Beyond the Binary: Question Three

June 10, 2013 § 14 Comments

First of the five questions this week – panel bios here.



Question Three (okay, so it’s really two questions…)


Do we have a better term that’s broadly equivalent to non-binary? Gender-variant is adequately descriptive, but for the fact that it was coined in paediatrics as a diagnostic cop-out so that a doctor didn’t have to call a trans kid trans. Also “variant” is again quite othering for those who mind such things.


What do you think about the term “non-binary” and why?



Nat: I personally think that nonbinary is the most practical descriptive and ‘politically neutral’ umbrella term for those of us whose gender identities and/or expressions cannot be defined purely in terms of the binary system where one is entirely female or entirely male.

I agree with your take on ‘gender variant’. I think the connotations of ‘gender nonconforming’ as used by WPATH casts too wide a net and ignores the role of identity. It’s a useful umbrella term in its own right (one which doesn’t follow the cis/trans binary), but not equivalent to nonbinary.

While I’m personally happy to use ‘genderqueer’ for myself and have been doing so since the 90s, I know that many nonbinary people are uncomfortable with the history and political/social connotations of ‘queer’ and the subcultural membership It implies. I’ve especially noticed a pattern of agender/neuter/neutral etc identifying people saying they find the term alienating in its implications.

I think nonbinary is useful because it defines the experience we have in common (not fitting into the gender binary) without ascribing an identity, philosophy or expression that individual nonbinary people may not follow. I think a ‘negative term’ may in fact be necessary in this case, as any ‘positive’ label would be very prone to ascribing experiences or motivations that aren’t necessarily there.

On the other hand, ‘nonbinary’ is more likely to alienate people who are happy to identify with their assigned genders or their ‘legal’ genders, while being deeply uncomfortable with the cultural expectations and restrictions placed upon these, but I think this is where wide inclusive terms like trans*, gender nonconforming, gender variant and genderqueer can become useful in uniting people who reject gender or are rejected by societal gender standards.



GrrlAlex: Non-binary has a simplicity to it and is less pathologising than gender variant.  Variant has a semantic inference to it that implies divergence/dissonance (variation) from an apparent norm. My personal preference is genderqueer.



Hel: Hmm. I’m not a great fan of “gender-variant”, for the reasons you give, but I feel like both “gender-variant” and “non-binary” are (as you say) “adequately descriptive”.

I feel like the term “non-binary” in particular has become very popular – perhaps because it sounds less overtly 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 garners more mainstream acceptance than “genderqueer” has. That said, I think that there’s always going to be a push towards new and improved language – so while I currently can’t think of a term that is ‘better’ than “non-binary”, I’m sure that in five or ten years time the linguistic playing-field will have changed. (I’ve heard that five or ten years ago, the more common terms were “intergender” and “androgynous”.)

Another quick point about rephrasing “non-binary”: I find it very frustrating when this is described as an ideological position rather than a gendered identity/experience. I sometimes see it getting rendered as “those who don’t subscribe to the gender binary” – while obviously those who identify/experience themselves as being outside it don’t “subscribe to it”, nor does anyone who accepts that those people exist!

So, in short: I have my issues with the term “non-binary”, but I feel like it is currently one of most useful forms of short-hand for gendered identities/experiences beyond the binary that we have, certainly in terms of staying power and the ability to become visible in wider culture.



Jennie: I have never, on a personal level, been very sensitive about terminology. Whatever people choose for me these days, I’ve been called worse. In wider terms, I think ‘non-binary’ is a useful umbrella term but that it’s important to acknowledge the diversity of identities and experiences that it represents. It’s potentially problematic in that (like the heavily contested ‘non-white’) it positions a particular group of people as Other, and it might be seen as enforcing the notion that there _is_ a binary (rather than a set of different possibilities of equal validity), but ultimately I consider it adequate to be going on with.



CN: I think ‘gender-variant’ is an interesting term  – certainly accurate in so far as society does, by and large, subscribe an outward obedience to a very narrow set of gendered behaviour and anyone who challenges that is, indeed, ‘variant’ – but it doesn’t sound to me like a particularly positive term. I think it can be less loaded to talk about gender variance in behaviour, rather than labelling someone (particularly a child) ‘gender variant’. Opening it up even further and talking about gender plurality strikes me as the best option here.


