Gender Identity Basics: Understanding Non-Binary, Transgender, and Gender Fluid People

By: Michael Toohey, Psy.D. | December 4, 2020

Chances are you will encounter someone in your life, if you haven’t already, who identifies as non-binary, transgender, or gender fluid. Knowing what this means, and how to be respectful of people’s differences is important. Understanding these terms can be hard, especially if you are learning these concepts for the first time. This article will discuss how transgender and non-binary are different ways of being in the world. By understanding the meaning of these terms we can begin to reduce social stigma and discrimination.

Basic Facts about Non-Binary People

Some societies – like ours – tend to recognize just two genders: male and female. The idea that there are only two genders is sometimes called a “gender binary,” because binary means “having two parts” (male and female).

Most people identify as either male or female. But some people do not neatly fit into the categories of “man/male” or “woman/female.” For example, some people have a gender that blends elements of both male and female, or a gender that is different than either male or female. Some people do not identify with any gender, and some people’s gender changes over time.

People whose gender is not male, or female use many different terms to describe themselves, with non-binary being one of the most common.

Below are important facts about non-binary people:

  • Non-binary people are not confused about their gender identity or following a new fad. In fact, non-binary identities have been recognized for millennia by cultures and societies around the world.
  • Some, but not all, non-binary people undergo medical procedures to make their bodies more congruent with their gender identity. While not all non-binary people need medical care to live a fulfilling life, it’s critical and even lifesaving for many.
  • There’s no one way to be non-binary. The best way to understand what it’s like to be non-binary is to talk with non-binary people and listen to their stories.

The Difference between Gender, Trans and Non-Binary

Gender is the internal knowledge of a person’s true self. This can be male or female, or a combination of male and female. Some people do not feel strongly to any particular gender label and identify neither as male or female. Gender can be expressed in several ways, including clothing, behavior, and pronouns. If your gender is the same as you were assigned at birth, this is known as cisgender (or cis for short).

Trans is short for transgender. Trans is a broad term that describes people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be when they were born. While some transgender people are non-binary, most transgender people have a gender identity that is either male or female. Trans is inclusive of a range of identities including a trans woman and trans man. Some people who cross dress will also identify as trans.

Non-binary is used to describe people who understand their gender in a way that goes beyond simply identifying as either a man or woman. Non-binary people can identify as both male and female, neither male nor female, or do not identify with any gender type at all. Some non-binary people refer to their gender as fluid, meaning that it can change and fluctuate over time. Other commonly used terms to describe non-binary people are genderqueer, agender, gender-fluid, bigender and third gender.

How to Be Respectful and Supportive of Non-Binary People

It is important to treat non-binary people with the same degree of respect as you would for any other person. This includes using the name the person has asked you to call them and the pronoun that they are most comfortable with. Do not ask a person what their name was before.

Try not to make assumptions about people’s gender, as you can’t tell if someone is non-binary simply by looking at them.

What pronouns and titles should I use?

Non-binary people may choose he/him or she/hers to describe themselves, or they may prefer a gender-neutral pronoun such as they/them. Titles such as Mr. and Mrs. indicate binary gender of male or female. Mx is a gender-neutral title that is commonly used by non-binary people.

If you aren’t sure what pronoun to use, just ask politely. It may feel awkward at first, but this is one of the simplest and most important ways to show respect for someone’s identity.

If you want to learn how to best support someone in your life who is non-binary or transgender, or if you are looking for a safe environment to explore these issues in your own life, please contact Therapy Changes to schedule an appointment with one of our knowledgeable and caring Psychologists.


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