Books That Go Beyond The Binary

Wednesday, July 14, 2021
Beyond the Binary Books about Gender Non-Conformity


A Day to Celebrate Non-Binary People

First celebrated in 2012, International Non-Binary People’s Day is an opportunity to recognize and celebrate those who do not identify exclusively as male or female (masculine or feminine). July 14 was chosen for the commemoration because it falls precisely between International Women’s Day (in March) and International Men’s Day (in November).

In A World of Boxes

What many of us think about gender and how to express gender is determined, in large part, by the society in which we live. There are many “gender systems” – social structures by which the number of genders and the associated gender roles are established and reinforced. In a “binary” system, gender and biological sex are considered indistinguishable. As a result, there are often expectations for how you should behave, look, think, or dress based on the sex you were assigned at birth. In contrast, polygender systems recognize 3 (or more) genders and allow more flexibility in terms of gender expression.

Why “Non-Binary”?

People whose gender is not male or female use many different terms to describe themselves, with “non-binary” being one of the most common. When someone calls themselves “non-binary,” what they generally mean is that their gender is a combination of, falls somewhere in between, or lies completely outside of the male/female binary.

Some of the identities which may fall under the non-binary umbrella (or used instead) include:

  • Gender Fluid: someone who does not identify themselves as having a “fixed” gender.
  • Gender Flux: an umbrella term in which your gender or perception of your gender’s intensity varies over time. Demigender, demiboy, demigirl, boyflux, girlflux, and other terms are sometimes used to indicate which gender you might feel a partial, but not a full, connection to.
  • Bigender: having two gender identities either concurrently or fluctuating (over time).
  • Third (or Other) Gender: being neither man nor woman but a separate, distinct gender.
  • Aporagender: the experience of having a specific gender that is different from male, female, or any combination of the two (but not an absence of gender).
  • Pangender: someone who experiences all genders.
  • Genderqueer: to transgress, transcend, or divert from mainstream distinctions of gender.  Can also be an umbrella term.
  • Agender, Nongender or Neutrois: someone who does not identify as having a particular gender or someone without gender. Genderless.
  • Androgynous or Androgyne: someone who is a blend of both binary genders (feminine/masculine) or neither one.


The non binary pride flag

Gender Identity Vs. Gender Expression

In order to understand non-binary gender identities better, it’s important to understand the difference between gender identity and gender expression.

Gender identity refers to a person’s clear sense of their own gender. It’s your innermost concept of self -- as man, woman, a blend of both, something distinctly different or none of the above. Put simply: It’s about you perceive yourself and what you call yourself. This may be incongruent with your physical characteristics or how others see you.

Gender expression is how you express your identity. You may “present” yourself to the world as masculine, feminine, androgynous, or in any other way. This can also change over time or by circumstance. A person’s gender identity and expression are not the same as their sexuality. 

There are many reasons why you may not be able to express your gender identity in visible ways. Expression is a personal choice based on many things, personal safety being one of the most important. In the book All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto, prominent journalist and LGBTQ+ activist George M. Johnson shares personal essays that explore gender identity and toxic masculinity and what all of that means for someone who’s queer and Black.

Other Terms to Know

  • Within the LGBTQ+ community, the word “enby” (a phonetic pronunciation of NB) refers to a non-binary person and is often substituted for the words “boy” or “girl.”
  • The term cisgender refers to a gender identity that matches social expectations of the sex a person was assigned at birth (e.g., a person assigned female at birth, who identifies as a girl/woman). Even cisgender people sometimes struggle with or out-right reject "traditional" gender roles.
  • Gender non-conformity or gender variance describes those individuals whose gender identity or gender expression does not conform to or align with society’s expectations. One does not need to be non-binary or transgender to be considered gender non-conforming. Words like tomboy, sissy, butch, effeminate, etc. are sometimes embraced or reclaimed by people like Jacob Tobia (see the "Representation" section below). However, these words are also sometimes used as slurs and should not be "applied" to people without their consent.
  • Transgender is a term to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Most transgender individuals are not non-binary. Trans women (or “trans femme” individuals) are women. Trans men (or “trans masc”) are men. However, some non-binary folks do identity as transgender. While both can serve as “umbrella” terms, they are not interchangeable.
  • Someone who is intersex was born with a combination of male and female biological traits (such as reproductive organs, hormonal and/or chromosomal patterns, etc.). Intersex is not a gender identity.

These labels exist for people to understand who they are and for people to be able to tell their story.

Are You a Parent?

For an age-appropriate overview of gender identity (definitions, explanations, pronouns, and tips for parents), check out What's Gender Identity by Katie Kawa on Hoopla or the middle grades/young adult title Gender Identity by Maria Cook. There are also several picture books in our Non-Binary Booklist for Youth (below). Children's media has become a lot more inclusive in the last several years. The Cartoon Network show Steven Universe is often praised for its diversity and LGBTQ+ representation and has won many awards in children's entertainment. Among other things, it features a race of non-binary (or genderless) alien "gems" as well as several human and half-human characters who identify (canonically) as non-binary. The show's creator, Rebecca Sugar, is non-binary and uses both she/her and they/them pronouns.


