What is Gender Non-Binary?

The transgender community has recently been brought into the national spotlight, but there is a new gender identity you may not have heard of.

The gender non-binary community does not identify as he or she, but rather they.

"My name is Andy DeRoin, I use they, them, their as pronouns."

It's an introduction that may seem peculiar, but Program Coordinator for the NC State GLBT Center Andy DeRoin says incorporating personal preferred pronouns into everyday interactions allows for self-definition.

"He, him, his, she, her, hers, they, them, theirs...” are the personal pronouns Deroin is referring to. 

“It's not like a choice, it's like if I want to be identified appropriately by other people, I have to say them," they said.

DeRoin identifies as non-binary, which is neither male nor female.

"I don't really know where I'm going with my gender... and that's okay," they said.  

While the definition "they" as a gender neutral pronoun was recognized as the 2015 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society, non-binary is a concept that LGBTQ advocates say is not as well-known as the transgender community.

Equality NC Director of Advancement Matt Hirschy says, “It's also important to just remember that they are people. So addressing them by their name and their proper pronoun they give you is always going to be the way to go."

The idea is to look at gender as a spectrum:  one side is male, the other side is female.  Hirschy says those who identify as non-binary "are either somewhere in between, or just outside of those binaries.” which is where he term "non-binary" comes from.  

Hirschy says the difficulty in accurately stating how many non-binary individuals there are in the U.S. is because a lot of people don't feel comfortable reporting the truth on these surveys they receive.

Hirschy says non-binary individuals are not gauged by the US Census, but the best estimate is .03 percent of adults in the United States are transgender, and 13 percent of that are non-binary.

What unique challenges do non-binary people face?

The daily lives of the gender non-binary community in North Carolina are ones in which they have to make unique decisions and overcome distinctive barriers.

"First of all, I don't even know what it means to be male or female," says Cary resident Zoe Hummings.

Hummings, 18, says they've identified as gender non-binary for about two years, and says that it has been a change for the better.

"It's been a change in the way that I present myself, but it's also been a change in that I explore my other interests," they said.

Although they say it has been a positive change, Hummings says it has also come with challenges.

"It's hard enough finding something that's so little talked about on its own without other people discouraging you."

Andy DeRoin of the NC State GLBT Center adds, "For me it's kind of like I have some sort of sense of where I'm going, but it's not very clear."

Understanding barriers first hand, Andy DeRoin is working to expand places that accommodate the gender non-conforming community. "There are at this point, pretty literal lines where 'this is a safe space and across the street may or may not be,'" they said.

Both Hummings and DeRoin believe awareness could lead to additional acceptance.

"The average person doesn't know what gender non-conforming is or what non-binary is so people knowing first would be nice," Hummings said.

As Hummings prepares to start a new chapter of their journey at UNC Greensboro, they say identifying as gender non-binary does not define who they are as a person.  Like many students about to start college, Hummings says, "I'm more worried about making friends than I am people judging me."

What legal rights do the non-binary community have?

The legal standing of the non-binary community on state and national levels is another issue the community is facing.

Portland resident Jamie Shupe describes their emotions after an Oregon judge declared they could legally identify as non-binary last month. "I was happy beyond words; I was struggling not to cry. Somebody had actually recognized who I am."

Some legal experts believe it's the first order of its kind from a United States court.

"Nobody has ever actually gone to a court of law and said Hey, I'm non-binary and I want legal recognition for that."

Shupe, an Army Veteran, was assigned male at birth and began transitioning to female. They quickly decided that wasn’t for them either.

Shupe says, "When we try to make me all male or all female it harms me."

According to Shupe's lawyer, Oregon law doesn't limit gender choices to male or female.  Instead, the law allows a judge to order a legal change of sex of a person if the court determines the individual meets certain requirements.

Law experts say legally, it's not as clear for other states, including North Carolina.

NC Central University School of Law Professor Irving Joyner says individuals who would want to legally identify as non-binary would possibly have to go through the same legal process as transgender individuals in amending legal documents.

"Thus far, neither the federal law- and certainly not the state law- has moved in the direction that the judge has done in Oregon. It's going to require that they petition for the same type recognition and the same type of accommodations, with the birth certificate, with the driver's license and social security board."

For others seeking legal recognition, Shupe believes individuals must remain strong, "There's nothing they can do right now other than hunker down and wait for the court systems to make their lives better."

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