First of all: Thank you for taking the time to read what follows. The visibility of non-binary people has dramatically increased in the last few years, and you may well feel overwhelmed with how to respond to this among your own students. However, studies have shown that when marginalized students feel respected, they feel safer and significantly less likely to succumb to suicide and other acts of self-harm. Your reading this shows a commitment to providing a safe space for those students.
Second of all: Unless you’re a psychological professional, please make sure to keep your role in mind. This article is for the general classroom teacher at the primary or secondary level, as I am. Direct psychological crises to the appropriate staff. Please, please don’t overstep.
I’m from the United States, so keep that in mind as well and adjust for your own country as needed. The aim is on helping you, the teacher, understand what it means to be non-binary and how you can adjust your language to help those students feel included.
I’m going to start with gendered language, because that’s something that’s important to address whether or not you have students who have identified themselves to you as non-binary. Then I’ll answer some questions you might have.
The key idea: Some students may not feel like they’re either a “boy” or a “girl”, and will want you to refer to them in gender neutral ways.
Like its related languages, English has many references to gender: “Boys and girls”, “ladies and gentlemen”, “mothers and fathers”, and so on.
Some of these are easy to get rid of: Instead of “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen”, use inclusive terms like “everyone”, “students”, or “kids”. Your boys and girls probably won’t notice unless you point it out, and your non-binary students won’t have to feel the sting of being left out, yet again.
It’s unfortunate that our forms of address are gendered. If I’m walking down the high school hallway and there’s a student I don’t know in the way, I’m so used to saying “Excuse me, sir” or “Excuse me, ma’am”. But I’ve worked to replace that with “Excuse me, please” — just as polite, but without me making an assumption about gender.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks is when you want to talk about students in the third person. We have all had the experience of being warned, or even scolded, by English teachers not to use “they” in the singular.
The reality is, though, that singular “they” is centuries old! And in the last few years, several dictionaries have embraced “they” as the singular for non-binary people as well. Even the MLA, the arbiter of English for ELA teachers around the country, has accepted “they” in the singular, although the preference is still to rewrite it if possible.
In English, there are only a handful of words that have no gender-neutral version. It’s rare that a teacher would need to call a student a niece or nephew (“nibling” has been suggested), or an aunt or uncle (“auncle” has been suggested).
In other words, it should be possible to all but eliminate gendered language when addressing or talking with students: Instead of “father” and “mother”, use “parent”; instead of “brother” and “sister”, use “sibling”; instead of “son” and “daughter”, use “child”.
Even if you’re not aware that any of your students are non-binary, I would encourage you to work on getting rid of gendered language for two reasons.
First, just because you’re not aware of any non-binary students doesn’t mean you don’t have any. As I discuss below, there’s no one way that non-binary students look.
Second, it’s a good habit to get into. Even if you don’t have any non-binary students now, you may have them in the future. The goal isn’t to populate your language with words just for non-binary people; following the suggestions above results in language that still works just fine with boys and girls.
A note on “guys”: While “guy” has a long history of being a gendered term, “guys” has become a gender-neutral term. I still struggle with addressing a class with, “Okay, you guys, let’s focus!” And many younger people do see it as completely gender-neutral in that context. But… not everyone does. So reflect on whether, in your quest to degender your language, you want to get rid of this one as well.
Hopefully, you have a clearer understanding of what you can do now to start making your classroom speech more inclusive. But you may well have some questions about why. I’ll try to address these below.
What is “non-binary” anyway?
“Non-binary” is a broad gender identity for people who don’t feel like they fit completely and comfortably into either “male” or “female”. Some students reject either of those identities, some embrace both, and some have a weak relationship with one or the other.
You cannot tell whether someone is non-binary based on how they look or dress. They don’t have to dress “androgynously”. They don’t have to change their gender presentation at all, or they could completely change it.
Some non-binary people, including youth, take hormones to suppress their gender-specific characteristics. Some don’t. Some seek other medical assistance, including surgery, to bring their body in line with how they see it; some don’t.
Some choose a new name to go with their new identity; some don’t. Some use different pronouns than they used to; some don’t.
Some generally present as a boy or as a girl, and might feel more like a “boy” or a “girl” but identify as non-binary because they’re not completely comfortable with that identity.
How is this different than being transgender?
Most, but not all, non-binary people consider themselves transgender.
Being transgender means that your gender identity doesn’t match the gender you were assigned at birth. Generally speaking, a transgender woman is a woman who was labeled as a boy at birth; a transgender man is a man who was labeled as a girl at birth.
A transgender non-binary person is someone who generally does not identify strictly as either a boy/man or a girl/woman. But this is a gross simplification, because there are non-binary people who were labeled boys at birth and identify as “mostly a boy” (for instance), but who identify as transgender. Another non-binary person may choose not to identify as transgender if they feel more affiliated with the gender they were assigned at birth.
