The English language has always been pretty binary, right? Everything is either male or female, pink or blue, black or white, apples or oranges… you get the idea. There’s a huge divide between “she” and “he” and sometimes, it can feel as like there is almost no wiggle room for any kind of gender spectrum in that sizable gap.
So, where does that leave non-binary people, people who are agender, and those who are genderfluid? One solution different folx have used is to repurpose those same binary words to fit their own narrative. They’re using those same words that have been used to force them into a box, to break it open.
I asked five different non-binary people to share with us how they’re reclaiming binary words, and using the same words that have been used to force them into a box, to break the binary open.
To some, the word “gay” might be one of the most binary words of all time, but that has become the perfect descriptor for Leighton Vic’s sexuality. The 26-year-old is non-binary, but is attracted to masculine individuals. “The masculinity in me is attracted to the masculinity in others.”
Saying they’re gay does have its pros and cons when it comes to certain aspects of life, though. Leighton says they don’t pass as male and that means they aren’t welcome in [most] gay male spaces. It doesn’t help that not passing and saying they’re gay could easily have people thinking they’re a lesbian, however — saying they’re gay has at times, helped them avoid situations where there could be confusion about attraction. It’s easy to weed out potential partners when you can ask if someone is attracted to non-binary people with a masculine energy, because you’re also attracted to “masculine energy.”
When 35-year-old Phoenix Robinson was growing up and discovering their identity, they were labeled as an “AG” or “aggressive” lesbian because of their appearance. This term isn’t so popular now, but it described lesbians (usually lesbian’s of color) who dressed in a particularly masculine way (think urban: baggy jeans, timbs, du rags, white t-shirts or any rapper from the 90s to early 2000s) and have more traditionally masculine mannerisms. However, they don’t identify as being male, they just prefer a more masculine look.
Saying they were “aggressive” in any way didn’t quite sit right with Phoenix and their cool-toned personality. The word “stud” was introduced to them in 2000 and they felt the word had a more laid-back feel. It gave them the label of being gay without the harsh connotation of aggressive. It was the Lite® version of the word.
Daddi has a more gentlemanly, nurturing and caring feel to it, so Phoenix gravitates towards. Even the “I” at the end helps give it more of a softer, more ambiguous vibe. “Aggressive” made them think of people who were controlling and “putting their partners in their place. That wasn’t the type of person I was or am.” These two words act as the complete opposite. Even though Phoenix is a non-binary pansexual, they have used these words to convey how they want to be viewed even though others will see them as a lesbian.
Both “daddi” and “miss” make Phoenix feel important “like I’m in charge and I’m handling my shit.” But there’s a little bit of a difference with the word “miss.” Even something as simple as walking into a store and being greeted by a salesperson with “Hi, Miss. Let me know if I can help you today,” makes them feel noticed. It makes them feel as though they’re a person, a person in this world who matters and has a say.
Regardless of the word, Phoenix wants whatever term people use to match up to their presentation. They aren’t too crazy about being called miss when their look on that particular day has “fuck boi” written all over it.
This may be one of those words that has slightly more leeway than gay, to some. Traditionally, the word “bisexual” means attraction to “both” sexes, male and female. But with an expansion of the understandings of gender comes an expansion of words discussing more than one gender. Leslie, a grad student concentrating in English uses this word to help others understand being attracted to one gender while being non-binary.
Basically, Leslie makes the connection that if bi folx can be one gender, but attracted to more than one, then it’s totally possible that non-binary people can be multiple genders but only attracted to one. Since bisexuality has way more visibility than the transgender spectrum, they use that knowledge to their advantage to bring awareness to not only them but others in that spectrum.
Cute and Dapper Princess Zaddy
This is honestly the cutest thing I think I’ve heard in at least the past five years! Taro, who would rather me not use their actual name, is a 24-year-old living in Georgia. This phrase is their goal when it comes to their personal style and representation of self. They told me their femininity was repressed so much when they were younger they “didn’t have the vocabulary to describe how I felt [about my gender] outside of being [called] a ‘tomboy.’ And I guess, back then, I sought validation by throwing femininity out the window.”
Taro is learning to accept who they are and is making up for all those years of denying their feminine side. They are no longer so hard on themselves when they spend an hour and a half on their makeup. Pink, skirts, and dresses make them feel super cute, and they’re coming to terms with the idea that, “cuteness doesn’t negate masculinity.”
The “dapper” part of this #look for Taro is based in more of a time period than a clean, professional modern look. They want to bring you back to the era of vintage movies, bold, true red lipsticks and polka dots.
Taro really has been able to marry their masculine and feminine energies well. For them, this also translates into other typically gendered words like queen, betch, dude, bro, hoe, son, etc., not really making them feel misgendered.
If there’s anything to learn here, it’s that non-binary people have made space for themselves in a society that doesn’t cater to them. They are people in this world just like binary people. They go through phases of trying to understand themselves just like binary people do. However, binary people have the luxury of being able to go to their parents and say, “Hey, mom. I’m gay,” or “I’m a lesbian,” and they are easily understood. People know what these words mean. Imagine being a non-binary kid and telling your parents you’re “non-binary.” or “genderfluid,” only to be met with looks reminicint of that Nick Young meme?
Maybe language just needs more time to evolve and for a wide range of people to accept this evolution before non-binary people can feel comfortable using and creating words and phrases that other people will actually use. In the meantime, non-binary people certainly are paving the way for positive change with their unapologetic reclamation of binary words.