There are many ways to be nonbinary.
In our world, nonbinary people exist outside of a gender binary where the only options are “man” and “woman.” However, there are many ways to exist outside of this binary: Some people may be both men and women. Some may only partially identify as men or women. Some may have a gender that cannot be described as “man” nor “woman.” Some may not have a gender at all.
Nonbinary people are of all races, ethnicities, ages, birth designations, sexual orientations, romantic orientations, intersex/non-intersex identities, sizes, colors, abilities, disabilities, nations, religions… The only requirement for someone to be nonbinary is the fact that they identify as nonbinary. Medical factors like hormones, dysphoria, and transition can be elements of nonbinary experiences, but they are not requirements.
Additionally, any way a nonbinary person chooses to express their identity is a valid expression of nonbinary identity. So, you can’t tell from a person’s appearance whether or not they are nonbinary. You can’t even tell whether a person is or isn’t nonbinary by the pronouns they use: Not all nonbinary people use neopronouns like “e” or “ze.” Not all nonbinary people even use gender-neutral pronouns like singular “they”; some nonbinary people use “he” or “she.”
When it comes to writing, then, marking that a person or character is nonbinary can be done in subtle to obvious ways. In our world, people who use neopronouns and gender-neutral pronouns are typically nonbinary. However, in imaginary worlds, that may not necessarily be the case. The important thing to recognize is that nonbinary people represent a broad range of experiences. We can’t collapse those experiences into one experience by hastily making assumptions about what it means to be nonbinary, because doing so is a misreprentation of real, lived experiences.
Nonbinary experiences have local and historical contexts.
Various historical factors have led us to our current society, which, for the most part, only recognizes a White, Western system of gender with only two options: man and woman. However, nonbinary gender is not a new concept. Although the term “nonbinary” may be new, various cultures around the world have had people who exist outside the gender binary as we currently know it. Several cultures, including living ones, recognize a gender system with more than two genders as their main understanding of gender.
Because of the historical erasure that nonbinary people have faced, we have two main priorities when we want to write about nonbinary people sensitively:
We have to respect that nonbinary people come from specific cultural contexts and backgrounds. “Setting” has two parts: time and place. For narrative purposes, this means that people have a historical context they come from and a local context they come from. The time they exist in affects one part of the culture they exist in, and the geographical location they exist in, or the locations they travel between—and the fact that they travel—affects another part of the culture they exist in.
Therefore, it doesn’t make much sense for us to strictly apply the term “nonbinary” to a person from China who lived during 800 B.C.E., as, during their time and culture, the terms they used and the way they understood their gender simply weren’t the same as the terms we use and the way we understand our gender now. We can recognize elements of similar experience and use the shorthand of “nonbinary” as an umbrella, but we can’t use the term “nonbinary” to erase experiences and history.
In turn, we can’t use a culturally specific term like “Two Spirit,” which is a term to describe Native American experiences and understandings of gender, to describe a non-Native White person who has a completely different set of experiences and understandings of gender. Stripping away the cultural and historical context of a term like “Two Spirit” is a form of violence, even though it is not physical. It repeats the trauma Native Americans endure at the hands of colonizers, who continue to forcibly strip Native Americans of cultural markers and identifiers to this day. Whether White or non-White, settlers enact this violence overtly by destroying cultural artifacts, or covertly by actions like these that take important cultural language and removing them of the very culture that makes them so valuable in the first place.
How do we write respectfully?
Research. Even if we are writing characters who come from our own backgrounds, research helps to deepen our narratives and our understandings of ourselves. When we are marginalized, or not part of the group in power, reclaiming our roots is a radical act and is not meant to be overwhelming. Instead, reclaiming our roots is a compassionate act to ourselves made in the spirit of exploration and curiosity. Research for the marginalized writing about their own experiences is a way to combat forcible disconnection from our histories by those who have been centered.
For those writing outside their experiences, this responsibility to honor the contexts of the people we are writing about means that we need be generous and compassionate when we do our research.
First, we have to recognize that, because we are writing about people who still exist, and who very often have long histories of being misrepresented in media, we have to put aside the notion that we as writers are the priority. Our own hurt feelings if people dislike our work or call out our mistakes are small in comparison to the weight of the pain the people we are representing have endured. Furthermore, the non-marginalized reader has traditionally been prioritized as the audience. Imagine if the people you are writing about were your audience. How would they feel reading your work?
Second, we have to recognize that research is not a chore! Just like for those writing within their experience, research is something done in the spirit of exploration and curiosity, not dread. In the end, people are people. This is not meant to erase experiences; instead, it is meant to celebrate them. When we avert our eyes and refuse to acknowledge difference, we aren’t able to celebrate the joy in shared experience, even if the details aren’t the same. But, because people come from different contexts, we can’t strip away context and claim that two experiences are exactly the same, either. We can only recognize similarities and use that recognition to deepen our understandings while researching to cover the gaps where we don’t understand.
Additionally, for those writing speculative fiction and poetry, we can let curiosity spark our imaginations. In our world, we can’t travel through time, but in other worlds, maybe people can. How would traveling through different temporal contexts affect a culture’s understanding of gender? We can look at living cultures who have traveled through geographical locations and see how that has affected their understandings of gender. From there, we can extrapolate to imagine how gender across time travel might look. We can only make these connections when we recognize and celebrate difference, as synthesizing similarities across difference is what makes imagining these scenarios interesting: the same human experience, but in new contexts.
Third, we have to recognize that sometimes, we will never understand. Sometimes, no matter how much research we do, no matter how much we try to relate, we can’t wrap our minds around something. That is normal. The whole reason we struggle to write across experiences and have so many misunderstandings in the first place is because some things only make sense to people who have been through it. Think about inside jokes with your friends: Two words can get both of you laughing uproariously, but trying to explain to someone else would be too much effort, and they wouldn’t get it anyway.
So, while we do have to do our research, our standards are high because our responsibility is not to our egos, but to the people we are representing, which sometimes includes ourselves. Still, we have to forgive ourselves for our own shortcomings while acknowledging to others where we’ve made mistakes. This is the only way to offer a genuine apology if we do do something wrong: We have to be motivated by our heart being in the right place, but at the same time recognize that good intent doesn’t fix the fact that someone is still hurting. All we can do is offer compassion and grow from it.