How is this different from being genderfluid or gender non-conforming?
Generally speaking, someone who identifies as genderfluid has a gender identity that shifts around: Some days, they might feel like they’re absolutely a girl; other days, or even later the same day, they might feel like they’re more of a boy, or maybe neither, or maybe both. Genderfluidity is (usually) a type of being non-binary.
There is a significant overlap between “non-binary” and “gender non-conforming”. To a certain extent, the choice between these is a matter of personal taste, and many people are comfortable with both.
You may have also heard the term “genderqueer”. Be aware that, like “queer”, this is an emotionally charged word. Many non-binary people embrace “genderqueer” as a self-identifier; on the other hand, many others reject it because of its history as a slur.
While youngsters (like students) are less likely to be aware of the history of “queer” as a slur, it’s still a good idea to avoid both it and “genderqueer” unless you know a student is okay with it. Really, it’s best to avoid it completely.
How is this different than being intersex?
Someone who is intersex has biological attributes other than strictly “boy” or strictly “girl”, according to the traditional definitions. Being “intersex” relates to the body at birth; being “non-binary” relates to gender identity, which is how we each feel about our gender. There are intersex people who are non-binary, but the concepts themselves are different.
So what’s with “Enby”… I’ve heard that, what’s it mean?
The obvious abbreviation for non-binary is NB. However, NB has been used in some Black activist communities to refer to people of color who are not Black. As a result, some Black activists have asked that it not be used when writing about non-binary people.
As a result, some non-binary people use “Enby” in print. The pronunciation is the same as reading the letters, but the thought is that there won’t be the confusion in spoken dialogue that there is writing.
However, other non-binary people feel that “Enby” is “cute” and diminishes the importance of the identity. In my experience, it tends to be older non-binary people that feel most strongly about this, but I’m sure there are youth that feel that way as well.
My advice: Unless you’re non-binary yourself, avoid “enby” unless you know a student is okay with it. Really, it’s best to avoid it completely.
Why are you saying “generally” and “sometimes” so much?
While there’s agreement about the basic meaning of these terms, there’s also a lot of disagreement about the edges. Two people may, internally, have the same perspective on their gender, but may differ on whether they fit in one term or another.
I’m trying to say things that are true more often than not, but no matter what I say, there will be a non-binary person who says, “Nope, that’s not me!”
If a student identifies as non-binary, they’re non-binary: Call them non-binary.
This is the cardinal rule in the non-binary communities I’ve been part of: Respect a person’s stated identity. You don’t really need to understand any of what’s come so far to do that.
I have a non-binary student. What should I say to parents or other teachers?
This is where things get tricky. You need to check with your local laws to find out if you’re obliged to tell the parents or the school administration. Luckily, to my knowledge, this is true in very few places, if at all. But I’m not a lawyer.
If a student has revealed their identity to you, find out how they want you to refer to them. They may ask, for instance, that you only use their chosen name when you’re alone with them, or only in the classroom, and that you use their deadname in front of other teachers.
A huge part of this respect is finding out where their limits are and respecting those.
Deadname… what’s that?
Transgender (including non-binary) people often select a name that’s consistent with their identity. This may be because their previous name is strongly identified with the incorrect gender, or it may be because they simply want to make their shift in presentation more concrete.
Either way, a “deadname” is the previous name that’s been left behind. Once a person is known fully publicly by their chosen name, it is incredibly disrespectful to use their previous name.
However, transgender people sometimes have to use their “deadname” around people who either don’t know about or don’t accept the changed name. Because of the vulnerable positions of youth who face ostracism from parents, it is absolutely crucial to respect a student’s wishes when it comes to communicating with parents.
Okay, so about pronouns. Do all non-binary students use “they” and “them”?
No. Some continue to use the pronouns they’re used to. Some use the pronouns that match the gender they feel more attached to. Some use neopronouns, non-traditional pronouns that they’ve either created themselves or taken from elsewhere.
All this language stuff feels so… made up.
All language is made up. The difference between the language we’re used to and the language we’re not used to is what we’re used to.
What should I do if I make a mistake, like using the wrong name or the wrong pronoun?
This is generally called misgendering, by the way.
But don’t make a big deal of it. Correct yourself. If you apologize, don’t make a big deal of it. Most non-binary people are far more annoyed by a thousand apologies and groveling than by a genuine mistake.
Doing it deliberately (except in the situation above, where you’re misgendering a student in front of other people out of respect for the student’s wishes) is utterly inappropriate, though.
I’ve done my best to anticipate about every question you, as a classroom teacher, might have. I know some of it might well feel overwhelming. I truly appreciate your efforts to read this far, for the sake of every non-binary student out there.
If you’re confused, imagine being a non-binary youth, trying to figure out why your gender doesn’t seem to fit all the gendered messages youth are bombarded with daily.
If you have any other questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll answer there or edit this document as appropriate.