Elizabeth J. Meyer Ph.D.
Gender and Schooling
Ideas for allies to learn about and support nonbinary loved ones.
PostedJuly 14, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Happy Nonbinary Awareness Week! 2020 marks the start of this recognition for nonbinary people, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share some tips for folks who may not fully understand what it means to be nonbinary, but who also want to show their support for nonbinary people in their lives.
Some of you might not be familiar with the term "nonbinary." This term refers to anyone whose gender identity does not fit within the binary categories of man or woman. Nonbinary people may feel like they have elements of both masculinity and femininity in them or neither. Many nonbinary people identify as part of the transgender community, some don’t. In any case, what most nonbinary people have in common is that they are not comfortable with the gender role and norms that accompany the sex assigned to them at birth (and related names and pronouns). Nonbinary folks typically experience their gender as more expansive than the current binary system recognizes. This term is sometimes abbreviated as NB or "enby."
Source: Activist Bookshelf, used with permission
Here are five things you can do to show support:
- Address people using the name and pronouns they give you. If you aren’t sure what pronouns someone uses, it is appropriate to respectfully ask, “What pronouns do you want me to use when referring to you?” or “What pronouns do you use?” A few years ago, the language was about “preferred gender pronouns” or PGPs, but since our gender identity is not a preference, but a deeply held part of who we are, it is more respectful to simply ask about which pronouns to use, not which ones they prefer. Many nonbinary people use gender-neutral they/them pronouns. For more information on this, see here. If someone has recently changed their first name or asked you to call them by a new "nickname," you don’t need to understand why they made this change, you just need to respect and use it. If you feel close enough to the person and you want to show sincere interest, you can say something like, “I really like the new name you are using, is there anything you want to share with me about why you chose it?” This can open the door for trust and dialogue, but only if you are truly interested in listening and understanding. You have no place deciding or judging if someone’s name or pronoun is “right” for them. The most important thing is to always engage in these interactions from a caring, respectful perspective and an openness to learn. It is not an opportunity to debate someone’s identity or actions.
- Correct others who use outdated names or pronouns. It is exhausting to constantly correct people who have difficulty remembering or using correct names and pronouns. If you are witness to someone being misgendered (wrong pronouns or gender address) or dead-named (using a birth name that the person no longer identifies with), you can quickly and gently step in and say, “Oh, remember we are calling them Sam now!” or “Please don’t refer to us as ‘ladies’ we don’t all identify as women, thanks!” “Page uses the honorific Mx. not Ms. or Mr., Thanks!” If you don’t feel confident enough to intervene in the moment, try to make an effort to follow up afterward and ask your nonbinary friend what would have been a more supportive way to handle the situation. You can also talk to the other person later about it to help them learn and understand.
- Educate yourself about nonbinary people and gender identity. It isn’t nonbinary people’s job to educate everyone about their identity or their gender journey, even though they do it a lot. It is our job as allies to seek out information and educate ourselves so others don’t have to do the emotional and psychical labor for us. Historically, dominant groups (White people, Men, Straight people, Cisgender people) have expected a lot out of marginalized groups to do the intense work of ending social oppression through telling their stories and convincing others that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. are real. Make it your job to educate yourself and others in your circle. A great place to start is with Lee Airton’s amazingly accessible and readable book called Gender: Your Guide which is a great starting place. There are some great blogs and anthologies available as well. For parents and family members of school-aged youth, you can check out: Supporting Transgender and Gender Creative Youth: Schools, Families, and Communities in Action. Before the term "nonbinary" gained wider use, other terms such as gender creative, gender-independent, and gender-expansive are also used.
- Share your pronouns to make it a more routine practice in your school or workplace. I include my pronouns on my faculty website, Twitter page, Zoom meeting name, and email signature. By presenting this information in these public spaces, I hope to model the importance of making space for people to share their pronouns and not make assumptions about anyone’s gender identity. Although I identify as a woman, am (generally) feminine-presenting, and use she/her pronouns, I am trying to communicate that I understand the importance of sharing pronouns and to create space for others to feel comfortable doing so.
- Advocate for gender-neutral bathrooms/signage in your workplace and community. Accessing public bathrooms can be quite anxiety-producing and dangerous for nonbinary people. They are stuck choosing between a space that aligns with their anatomy or one that aligns with how others perceive their gender. This often results in uncomfortable, scary, and dangerous interactions in public spaces. The more we have single-user spaces that aren’t designated male/female the more we can reduce the stress and anxiety of using public washrooms for nonbinary and other gender-nonconforming people. Here is a great place to start and here is another helpful resource specifically for schools.
I hope you find these resources and information helpful—we can all do more to support and affirm the amazing gender diversity around us. Let’s try to be more loving and inclusive of all!
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