I’ve written before about my problems with the phrase ‘non-binary’, and am currently writing more at length on the subject for  my book on gender/sex/trans things – this is my best attempt at whittling my thoughts down! I know that some people will find this a pedantic position, but I don’t believe that this is pedantry for the sake of pedantry – it genuinely feels to me to be an important question of what we want to reform, who we want to reform if for and where we’re aiming on arriving.


If gender and sex are not binaries – and I hope by now that many people will agree that they are not – then to talk of ‘non-binary’ makes no sense to me. Those that do, and say that ‘non-binary’ is a useful counterpoint to the common binary usage of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ seem to be proposing (at least in the interim) an addendum to the current system: ‘binary people’ (men and women) over there, and ‘non-binary’ over here – it reminds me a great deal of the late 19th century psychosexual category of ‘the third sex’. My problem with that, beyond the difficulties of overlap, is that it ignores the idea that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are no more ‘binary’ identities within a world genuinely lacking in binaries than ‘androgynous’ or ‘genderqueer’ are. If we take as our starting point that each person is unique, and that their gender is a unique and constantly transitioning expression and reflection of their path through life, then they cannot be contained within a binary system, or a non-binary system set in opposition to the first. The words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ already contain multitudes, and they grow in meaning with each iteration – ‘woman’ will mean three different things in the mouths of, say, Sheila Jeffreys, Leslie Feinberg and Ann Coulter (and that’s just amongst Western usage by white people in the past 50 years) – and yet we’ll find commonalities not only within supposed categories but across them. To repeat myself – I don’t believe that there is a universal, Platonic Ideal of ‘woman’ or ‘man’ than people are reflecting/moving towards either through their words or behaviour. I can’t, in good conscience, use the word ‘non-binary’ to mean only people who cannot be described at all or in part by the words ‘woman’ or ‘man’ when I believe that each gendered appellation will mean something new and personal to each individual. This isn’t to pretend that people who can’t be described by ‘man’ or ‘woman’ don’t face particular challenges in a world which frequently forces us to pick one side or the other – nor is it to say that people who use the term ‘non-binary’ aren’t invested in changing the system as a whole – but, for me, using the terms ‘binary’ and ‘non-binary’ isn’t how I want to work on exploding the current framework of sex and gender – particularly when I feel that part of that work is to move away from our current system of classification and categorisation all together, and instead to see such words as sign-posts and adjectives, instead of as tools of demarcation and division. I think that the language around this – what words do I use? – can become difficult or ungainly – and that, in itself, is something which forces us to think harder around the barriers surrounding our efforts, and find more creative solutions of breaking kyriarchal systems down.

§ 14 Responses to Beyond the Binary: Question Three

  • helgurney says:

    God, CN, I love your reply.

  • Bunnypip says:

    This is very thought provoking. I am loving this series and can’t wait to read the rest.
    I generally describe myself (fairly unquestioningly perhaps) as having been a gender variant child. I think that’s partly because I think that would be the label I would receive now as a 6-10 year old and partly because genderqueer seems too politicised for a child. I also don’t want to make any claim to any identities I’m not entitled to, because, important and critical as that childhood was in forming my identity, I consider myself to be a cis adult. I do agree that the ‘variant’ bit is semantically problematic though.

  • Jonathan says:

    I don’t see that non-binary is any more reliant on the prevailing binary gender system than genderqueer. They’re both positions relative to a normative view of gender (even if that view is rejected). To me, non-binary is a specific position: outside the gender binary. Whereas genderqueer may also be within it, but contrary to its normative rules (which is the context I use it for myself).

    Gender variant, on the other hand – I’m not really sure what that means. Even within a strictly binary and normative framework, everybody’s gender is variant to some degree. Or is that the point?

    • cnlester says:

      But by saying some things are outside of a gender binary then you’re saying that some are within it – which I don’t think they are. Genderqueer, on the other hand, is (again, all very personal) – essentially the political act of queering gender systems to change them. One is a positive term of movement and one predicates the existence of stasis.

      • Jonathan says:

        I was just going to say that genderqueer posits its own counterpart of normative. But now I’m not so sure. Okay, I’m going to have to think about this.

  • Sarah says:

    (Without prying or being overly intrusive into any one person) How do non-binary/genderqueer/gender variant individuals currently deal with the legal issues of gender when they are asked to ‘pick one’?

