The Definitions and Dating Tips You Need to Know When You're Attracted to an Enby.
Got a crush on a nonbinary cutie but not sure what that means or what it says about you? About to send a flirty DM to an enby but not sure what a relationship with them would even look like? Read on, pal!
What does “nonbinary” mean?
“A transgender person is someone who doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth,” explains Riley J Dennis in her video What is a nonbinary gender? For example, if you were born with a penis and thus deemed ‘male’, but later realized you’re a girl/woman, you’d be a transgender woman. “Now let’s change one small detail to explain nonbinary genders,” she continues, “Let’s say you were born with a penis and assigned male at birth, but when you grew up, you didn’t identify with being a man or a woman. Neither identity felt quite right for you. That would make you a nonbinary person.”
The simplest definition of nonbinary is that it’s a gender existing outside of the two genders (women and men) that people are most familiar with. But nonbinary isn’t one specific gender: it’s a blanket term that covers infinite variation. This includes a number of named subcategories, such as agender (not identifying with having a gender at all), genderqueer, and genderfluid (varying or fluctuating in gender, sometimes feeling like a man, a woman, a combination of both, or none of the above.)
Nonbinary people aren’t a monolith. Gender is a highly individual experience, so while some of us might use the same terms and labels, our meanings/interpretations may vary. Similarly, the ways we express our identities are incredibly diverse. Just like there’s no universal way of presenting as a woman, there’s no standard enby “look” or self-expression. Some of us wear dresses, some of us use they/them pronouns, some of us struggle with gender dysphoria, some of us take hormones or undergo gender affirming surgeries. Many of us don’t.
Consider the diversity of expressions in Insider’s recent piece 12 Celebrities Who Don’t Identify as Either Male or Female.
Or in them’s This Is What Gender-Nonbinary People Look Like roundtable interview.
Or in Ash Hardell’s video It’s (NOT) Just a Phase – The Experiences of Nonbinary Folks 30-70 Years of Age.
What do the dozens of people featured have in common? Essentially... nothing! They’re all from different backgrounds. They all use different pronouns. Some of them are medically transitioning and some aren’t. Some of them present masculinely, some femininely, some androgynously, and some of them dash our notions of presentation to bits. Their definitions and feelings around their individual genders – and the terms and labels they use to describe it – are a literal rainbow of variation.
Wait, what? Enby? Pronouns? Dysphoria? Hormones? Surgeries!?
As a trans person, I spend a lot of time reassuring cisgender people (meaning folks who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth) that “all this trans stuff” isn’t confusing, threatening, or new. (Some of the terms are new, but the experiences are as old as humanity.) But whenever I use a word or mention a concept they’re not familiar or comfortable with, there’s always melodramatic, performative panic. “I just don’t get it!” “This stuff is weird!” “You can’t just make up new words!” Every cis person who does this to me thinks they’re some uniquely put-upon lamb, the dogs of whacky gender diversity biting at their heels. Relax! Open yourself to learning something.
A nonbinary person is sometimes called an enby (the phonetic pronunciation of “NB”) but this term isn’t used universally. And no, it’s not like like a D&D class – it’s an alternative to “man” or “woman.”
Pronouns are just one of many language markers we have relating to gender, and they don’t necessarily communicate someone’s gender identity. Some enbies use less common pronouns like they/them or ze/hir, some use she/her or he/him, and some of us are pronoun indifferent (meaning we’re fine with any respectfully used pronoun) or change pronouns depending on our presentation. It’s easy to use someone’s pronouns, and the Dictionary wants you to stop being obtuse about it.
When a nonbinary person “comes out” to some or all of the people in their life and begins to live openly as their gender, this is called social transition. Social transition can include changing their name and pronouns, dressing their authentic style, and prioritizing things that can help alleviate dysphoria like binding or altering their voice. Some nonbinary people come out and some do not, and some of us are only partially out. These are deeply personal choices that often come with comfort and safety concerns.
Gender dysphoria is experiencing profound discomfort around the gender you were assigned at birth. This can manifest in a number of ways. Two things that cause me a lot of dysphoria are my genitals (my junk doesn’t feel like the “right” configuration for me), and when people refer to me with feminizing terms without my consent (“hey ladies!” etc.) Not all transgender people experience dysphoria. Gender euphoria, on the other hand, is a feeling of joy around one’s gender identity being acknowledged/honored. Wearing vests or getting a strap-on blowjob are both sources of gender euphoria for me.
Some trans people undergo HRT (hormone replacement therapy) to suppress/block some hormones and induce others. HRT can influence physical characteristics like weight distribution, body hair, and genital shape or function. Although results vary widely, HRT can have a hugely positive impact on a trans person’s self-esteem and relationship with their body. Pro tip: like any medical details, it’s rude to pry about someone’s hormone journey. If and when it’s relevant and they’re ready, they’ll share.
Similarly, some trans people undergo one or more gender affirming surgeries, like facial feminization or metoidioplasty. “It is commonly assumed that nonbinary people don’t desire to medically transition,” writer and advocate Devin-Norelle tells them. “While this is true for many people, many of us do take steps to medically transition, including myself. My transition does not make me feel any more of a man, or any less of a woman. I continue to feel strongly as both some days, and as neither on other days.”
The most important thing to know is that none of a nonbinary person’s gender has anything to do with you. You have no say in who they are or how they present themselves. If any part of a nonbinary person’s identity or self-expression seems like “too much” or “too far,” it’s you that needs to change.
I’m attracted to a nonbinary person! Does that make me gay?
