When someone in your life comes out to you as nonbinary, you may not be sure how to react. How does one appropriately acknowledge and respect what’s likely an unfamiliar gender identity?
I’ve been out as a nonbinary person for over three years. It’s been challenging in some ways, though it’s ultimately rewarding to be out and to embrace my identity. I’ve written a fair amount about my experiences with the medical aspects of my transition, but I’ve actually found that more so than hormones and surgery, the hardest thing about transitioning to be the social aspect.
I’m the sort of person who hates to send food back at restaurants even if it’s wrong because I don’t want to make a fuss, and who tries to prioritize being kind over being right (even though I don’t always succeed). This makes advocating for myself tricky when many folks haven’t even heard the term "nonbinary," much less know what it means.
To provide a little more background, “nonbinary” is a broad category of people who identify as not exclusively male or exclusively female. Some examples of nonbinary labels include genderqueer, bigender, agender, and genderfluid, among others. Some nonbinary people identify as “leaning” towards a binary gender, such as “genderqueer woman,” but most nonbinary people don’t consider themselves either men or women.
Many, though not all, nonbinary people use gender neutral pronouns rather than “he” or “she.” Some have body dysphoria and may pursue surgery or hormones so their body matches up with their gender identity; others may not have dysphoria, or want to medically transition for other reasons.
But even if you know the basics about nonbinary people, when someone in your life comes out to you as nonbinary, or you make a new nonbinary acquaintance, you may not be sure how to react. After all, everything from government IDs to bathroom doors to deodorant is broken down into “male” or “female,” with little to no room for people who don’t neatly fit into one of those categories. How does one appropriately acknowledge and respect what’s likely an unfamiliar gender identity?
Here are some straightforward pointers to help you be a good friend and ally to nonbinary people in your life. I’m going to use the term “nonbinary friend,” but these tips will likely apply if you have a nonbinary family member, partner, coworker, etc.
1. Respect their chosen name and pronouns
People who come out as nonbinary often, though not always, use a different name and pronouns than what they were given when they were born. Respect the name and pronouns that the person asks you to use. Their real name is the name that they use to identify themselves. Our society usually respects name changes when people get married and change their surnames, prefer a nickname to their legal name, or occasionally discard their first name altogether for reasons unrelated to gender, like my aunt who always went by her middle name because she didn’t like her first name. Just like you’d respect those name changes, even if it’s something you wouldn’t do yourself, respect the nonbinary person’s preferred name.
Some nonbinary people may use “he/him/his” or “she/her/her” pronouns, even though they don’t identify as exclusively male or female. Just because they use a pronoun strongly associated with one gender doesn’t make them binary; there are a lot of reasons, including pragmatism and personal preference, that they might use such a pronoun.
More commonly though, nonbinary people may use explicitly gender neutral pronouns such as singular “they/them/their,” or a neopronoun such as “ze/zir/zir.” It might take you a bit of practice to get used to the new pronoun, but it will mean a lot to your friend.
When I came out, I really appreciated my friends who asked me what pronouns I wanted used and then respected those pronouns, even when they didn’t quite “get” my gender. They respected me and acknowledged my pronouns, which meant a lot to me and cemented our friendship even as I struggled with coming out and solidifying my gender identity. Now, my friends have seen what a positive difference being out and being acknowledged as nonbinary has made in my life, and they’ve come to wrap their heads around it, even if they were skeptical at first.
If you mess up someone’s name or pronouns, apologize sincerely and briefly. People have messed up my name and pronouns countless times — and I’ve messed up with some of my friends too, even though I’m nonbinary! The important thing is to fix your mistake but not fixate on it. Don’t make it about you, whether through an unnecessarily prolonged apology or by talking about how hard the switch is for you.
Correct your mistakes with a simple, “Sorry, ze —”, possibly followed up later with, “Hey, I apologize I messed up your pronoun earlier today — I’ll be more careful in the future.” As long as you’re honestly making an effort, chances are your friend will understand and appreciate this.
It took a little while for some of my friends to get my name and pronouns right, but it didn’t bother me as long as they tried. I was only upset when people gave me backhanded “apologies” (“I’m sorry, but... “) or kept making the same mistake dozens of times.