  • Youssii says:

    I acknowledge the problems with non-binary, but I feel like all the other terms proposed – genderqueer, gender variant and gender non-conforming are possibly even more problematic.
    Genderqueer isn’t really an umbrella term anymore. The basis of the word, in linguistic terms, still makes for something which sounds like it is the gender-specific equivalent of queer, but it’s been used for too long by too many people to describe one broad definition of it as their identity. Most people give two definitions of genderqueer – one as an umbrella term and the other as a specific identity, which overwhelmingly is described as something “between” male and female, which has led me to stop using it as an umbrella term. It feels to me like calling all LGBTQIA+ people “gay”, and then claiming to be inclusive of every body. Gay is still a legitimate identity, but it isn’t a term for all things queer, and that’s kind of how I feel genderqueer has become. (On a side note, people obviously do use queer as an identifier in itself as opposed to an umbrella term, however what they describe with it ranges from being gay to pan to ace etc. so the connotations have been largely spared.)
    The only thing I still feel can be broadly applied about genderqueer is the political connotations, which I love, but I still feel sidelined by the rest of the word.

    Gender variant people have already pointed out, and gender non-conforming implies that people don’t conform to either gender or societal expectations of gender when related to sex. Most non-binary (excuse the term) people do “conform” to gender, by virtue of having one (not that all do), and many conform to their expected gender expression. It’s also a very clear and set out term which I feel could be very easily medicalised, which automatically makes me stay clear of it.

    I don’t feel like non-binary prescribes there also being a binary system/makes man and woman binary, because by virtue of a system having more than two values it *cannot* be a binary system. But I *must* therefore be a non-binary one.

    Either way, a new word would be nice which circumnavigates these issues, but I’m not sure what it is or when it’s coming.

  • dentedbluemercedes says:

    Personally, I like “gender diverse” over “gender variant,” although I’ve used both. But I don’t really consider myself much of either, so I’m not going to push the term. Just thought it was worth a mention in case there were folks who might prefer it.

    CN wrote: “If gender and sex are not binaries – and I hope by now that many people will agree that they are not – then to talk of ‘non-binary’ makes no sense to me…”

    I tend to think of binary in terms of being *theoretical* opposites, rather than anything that can actually be effectively quantified with any consistency. A binary exists because — and only because — society believes it does, and attempts to enforce that perception.

    That said, I speak as someone who is relatively comfortable in a theoretical-binary world. I consider myself relatively binary-identified, even if others occasionally do not (i.e. because I have a trans history, or because I shun some of the expected trappings like cosmetics) — and even though I acknowledge that reality is a spectrum (or perhaps something non-linear that needs to be mapped in 3-dimensional space), rather than a true binary.

    Because society enforces a gender binary, though, those of us who are binary-identified/comfortable do acquire a sort of binary privilege. With that realization, I feel a responsibility to admit and own that privilege (but not to flaunt it), if that makes sense. It’s possible to do so and still endeavor to be an ally… and also to recognize that I can’t speak for those most punished by society’s fixation on the idea of a gender binary.

    But in order to acknowledge that, the language still has to exist. So binary/non-binary might not be the best phrasing (I, for one, am open to something better), but for the moment, it is a language that can be used to pinpoint a social perception.

  • womandrogyne says:

    I think one of the main values of using “non-binary” is to keep drawing people’s attention to the fact that most people do assume a binary (and do assign it Norm status). It forces people to engage with that assumption. One problem with “non-binary” is that in spite of its broad remit, people still often persist in assuming it implies “absolutely non-binary” and so it gets assumed that those self-identifying as that do not in any way identify as male or female – I’ve recently had to point out to folk on a NB facebook group that not all of us are agender or neutral, that non-binary can also mean “not *just* binary”.
    I’m also pretty fond of Gender Dissident 🙂 (though I don’t use it to describe myself).

  • DeeInGa says:

    I often use “non-traditional” in place of non-binary.

  • […] What do you think about the term “non-binary” and why?
 Do we have a better term? […]

  • PhiloSofie says:

    Another conversation for the bookmarks!

    I think Jennie’s point resonates with me. Although we might have concerns about both “non-binary” and “gender variant”, both of these things signify a location of ourselves within some matrix of positions relative to others. In terms of my own lived experience of myself, using either of the two often seems out of place, because I don’t always want to experience myself in the terms of that particular matrix!

    In my own head, I think I’m happy with Trans-Star, with the idea that the Star can dereference in different ways depending on the matrix of positions that a given perspective might want me to measure myself by. Much of the time this collapse will result in pointing out the plurality of positions, though perhaps sometimes (say in a robustly chromosomally essentialist setting or in a hegemonic structure of masculinities) I might be happy to simply explain myself as one category or the other, even though this single collapse fails to capture the full story of my sense of gender identification.

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