interrupt me with ‘oh! So non-binary is purple’. With a sigh, I will always say that no, we’re not Tinky Winky. Instead, we are  any colour we choose, that is the beauty of non-binary – we are undefined! It is a huge hurdle that we just need to move on from. The 50/50 comment is so reductive.  

Well, isn’t everyone non-binary then?

It is almost a shame you can’t see my face right now because the eye roll for this comment is HUGE! I do agree that in 2021 we have evolved to a place where gender roles have been eroded, and are beautifully flexible. Many cisgender people (people who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth) can have masculine and feminine characteristics – but this does not make them non-binary! 

Non-binary people are escaping all binary ideals placed on us, and that means we don’t perform or fit into masculine and feminine characteristics – we are undefined. This may seem very nuanced, but there is  a clear difference here. Also reducing non-binary identities into nonexistence is so reductive and ignorant.  Trans and non-binary people don’t exist to remove cisgender people – so please do not try to erase our  existences!  

It’s just a choice to be non-binary

We don’t choose who we are as people, this is innate. If I turned round to a cis man and asked how he knew he was a man, I am sure there would be no clear answer. We are exactly what we say we are, and there is no place for this kind of choice-based commentary, as it leads to huge mental trauma and triggers for many of  us in the community. 

What is surprising to me, is that as non-binary people, we are expected to be able to pull an explanatory PowerPoint out of our gender diverse arses, just to please cis people. Yet I would never question another person’s gender identity – I would simply respect it – as that is basic human decency!  

You can’t be trans and non-binary!

This is another comment that I see time and time again, nearly always coming from someone who has done little to zero research on the matter. Of course you can be trans and non-binary – and there are loads of amazing people who identify in just that way. 

Non-binary is not a bridging gender until someone transitions. Instead, you can transition and also not want to define yourself under binary ideals. Don’t forget not all trans people transition, so they can be trans non-binary in this way too! 

It makes a lot of sense to me, but I can see how this could be a little confusing. However, if it doesn’t affect you or your life whatsoever, why question it? Accept it, respect it, and move on with your  day!  

This is just an online fad

There are really interesting pockets of culture that have given space to gender diverse people across history. In Italy for example, there was a ‘third gender class’ that existed in Naples in the 18th century.  The two-spirit people of indigenous communities in North America, the Hijra of India, and the Māhū of  Hawaii have all existed for thousands of years.  

I could carry on until I was blue in the face, but the issue isn’t the history. The fact is that now we all have phones in our hands, and we can see so much more of the world than ever before. So it becomes easy to see things outside of our own existence, and identities of gender diverse people are suddenly visible.  We’re not new, a fad, or a trend – you are just seeing more of us – which for the most part is a good thing!  

The Intersex Myth

Some conversations surrounding non-binary identities wrongly place us into the intersex community. I have had invasive and personal questions about this subject myself. For those that don’t know, intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations, outside of standard biological sex determiners. Intersex is not a gender identity, nor is it a sexuality. Instead, it is a physical or  hormonal bodily difference in individuals.  

As you can see, non-binary is a completely different thing altogether. It is so important to clear this up!

But gender-neutral pronouns are so weird to use!

Personally, I find the game of Golf weird, but I won’t negate its existence! You don’t have to be completely au fait with everything in the world for it to exist. To be blunt, get over it!  

For those that use gender-neutral pronouns like ze/zim, they/ them, they/she, xe/xem or he/they, they are a really important part of our identity. We need you to use these pronouns to show us you recognise us as the humans we are.  

Whether you feel comfortable or not, it is basic human decency to refer to someone with the pronouns they use – and that is that on that matter!

So where do we go from here?

Well, keep learning. The device you are reading this article on can take you on to countless more resources. As a non-binary educator, I am always learning, so all I ask of you is to keep on doing the work too.  

None of these issues will go away overnight, but if more people outside of the community did the work as allies, together, we could make the world an easier place to live for trans and non-binary people.

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