February 2, 2021 queer non-binary grammar language
“women and non-binary” is a common phrase used by well-intentioned people trying to express that folks that don’t identify as a binary (male or female) gender are welcome. The trouble is that it isn’t clear who is welcome, because non-binary is not a monolith.
Whenever the phrase “women and non-binary” is used, for example, it feels like it’s erasing the identities of a lot of trans and non-binary folks. Often, people who don’t understand what it means to be non-binary view or refer to “non-binary” as “women-lite” - that is, they treat what is a complex group of gender identities as if they were one identity on the women side of some sort of gender spectrum. The trouble is, non-binary people can fall anywhere within a spectrum from male to female, or outside of it, so this representation and expression serves to erase a large section of non-binary identity and alienate people. Since the phrase is almost always used in a well-intentioned manner, this is the opposite of your goal!
WHAT IS NON-BINARY?
Non-binary identity isn’t a single thing, but more of a category of “anything that isn’t binary male/female” so referring to non-binary folks may be a larger group than you intend. For example, I’m non-binary (specifically agender - I don’t identify with having any gender whatsoever, male, female, or otherwise). But I present masculinely, and am not really the target audience for your message if what you’re looking for is a group on the female/woman side of the gender spectrum. It’s also important to keep in mind that gender IDENTITY can be completely separate from gender EXPRESSION, but that’s a conversation for another time.
It’s important to tailor your language to target specifically the folks you want, which can be difficult. Often non-binary folks are seen and referred to as “women-lite” - that is, that they’re for all intents and purposes women, as a category. That’s problematic for a large number of non-binary people:
- those that were assigned female at birth but don’t identify as women (whether they’re transmasculine or not)
- those that DO present masculinely (whether assigned male or female at birth)
- those that present androgynously but don’t identify femme or femme-adjacent, masc or masc-adjacent
- those that have a gender IDENTITY that’s different from their gender EXPRESSION (remember, you can’t tell someone’s gender by looking at them)
A note on the phrase “identify as”
At several points I’ve used the therm “identify” or the phrase “identify as.” In general, you SHOULD NOT use this phrasing. This language implies that someone only “identifies” a particular way, rather than just being that. While my gender identity is agender, you would not want to say I identify as agender - instead, you would want to say that I am agender. The phrase “identify as” is one commonly used to invalidate non-binary (and other trans) identities, so you should be careful in its use.
The following phrases are better than “women and non-binary” and may be of use to you:
“non-binary people who are women” or “non-binary women”
This means people that are non-binary and also women. Full stop. It includes demigender, bigender, etc people who in some way identify as female, as well as femme-presenting people who don’t identify as female, but do identify as women (I know, this gets complicated). Remember that whatever gender someone identifies with IS their gender, so make sure when referring to this group that you think of them as PART of womanhood, not IN ADDITION TO womanhood. For example, rather than “women and non-binary people identifying as women” which separates the non-binary people from the women, consider “women (including non-binary women)”, which shows that they’re part of the same group.
This means anyone that isn’t a man. This CAN be problematic due to the existence of demigender and bigender folks (as it may exclude them when you don’t want to, or “other” them unnecessarily), but is generally accepted as ok. Keep in mind though that “non-men” DOES include masc-presenting people like me and those that identify as male or male-adjacent. If I showed up with a full beard and wouldn’t be welcome, don’t use “non-men”
This is ok, but a bit exclusionary. Not all women are feminine, not all femmes are women. This is generally acceptable as a way to describe gender PRESENTATION but not usually gender IDENTITY.
It should be obvious that non-binary women are included because they are women. If you believe this isn’t the case, you may need to take a look at your other messaging (both official and unofficial) and make adjustments there. If you have doubt, consider one of the other phrasings.
I know this is a difficult thing to wrap your head around the first time, especially if you’re not familiar with non-binary identities in general. The important thing is to make an effort to be inclusive, and be open to feedback from the community. Remember that someone living something almost always knows more about it than someone viewing it from the outside, and be willing and ready to listen.
I hope this post was helpful! If you’re still confused or have questions, feel free to reach out to me: