Semantics, semiotics and the use of the term ‘nonbinary’

November 4, 2011 § 15 Comments

Finding the right words to describe those, like myself, who don’t fit comfortably into traditional male/female genders and bodies is a bit of a tricky business. How do you contain a multiplicity in a single word? How do you indicate an infinite number of divisions?


Increasingly, the term ‘nonbinary’ is used as a catch-all term. I’ve been known to use it myself. I have every sympathy with those who use it – it can be useful, and is certainly a step forward in this gradual evolution of discourse surrounding gender and sexes and being. But the niggling semantic/semiotic worries I’ve been having – well, they’ve stepped up. And I don’t think that I can countenance using this term anymore, not with this attachment.


As many more accomplished writers could tell you, language not only reflects our realities but, through providing shape, containment, categorisation, begins to change them. What exists before observation and labelling is not the same as what emerges after. And my problem with the term ‘nonbinary’ is three-fold: its shaping of the overall field of gender, its part in the creation of a new dyad, and its lack of flexibility in accounting for the development/privacy of personalities.


A binary gender or sex system can only ever contain two options. We either allow (as ample evidence shows) that there are more than two sexes, and more than two genders, or there are not. To that end, all people that acknowledge that there are more than two sexes and two genders will be positioning their own sex and gender within a nonbinary system. Which doesn’t mean that they can’t be men or women – but they are men and women who understand that men and women aren’t the only flavours available. And, most likely, understand that man is not a single being, cut off from and opposing that single being of woman. If I call myself a nonbinary person I am, in effect, implying that there will be binary people – if there are binary people, there is no nonbinary, because a binary allows for nothing more than two.


And, to follow on from that – if my goal is the dissolution of binary categorisation, how can I, in good conscience, use the terms ‘binary’ and ‘nonbinary’ as personal descriptions, creating yet another dyadic system? I wouldn’t use dyadic systems in any other form of critical thought or social philosophy, so why in the realm of gender and sex?


Finally and, perhaps of greater interest – I’m uneasy with a system that makes assumptions about internal realities based on external signals. Certainly not every ‘nonbinary’ activist does this, but I have seen it done, frequently: that people who look traditionally androgynous as given an easier ride, and people who look more traditionally ‘male’ or ‘female’ are assumed to be so, without question, and without listening. I know many people who live socially as men or women, or who are read as men or women, who feel that those terms are constrictive and inaccurate. People who know that they will sometimes feel more androgynous, sometimes more genderqueer, sometimes more traditionally feminine or masculine – but who are not often included in this term ‘nonbinary’ because they accept elements of social gender norms for expediency’s sake. Which, if we’re being honest, many of us will do, at least occasionally, when the need is great. Or people who have lived a multiplicity of genders before arriving at ‘man’ or ‘woman’ – but who carry with them the people they were, and understand that they may well continue to change and grow as they, well, change and grow.


So, there it is. I’m not entirely sure what word I would put in its place. In all honesty I probably wouldn’t put a word in its place. And, to reiterate – I do understand why the term is useful, and I sympathise with those who use it. But not for me, please.

§ 15 Responses to Semantics, semiotics and the use of the term ‘nonbinary’

  • [The following is adapted from the Twitter conversation I just had with CN]

    Despite having just announced a ‘Nonbinary’ visibility, education and advocacy network, I strongly agree with much of your critiques of the word.

    I think it’s really important that we have these conversations about the language we use. I believe that any single word is going to be flawed and likely to exclude some by implication (just look at all the debates around the word ‘trans’), so it’s important that we work to ensure the definitions and explanations in our resources and visibility work recognise and minimise these shortcomings.

    I’m currently working on a Nonbinary FAQ and I’m aiming for it to address everything you’ve covered here. I’ve already had a couple of lengthy and heated discussions about this with some other activists and will be incorporating their perspectives and criticisms too.

    And I say all this as one of the architects of the modern positive Asexual movement and author of the original FAQ. I hope I can use what I learned through helping to build a positive, inclusive community around a ‘negative’ word (asexual is defined by a lack of sexual orientation after all) to ensure that ‘Nonbinary’ does not become exclusionary or elitist.

    Part of this effort in forming a community around this commonly used umbrella term is to bring people together under their common experiences rather separate under many individual identities. And that’s coming from someone who has been deeply frustrated by having to choose if I was ‘androgyne’ or ‘neutrois’ on community sites in the past (and ultimately joining and contributing to both, wishing I could bring their resources and communities together).

    Please see the following for an example of my commitment to inclusivity and recognition of all identities and experiences under community umbrella terms:

    The nonbinary visibility campaign planned will put just as much effort into increasing awareness of all the diverse identities under the umbrella as the umbrella term itself. We all gain from more people understanding identities like bigender, fluid gender, genderqueer, neutrois etc, and everyone gains from the freedom to define their gender identity (or lack of it) and gender expression in whatever way they wish.

    So I hope this has addressed some of your very justified and valid concerns, and thanks again for starting this conversation and giving valuable critique!

    Nat Titman

  • cnlester says:

    I’ll raise a glass to that x

  • Lysana says:

    That’s wonderful, that is.

