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When did non-binary become a thing?

The concept of non-binary gender identities is not new, but has become more widely known and accepted in recent years. Non-binary is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity falls outside the traditional binary of male and female. People who identify as non-binary may feel that they are both male and female, neither male nor female, or somewhere in between. While non-binary identities have likely existed for as long as human civilization, the term “non-binary” itself only began to gain popularity and recognition in the 2010s.

When did the concept of non-binary genders first emerge?

The idea that gender is not limited to just male and female categories has existed in various cultures throughout human history. Many indigenous cultures acknowledged third, fourth, and even fifth genders. For example:

  • The Navajo concept of nádleehí recognizes individuals with a mixture of feminine and masculine spirit.
  • In precolonial Hawaiian culture, mahu refers to those who embody both male and female spirit.
  • The Samoan fa’afafine are individuals assigned male at birth who exhibit feminine behaviors.
  • The Ojibwe recognize four genders: men, women, two-spirits (people embodying masculine and feminine spirits), and a third gender of people who are intersex or unable to reproduce.

Many cultures around the world have long acknowledged fluid, hybrid, or non-binary gender roles. It’s part of the human experience. However, Western imperialism and colonization suppressed many of these traditions, imposing a rigid male/female binary system.

Early non-binary identities in medical literature

The concept of identities outside the gender binary were also recognized in early medical literature, though often in problematic and pathologizing ways. Key examples include:

  • 1869: German sexologist Carl Westphal wrote about “contrary sexual feeling” in women, referring to inversion of gendered behavior and attraction.
  • 1910: Magnus Hirschfeld coined the German term dritte Geschlecht (“third sex”) to describe those who were both genders or neither.
  • 1923: Endocrinologist Eugene Steinach theorized that gender nonconformity was biologically determined, based on animal experiments manipulating hormones.
  • 1930s-1950s: Terms like “psychosexual hermaphroditism” and “intersexed gender” were used in early psychological literature to describe non-binary gender identities.

However, these early medical works framed such identities as disorders to be cured, rather than valid identities. This pathologizing view dominated psychiatry and medicine for much of the 20th century.

Non-binary identities enter the mainstream conversation

In the 1950s and 1960s, the gay rights and feminist movements created more space for public discourse around gender and sexuality. Key developments included:

  • The 1959 publication of Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography brought transgender experiences into the mainstream conversation.
  • Feminist writer Kate Millett’s 1970 book Sexual Politics criticized the male/female binary and advocated for gender abolition.
  • In the 1970s, some radical lesbian feminists adopted terms like androgyny, butch and femme to describe gender expressions, though not necessarily distinct gender identities.

However, the view of discrete male and female categories still dominated, even among progressives. The mainstream understanding of gender was shifting, but terms like non-binary had yet to emerge.

Non-binary terminology takes shape

In the 1990s and 2000s, our modern terms and definitions for non-binary identities began to take shape:

  • 1990: Psychologist Dana Zzyym became the first openly non-binary person to apply for a passport in the US.
  • 1997: Writer Jennifer Diana Baumgardner profiled Zzyym’s story for the first time in national media in Ms. Magazine.
  • Mid-2000s: Terms like genderqueer, agender, bigender and neutrois emerged online in gender-nonconforming communities, mostly on blogging sites LiveJournal and Tumblr.
  • 2010: LGBTQ student organization on the University of Vermont campus hosts one of the first events on “Being non-binary.”
  • 2011: A National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that one third of transgender respondents identified as non-binary.
  • 2012: Genderqueer electronic musician Rye Rye released the song “Identity” advocating for agender and genderless identity.

Activists, artists and writers exploring the politics of gender-nonconformity progressively shaped our current terminology. While ideas of third/hybrid/no gender are ancient, explicit labels like non-binary crystallized very recently.

Recognition of non-binary genders increases

In the mid-2010s, use of the term non-binary grew significantly and identities beyond the male/female binary gained mainstream recognition:

Year Milestone
2014 – Facebook adds custom gender options including non-binary
2015 – Indian passports begin offering third gender option
2016 – DC metro adds non-binary gender option to fare cards
2017 – Oregon court rules non-binary as legal gender
2018 – Vermont recognizes non-binary as a legal gender
2019 – Merriam-Webster dictionary adds non-binary as a definition
2020 – Several states begin offering X gender markers on IDs
2021 – Biden administration announces plans to add X gender marker to federal documents

Legal forms, social media networks and other institutions have moved relatively quickly to accommodate non-binary identities, following decades of LGTBQ+ advocacy. While non-binary identities are still gaining recognition, it is clearly an idea whose time has come.

Current understanding and acceptance of non-binary identities

Research indicates more people, particularly youth, now understand and embrace the concept of non-binary gender:

  • A 2021 Gallop poll found that 20% of Gen Z Americans identify as LGBTQ+, with many specifying non-binary/genderqueer identities.
  • In a 2022 study, over 25% of US college students reported knowing someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns like they/them, signaling acceptance of non-binary people.
  • Studies show that using non-binary pronouns has a positive impact, reducing depression and suicide risk among trans and non-binary youth.

Mainstream media represents more non-binary characters as well, with popular examples on TV shows like Billions and Star Trek: Discovery. While misconceptions still persist, recognition of non-binary experiences has entered the collective consciousness.

Challenges still facing non-binary acceptance

Despite recent gains, prejudice and misinformation about non-binary identities still exists:

  • Some states restrict changing gender markers or using non-binary pronouns on legal documents.
  • Non-binary people face higher rates of family rejection, bullying and mental illness.
  • Gender-affirming healthcare for non-binary individuals is often denied by insurance providers.
  • Many languages still lack grammatical structures to represent non-binary pronouns.
  • Some critics conflate non-binary identities with biological sex or dismiss them as “trendy.”

Full acceptance of gender diversity will be an ongoing process. But human rights advocates emphasize that each person’s gender experience is real and unique. Using inclusive language and respecting individual identities is key.


While gender identities outside the male/female binary have always existed worldwide, the contemporary term “non-binary” only came into use very recently. In the 2010s, “non-binary” emerged as an umbrella label encompassing many specific identities under the transgender umbrella. Driven by LGBTQ+ advocates, internet communities, and youth culture, recognition and acceptance of non-binary genders has now gone mainstream. However, work remains to achieve full inclusion, dignity and legal rights for non-binary people everywhere. Gender diversity is a natural part of human expression – and non-binary identities are here to stay.