First of all, don’t panic! Being attracted to a nonbinary person doesn’t necessarily change your sexual identity. Sexuality can be flexible and fluid; your nonbinary partner (or potential partner) might be an outlier, or someone you’re attracted to despite them not being of a gender you’re typically drawn to. It happens! Just understand that nonbinary people aren’t just lite or spicy versions of the gender they were assigned at birth or the gender(s) you’re usually attracted to. They’re nonbinary.
Some enbies aren’t comfortable being an exception to your sexuality, and you’ll need to respect that boundary.
It might also be that your sexuality isn’t what you thought it was. That happens too! It’s okay to take your time deciding if and what you would like to label your sexuality now. You are still the same person – you just know something new about yourself.
Perhaps you’re bisexual or pansexual, meaning you’re attracted to multiple genders. (The definitions of these two labels are arguably interwoven and yet offer unique distinctions for the folks that use them.) There are terms like ceterosexual or skoliosexual for attraction to nonbinary people specifically, but their use is still debated within the community. I’m a fan of “queer” myself because – like “nonbinary” – it’s a blanket label that gives the fluctuating nuance of sexuality a name but not a standard definition. But any word you choose can do the same.
It is important that regardless of how you identify, you acknowledge and make space for your nonbinary partner’s identity. You don’t need to diminish or disregard their gender to make yourself more comfortable with your attraction. If you find yourself trying to associate them with a gender you’re more familiar with, you’re a) projecting a dehumanizing falsehood to fixate on as opposed to recognizing and being attracted to their actual personhood, and b) doing them serious harm. Acknowledge your transphobia and unlearn the impulse.
How can I flirt with / date a nonbinary person?
Straight cis people (particularly men) often don’t realize how heavily gendered society’s expectations of flirting and dating are. From who opens the door to who’s supposed to initiate a kiss, there’s a very binary framework that winds itself into how people conduct themselves and what they assume of their partner(s). Many cis straight people struggle with these standards, but it can be especially taxing for queer and/or trans people. We have to simultaneously reject and rewrite the script with every person we hit on.
When dating someone who is nonbinary, you need to be cognizant of the pitfalls of these dating scripts. (You should be no matter who you’re dating, but these expectations can be particularly frustrating and harmful to nonbinary people.) While your date might be okay with you pulling out their chair or waiting for them to text first, they also might not. Why? Because these behaviors have gendered baggage and can cause dysphoria.
I asked nonbinary folks on Twitter for some common missteps cis people have made when dating them. Here’s a few tips culled from their feedback as well as my own experiences:
Do educate yourself on trans and nonbinary 101. Assuming you sought this piece out on your own and you weren’t sent here by a justifiably irritated date, you probably already realize it’s rude (and a huge turn off) to expect a crash course on gender over dinner.
Do consider the ways you’re going to rewrite the “script” together, and be willing to talk about it. All relationships require communication and compromise to find their footing, but many folks use gender roles as a cheat sheet. When dating someone whose very existence is a silent rejection of those roles, you’re going to have to do some exploration (and perhaps soul-searching) to determine everyone’s needs and boundaries. In what ways will you fit together and grow.
Don’t expect gendered performances or labor. “I present pretty femme, so expecting all the feminine things in a relationship from me (emotional labor, cooking, cleaning, etc) always upsets me,” @twofishie writes. Similarly, don’t leave paying for dinner or squashing spiders up to masculine-presenting enbies.
Do pay attention to what affirms them. This will take a mix of observation and open communication. Do they like to be referred to with feminizing petnames like “baby” and “doll”? Do they enjoy taking the lead when things get physical? Do they prefer to be the one being swept off their feet – literally? What do they want to be titled: boyfriend, girlfriend, enbyfriend, enboifriend/engirlfriend, datemate, partner?
Don’t make everything about their gender. Asking invasive questions, trying to instigate debates, emphasizing how “weird” or “exciting” this all is, and sharing every thought you’ve ever had about gender aren’t flirtation techniques, pal. Nonbinary folks aren’t your gender sounding board. Don’t challenge them on their gender either. Like “referring to me as "girlfriend" or insisting they see me as a woman because of my "gender presentation" with regards to their sexuality,” writes @misfitsmavis of crappy dates.
But above all else, if you want to flirt with and/or date a nonbinary person, you need to be pres do nnt with that person. Nonbinary people are human individuals. We’re as unique as anyone else. I can’t honestly tell you what your nonbinary (potential) partner will want or need from a flirtationship/relationship – but they can. Find out from them!
How do nonbinary have sex?
However they want to! Some of us even use toys ;)
Much of what people collectively consider “normal” (or at least common) when it comes to desire, sex, and sexual satisfaction, is socially mandated according to gender. To understand what I mean, consider Steak and a Blowjob Day, the “satirical” holiday created to be Valentine's Day's opposite: a day for (cis) men to get what they want. If men aren’t allowed to like cards or candy, there’s no hope for nipple stimulation or being on the receiving end of anal sex (both of which are awesome.)
Boundaries are healthy and important! But the parameters of sexual possibility are often significantly (and – arguably – tragically) narrowed by people’s gendered expectations. These expectations drastically limit what many folks are even willing to consider, let alone partake in.
So what about sex outside the binary? How do you have sex without a social script telling you what you’re supposed to want?
Well, you don’t use language that will alienate your partner, such as gendered petnames or terms for their body parts that they don’t use for themselves. You don’t fetishize their gender, presentation, or sexual preferences as the “best of both worlds.” You don’t pressure or cajole them into performing acts or roles that cause discomfort or dysphoria.
You don’t bring transphobia to bed with a nonbinary person.
You decide what you want out of intimacy, and you communicate your desires with your partner to find mutually satisfying compromises. Just like with anyone else.