Being visible and telling your story as a non-binary person is incredibly important. Some people arrive at a sense of self and declare their gender identity early in life. Others come to this understanding later, sometimes gradually. This can often cause confusion, especially if that person had previously adhered to society's gender "norms." Having non-binary and trans authors, artists, musicians, and actors to look up to who embody that journey can be incredibly helpful. These gender non-conforming "role models" not only show people that it's OK to express their gender in a way that feels natural but they also normalize things like the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

Some examples of public figures who have given non-binary people, their allies, and the media the language to express and communicate their gender identity and expression include:

  • In 2019, performing artist Sam Smith came out as non-binary/genderqueer and started using they/them pronouns. “I’m not male or female, I think I flow somewhere in between,” Smith said in an interview with Jameela Jamil.
  • Singer/songwriter and former Disney Channel star Demi Lovato recently told their fans on Twitter, “I am proud to let you know that I identify as non-binary and will officially be changing my pronouns to they/them moving forward.” They went on to say that using they/them pronouns “best represents the fluidity I feel in my gender expression.”
  • Actor Ruby Rose, who portrayed Batwoman in the first season of the CW series, identifies as genderfluid. She told Chris Godfrey of The Guardian in 2021: "For a long time, I thought there was something a bit wrong with me, or that I wasn’t the gender I was meant to be... It took years, but eventually, I came to a place where I went: ‘OK, I think I’m just very androgynous and very in tune with the masculine energy.’” 

Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story by actor, writer, producer and author Jacob Tobia (they/them) is a bestselling memoir that aims to “help others embrace the full complexity of their gender.” Jacob made their acting debut as the non-binary character Double Trouble in Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Coincidentally, the cartoonist and showrunner for SPOP, Noelle Stevenson, has written about being transgender in works such as The Fire Never Goes Out. Noelle also frequently discusses transitioning and gender-affirming surgery on their Twitter account. Noelle is transgender non-binary and uses any/all personal pronouns.

For more great examples of representation, check out these books (in the accordion below) with non-binary and trans authors and characters. For parents, there are many age-appropriate books in these list with tips to help facilitate discussions about gender. Several of the books deal with clothing, toys, and other things to which our society assigns a gender. Boys can wear pink (and dresses), too!

There's something in the Library's catalog for everyone and there's a lot a great books to be found in these booklists including some coming of age stories, love stories, at least one sci-fi story and a few non-fiction titles.

Books about Gender Non-Conformity

#Historical Perspective

Within many indigenous and other non-Western cultures, the concept of a third gender or gender-fluid identities has been recognized and honored for centuries. In some cultures these individuals were revered as healers and spiritual leaders. Rather than stigmatized, their identities were seen as a normal variance in human gender. Examples include but are not limited to: Two Spirit people (Native America), Fa’afine (Samoa), Mahu (Hawaii), or Hijra (South Asia). Independent Lens (PBS) put together this helpful and interactive map of "Gender Diverse Cultures" around the world, listing many more. Important to note: these individuals may or may not identify as non-binary or transgender, preferring their own terminology.

Unfortunately, some of these long-established traditions were often disrupted by Western/European colonization. To learn more about “colonial misunderstandings of Indigenous people,” check out this collection of humorous (yet powerful) two-spirit plays entitled Two-Spirit Acts by Waawaate Fobister on Hoopla. 

There's also been a long history of LGBTQ+ activism here in the United States, often involving gender non-conforming, trans, and non-binary individuals like Stormie DeLarverie, Marsha P. Johnson, and Syliva Rivera who participated in the Stonewall Uprising. For more history and resources, check out our LGBTQ+ Pride Month blog.

#Asking For and Respecting Pronouns

Many non-binary people use “they” while others use “he” or “she.” Still others use neo pronouns like ze/hir/hirs, any/all personal pronouns, or no pronouns at all. If you aren’t sure of what pronouns to use, then use “they,” “them,” “their” by default. The best thing to do: Ask. If you make this a universal practice -- rather than doing so only with people have an ambiguous gender presentation – then no one will feel singled out and it will start to feel a lot less awkward asking.

If you're struggling, check out How to They/Them: A Visual Guide to Nonbinary Pronouns and the World of Gender Fluidity by Stuart Getty or What’s Your Pronoun? By Dennis E. Baron. Change is hard but practice is key.

#Tips for Parents, Partners, Friends, Coworkers, and other Allies

Ways allies can support the non-binary folks in their life include:

  1. Ask for and use the correct pronouns.
  2. Don’t assume identity based on what you see.
  3. Use the name a person asks you to use. Don’t ask for their old name (or “dead name”).
  4. Refrain from gendered titles/honorifics like Ma’am, Miss and Sir. If a title like Mr., Mrs., or Ms. must be used, offer alternatives such as Mx. (pronounced ‘mix’ or ‘mux’).
  5. Address groups using inclusive alternatives such as ‘folks’, ‘pals’ or ‘everyone.’
  6. Use words that define the relationship instead of the gender such as ‘partner’ or ‘siblings.’
  7. Ask what you need to know not what you want to know.
  8. Advocate for non-binary and trans-friendly policies.

This list was adapted from “10 ways to step up as an ally to non-binary people” by Stonewall UK staff and “Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive” by staff at the National Center for Transgender Equality.

If you have just started to learn about non-binary people, it might be hard to know how to support them. If above list seems a bit daunting, there’s a really simple way to be inclusive and a great ally: share your personal pronouns. Be it on your profile page, your email signature, your nametag when you’re networking, or when you’re taking part in a conference and meeting someone new... Those kinds of considerations from cisgender people create an inclusive atmosphere and give non-binary folks an opportunity to mention their pronouns as well.

Happy Non-Binary People's Day! 

Jeremy Yates

Jeremy Yates Jacksonville Public Library

Jeremy Yates (he/they) is a maker, visual storyteller, D&D player and lifelong Disney fan. He is also the newest addition to the Jacksonville Public Library's Marketing Department. When not at work, he enjoys spending time in a galaxy far, far away through Star Wars audiobooks, movies and TV shows. Or you’ll find him binge-watching other fantasy and sci-fi shows, playing Pokémon Go or just spending quality time with his equally-geeky partner Andrew and their extremely food-motivated Border Collie, Watson.

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