5 Things to Never Say to a Nonbinary Person
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
Maybe you have a loved one who has recently come out to you as nonbinary. Perhaps you’re nonbinary yourself and are curious if other gender nonconforming folks like you have experienced these particular microagressions.
Either way, I thought I’d use my first post here to do a little something for Pride month and compile a quick list of five things you should never say to a nonbinary person.
1. “But can I call you (birth name)?”
One thing that’s frustrating for a lot of nonbinary people and trans people in general is having people close to us try to get special permission to use our birth names. For many nonbinary people (but not all!), choosing a new name that better suits us is an important part of our transition. My old name isn’t really who I am anymore, and having people I love insist on using it can feel frustrating and like I’m not being taken seriously.
Of course, most nonbinary people understand that learning to refer to someone you’ve known for a long time with a completely new name and (potentially a new set of pronouns) can be tricky, and you’re probably going to slip up occasionally. As long as you’re making an effort to acknowledge our identities and apologizing when you get it wrong, you’re probably doing great.
2. “When are you getting the surgery?”
While it’s true that some nonbinary people do pursue surgery and/or hormone therapy as part of their personal transition, many don’t, and it isn’t really anyone’s business if they do or not. It’s natural to be curious about someone’s transition, but asking them invasive questions about their genitals is excessive.
If a nonbinary person in your life is comfortable with talking about the details of their transition, then great! But chances are, there will be parts of their journey they’ll want to keep private, and usually, this is one of them.
3. Insinuating nonbinary identities are a “phase” or not legitimate
This one is unfortunately a fairly common attitude towards nonbinary folks, even within the LGBTQ community, in my experience. For a long time, nonbinary identities have been considered divisive and controversial for highlighting the fact that gender is not binary but rather a vast spectrum.
Thankfully, in recent years, more awareness and education about nonbinary trans people have thoroughly debunked the “only two genders” idea, but there are plenty of people who still cling to it regardless. I can’t restate enough how disrespectful it is to imply that someone’s identity isn’t real or shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’ve been openly nonbinary (more specifically, agender) for almost 10 years, and it’s still disappointing how many times I’ve encountered this regressive way of thinking.
4. “But they/them/their pronouns aren’t grammatically correct!”
Here’s another one that’s basically a flimsy excuse to get away with not using gender neutral pronouns. The usage of singular “they” is actually extremely common in English, and it makes perfect grammatical sense. Even if gender neutral pronouns were a grammatical nightmare, though, it’s important to remember language is always adapting and changing with the rise of certain slang terms and with certain words’ definitions shifting over time.
Plus, you’ve probably already used singular they pronouns to refer to someone, even if it wasn’t in the context of them being nonbinary! For example, “We have a new student; I wonder who they are!” Or, “The mail came. Let’s see what they brought.” And those are just two examples. So, while it sounds a bit weird or unnatural at first, using they/them/their to refer to a nonbinary person isn’t as much of a leap as you might think.
Not all nonbinary people use they/them pronouns, and many will use more than one set of pronouns to refer to themselves. Again, it’s totally normal for you to struggle a bit with learning to refer to someone in a different way than what you’ve been used to, but don’t deliberately discredit a nonbinary person’s identity like this, especially when this particular argument is so outdated and demonstrably false.
5. “But you still look like a man/woman!”
There’s this really insidious and absurd expectation for nonbinary people to look perfectly androgynous at all times in order to be taken seriously. Not only is this completely subjective, making it impossible, but it’s also nonsensically restrictive. There is no one way to look nonbinary; there is a wonderful amount of diversity in this community, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Plus, the whole idea of what a man or a woman should look or act like is rooted in transphobia and very limiting of one’s self-expression. There’s no real way to know exactly where someone is in their gender journey anyway. Why should it matter to you how feminine or how masculine a nonbinary person looks?
I hope this post helps people gain some understanding when it comes to respecting nonbinary people in all of our presentations and expressions. Again, nobody is expecting you to get everyone’s pronouns and names right 100% of the time; all we expect is a bit of effort, understanding, and a willingness to learn and look past the gender binary.