  • […] look. It’s been nearly two months since I wrote about the language surrounding trans identities and existence, and it feels like it’s time to do so again. And, again, with this proviso – a critique […]

  • M/F says:

    Honestly looking for help here (while totally aware that this will likely as not come across as trolling)…

    This touches upon a criticism of (vulgar) queer theory I read years back, and now I’m driving myself nuts over it.

    Put simply:

    Male/Female is a false dichotomy, underpinned by gender essentialism.
    (So far so cool.)
    But the dichotomy essentialism/non-essentialism is required for this…New & sweeping dichotomies are cast up, even as people contrive to tear them down.

    I don’t like dyadic systems. I only like non-dyadic systems. I will try to avoid using dyads.

    There are dyadic/non-dyadic systems.

    (I know this is pedantry. I am a pedant.)

    • cnlester says:

      I’m also a pedant and wouldn’t agree with your reasoning – but fellow pedants always welcome here.

      I always like to go back to Lacan critique of the Hegelian ‘whole’, and his preference for binaries – I think we can take the next step on from that using a similar critique (and god knows Lacan deserves plenty of *critique* for his use of exclusionary binaries). And in that mode of reasoning, acknowledging the common usage doesn’t trap us in that usage which we understand as fundamentally false when we oppose it.

      Please don’t drive yourself nuts!

      • M/F/Etc says:

        OK, colour me mollified. Thanks.

        Any recommended reading along these lines?

        • cnlester says:

          On Lacan? The most useful short introduction I found was the Routledge Critical Thinkers Guide by Sean Homer. I wouldn’t have been able to tackle the Ecrits without Bruce Fink’s books ‘Lacan to the Letter’ and ‘The Lacanian Subject’ – and, to be honest, they still made cry in desperation. I love Lacan, but I also want to punch him. A lot.

  • […] of oneself not being incompatible; on how appearance does not constitute identity; on dyadic terms being counterproductive; and since I’m linking to CN in a ridiculous frenzy already, you might as well read this one too. […]

  • […] by this question – being someone who many would count as ‘non-binary’ when I have real problems with that word, and the demarcation it connotes. I do find the words ‘straight’, ‘gay’, […]

  • Anonyme says:

    I think I may have encountered this post before, and agreed with it at the time, but I now think of it as somewhat questionable, for several reasons which I’ll deal with in order…

    Before I start, however, I can’t believe that last time I read this I didn’t find the use of the term “sympathies” problematic. For those of us who do use non-binary as a term I don’t think many of us see ourselves as victims of this particular bit of English, and I must say I find the idea of someone being “sympathetic” towards me for claiming it is extremely rude. But that’s not what I wanted to say.

    1. Calling things binary and non-binary doesn’t reinforce the concept of the binary in an apparently binary system – to put it simply, binary implies 0s and 1s- and non-binary implies values that *cannot* exist within that system – the 1.5s, the 9s, the Xs etc.
    So the use of non-binary in this case, by its very nature negates the existence of the binary. Indeed its implication is that there are indeed more values, and doesn’t limit their number or the concept of sliding scale.

    The thing is, it is used with reference to an *expected* binary. The binary was placed before us, and being non-binary deconstructs this lie. This expectation is what “non-binary” refers to, since very few people have the term as the sole qualifier of their identity- unlike genderqueer, it is *only* an umbrella term and doesn’t come with any attached meaning, other than the concept of additional values to the system.

    2. Within this new system, then, the deconstructed binary simply yields two extra values- 0 and 1 – to the already infinite variety of possible values in the non-binary gender sphere. A non-binary system is any system is any system with more or less than two values. So in this case the term is correct, even in the absence of the binary system.

    For example, DNA works on a non-binary system – there are four possible values. The system is non-binary even in the absence of a binary counterpart.

    3. I think the last problem you brought up is not really a problem with the term, actually, I think it’s just a community issue – in the same way as some people are more easily accepted for being “non-binary”, some people are rejected by the trans* community as “not trans* enough”, bisexual people are rejected as “not really queer” etc. That is a risk with labels and one we must combat within our own communities, but I don’t see you decrying queer or trans*/trans for these very same crimes.

    The thing is, we need a label as a group. People whose gender identities lie outside of male and female face very specific challenges that trans men and women (who can only really be termed “typical” trans identities in the absence of a word like binary) do not, including, as those parentheses brought to light a singularly complete erasure of our existences. We do *need* a word, and if non-binary isn’t it, then we’re going to have to find something else.

  • […] political than the other relatively common umbrella term, “genderqueer”. I know CN has written a critique of “non-binary” – with which I broadly agree – but I also feel like this is probably going to be the term that […]

  • Rowan Thomas says:

    I know this is a somewhat old post so hope you will see this as I have a possible term and would be interested in what people think: gender minorities?

    • cnlester says:

      I’m not a huge fan as I think it might be practically applicable (i.e. ways in which people allow/challenge their classification) but not theoretically applicable (ways in which people do and could potentially view both their own and others’ genders and the concept of gender). But other people seem to like it a lot, so?

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