Gender is a tough concept to explain, but for the most part, many people understand that gender could be based on three things: one’s biological sex, the cultural expectations associated with being born a particular sex, and one’s expression. Ultimately, it is the person who defines their own gender.
However, while many people can agree and understand that people can be biologically born male, but feel female, and vice versa, it’s even harder to explain how someone who is born biologically one sex, will not feel like either binary gender. So, someone who was born a male could feel like neither a male nor a female. They could feel both male and female, they could feel neither, or they feel as though they are running up and down the gender binary.
These people could identify as non-binary (even if they sometimes feel as though they are male, and sometimes feel as though they are female - remember the part where I said that it is the person who defines their own gender?).
So how can I tell if someone is non-binary?
Each and every person feels differently about their gender, regardless of what their gender is. Some people who identify as male are more than happy to act and feel in ways which may be considered more effeminate. So a non-binary person may express their gender in stereotypical male or female ways, and still feel and identify as non-binary.
So the answer to this question is - you can’t tell. But you can listen and ask. Most people will be very happy to tell someone their gender identity, so long as that person is open to listening and to learning about something new.
How can I make someone who is non-binary feel comfortable?
When someone tells you that they are non-binary that means that your relationship is pretty good and that they trust you with this very important aspect of themselves. So the simple answer is to ask them what they need to feel comfortable. Ask them how they would like to be addressed. Some people may be comfortable with sticking to the pronouns which are associated with the sex they were born with (s/he), either out of habit or because they wouldn’t want to be outed whenever they are being addressed in public. Other people can experience gender dysphoria (a strong feeling that your body and your gender do not match, which can cause a lot of psychological distress) associated with being addressed with the pronoun of their biological sex, and so they may request that you refer to them using a different pronoun (such as Zie, or They). If this is the case, do use their pronouns - it may get some getting used to, but if you don’t you’ll just be making this person feel worse about themselves and more uncomfortable in their own skin.
Melissa McElhatton who has recently graduated with a BA (hons) in Social Work started out with Insite as a writer, then as CEO, and following as Social Policy Associate. She is also currently President of Gender Equality Malta (GEM).