2. … Even if their name or pronouns changes more than once
Despite my best efforts at consistency, I switched my name not once but twice, and my pronouns have always been a bit in flux. This isn’t because I’m trying to be difficult or special, or to keep people on their toes, but because it’s legitimately difficult to pin down the details of one’s nonbinary gender in a society with strongly binary scripts.
I had to balance my gender and my personal comfort level with practicality. Was it worth having more hassle with my pronouns to advocate for a pronoun that fit better? Did I want a gender-neutral name and risk people assuming I was female, or a name that felt explicitly masculine?
If your nonbinary friend ends up changing their name or pronouns more than once, please don’t use this against them. Most likely, they’re just doing what I did: figuring out the kinks in their identity and solidifying what most appropriately represents them. Thank them for letting you know about the change and do your best to switch to the new name and pronouns.
Sometimes your friend might be fine with either name, or more than one set of pronouns, which can make your job easier, but don’t assume. I, for example, go by one of two names, and I’m happy with any gender neutral pronoun, but this doesn’t mean I’m okay with people using my birth name.
3. Respect their privacy
Just because your friend was comfortably coming out to you doesn’t mean they’re necessarily out to everyone. They might not feel safe coming out at work, or they might have parents who are openly anti-LGBTQ. Be sure to listen if your friend states they’re not out to everyone. It can be tricky to switch names in different situations (and honestly, I’ve messed this up with my best friend), but do your best and don’t pressure your friend to come out to others before they feel ready.
On a similar note, it’s not your business if the person is planning to transition medically. Some nonbinary people do, some don’t. It’s best to follow their lead. If you’re close with the person and they make a comment about starting hormones or scheduling surgery, you could say something along the lines of, “If you want to talk more about it, I’m happy to listen, but I don’t want to pry if you’d rather not discuss it.”
While I’m very open about my medical transition and will almost always answer questions unless they’re outright hostile or creepy, most people are a little more privacy-oriented than I am, and that includes other nonbinary folks.
4. Validate their experiences
At a party last year, I was complaining to a couple of my friends how I was torn about the label agender. While I liked the concept of the label, I felt like my experience with gender was very different than that of most agender-identified people I’d come across online.
One of my friends, who is cisgender, essentially said that she didn’t know where I was getting that from, and tried to compare my experience to that of her agender partner, who I know and whose gender experience and journey was very different from my own.
While I know she was trying to be helpful, that was an extremely frustrating moment for me because she was basically cis-splaining me: trying to explain my own gender to me in a way that discounted my experiences, instead of listening to what I was trying to say. Perhaps I should have saved the conversation for only when I was around other nonbinary people, but personally I think it’s important to be able to occasionally talk about things that impact me and have friends who can say, “I don’t share your identity or experiences, but I can empathize with how you’re feeling.”
This friend could have just said that, or suggested I speak with her partner. The way she approached it made me feel like she didn’t trust my experience of being nonbinary, and that she thought she was more of an expert on the agender label than I was.
We’re often so eager to share our own experiences or to help our friends solve their problems that it’s easy to end up accidentally dismissing rather than validating others’ experiences. If your friend talks about challenges of being nonbinary, or frustrations they’ve run across, let your friend know that you recognize their emotions and that that sucks. Don’t dive in to try to show them that they’re wrong, especially when you aren’t living with the same marginalized identity.
A few months ago, my therapist showed me this video about empathy and it elaborates on the importance of demonstrating empathy in forming meaningful connections and soothing the pain of those you care about. That's definitely something helpful for all relationships you have, not just as an ally to nonbinary people!
5. Ask them how you can help
Most importantly, just let your nonbinary friend know that you support them and care about them, and ask if there’s anything specific that you can do to help. They might want you to correct others on their name, but they might not. They might want your support coming out to someone else, going to shop for new clothes, or seeking resources for medical transition. They might just appreciate you asking.
Most nonbinary people just want to go about their daily lives like everyone else, with the only major difference being that we have genders which aren’t recognized, respected, or understood by many people. Having allies is important for us, and I know that for me, I would not have been able to have the successful transition I did without my many supportive cisgender allies.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, and please feel free to ask me any clarifying questions in the comments below. I appreciate your help in making the world a safer and more welcoming place for nonbinary folks like myself!