What Does 'Nonbinary Gender' Mean?

Pop singer Demi Lovato came out as nonbinary on May 19, 2021.

Published May 19, 2021

Non-binary person in red dress holding lgtbi flag with white wall background in Granada, Spain. "no binarie" lgtbi flag trans queer "gender fluid" red dress (Non-binary person in red dress holding lgtbi flag with white wall background in Granada, Spai (Getty Images/Stock photo)
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In May 2021, popstar Demi Lovato revealed to the world on Twitter that they identified as nonbinary and would begin using the pronouns they/them. A number of Snopes readers asked us about the meaning of the term “nonbinary.” Many also asked about the meaning of the word “genderqueer.”

On the same day, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary reported that searches for the terms “they” and “nonbinary” were “among [its] top lookups on May 19th, 2021, after singer Demi Lovato announced that they identify as such.”  

The Trans Journalists Association (TJA) explains the meaning of the term “nonbinary” as:

An umbrella term for genders other than man and woman. This is also a term for a specific gender. While non-binary is considered a trans identity, not everyone who is non-binary considers themselves trans. Be aware that Indigenous communities and communities of color have other words to describe gender variance. Sometimes these terms can be included in the non-binary umbrella and sometimes they cannot.

TJA also defines “genderqueer” as “a nonbinary gender.” The two terms are often used interchangeably by some people.

The term “genderqueer” has a long history, and often means different things to different people.

Nonbinary author Jacob Tobia explained the history of the word “genderqueer” for Them magazine. The word began being used in '90s activist circles, and is “an inclusive term that refers to individuals whose identities exist beyond the binary. It can be an umbrella term for anyone between or outside male and female; refer to someone who alternates between the two; and encompass folks who identify as a third gender, genderfluid, androgynous, Two-Spirit, pangender, and agender, just to name a few.”

Merriam-Webster also explained the word “nonbinary”:

Nonbinary has been in use since the middle of the 19th century; the earliest meanings of the word were such as “not restricted to two things or parts” and “of, relating to, or being a system of numbers that does not use 2 as its base” (as in nonbinary math). More recently, the word has taken on a new meaning, more applicable to Lovato, which is “relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female.”

Lovato’s nonbinary use of they is one that has recently been added to our dictionary. They has been used a singular pronoun not specifying gender for over 600 years now; its use as a nonbinary pronoun, or as a means of intentionally not revealing gender, is more recent, coming into widespread use in the last few decades.

Merriam-Webster added the gender-neutral pronoun “they” to the dictionary back in 2019, also calling it the word of the year. Merriam expanded the definition of the word “they” to include:

— used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary [...]
[Example] I knew certain things about … the person I was interviewing.… They had adopted their gender-neutral name a few years ago, when they began to consciously identify as nonbinary—that is, neither male nor female. They were in their late 20s, working as an event planner, applying to graduate school.
— Amy Harmon

As such, Lovato should now be referred to with the gender neutral they/them as their pronouns.

For more resources, check out these explainers from The Trevor Project, and GLAAD.   

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.

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