A Research Paper By Lyda Michopoulou, Transformational Coach, GREECE
Coaching Non-binary People
Most people in our societies identify as male or female, a man or a woman; but there have always been people around the globe in different eras that have claimed other identities regarding their gender identity and have put this binary under challenge. Alternative genders across the globe demonstrate examples of cross-cultural gender diversity. In several Native American societies, different gender systems have been documented, which include more than two options for gender identification. In India, ‘hijras’ are accepted as a third gender. In the First Nations ‘two-spirit’ is a non-binary gender category, and in Hawaii ‘mahuwahine’ is a culturally accepted gender form. Historically, we know of the English mollies (i.e molly was an eighteenth-century label associated with men attracted to other men), the Italian femminielli, the Albanian sworn virgins, the South American machi, the Thai kathoey, and the two Indonesian examples of the waria, and gender within Buginese society. Gender variance has been documented in other regions such as Brazil, the Philippines, Polynesia, and Thailand. Perceiving gender as a binary system is just a feature of some cultures and not a universal classification; it is culturally established within communities by socializing interactions in each one.
With this in mind, this research paper is focusing on how coaching can support non-binary people within the modern societies we live in. This paper is partially based on my lived-in experience as a non-binary person who expresses themselves as a woman. It also aligns with the coaching niche I have decided to pursue “personal and professional transformations with emphasis on gender identity and non-binary people”.
Non-binary People, Who Do We Refer To?
Non-binary sex educator and therapist Aida Manduley, MSW defines a non-binary person as “someone who does not identify as a man or a woman, or solely as one of those two genders.” Most of the time it’s used as “an umbrella term for other identities that fall outside the male/female binary and may be more specific,” they add.
In general, non-binary or genderqueer refers to people’s identity, rather than physicality at birth; but it does not exclude people who are intersex or have a diversity/disorder of sexual development who also identify in this way. Whatever their birth physicality, some non-binary people identify as a single fixed gender position other than male or female. Some have a fluid gender. Some have no gender. And some disagree with the very idea of gender.
The non-binary definition is very broad because being non-binary can mean different things to different people. To me, this means that I disagree and reject the concept of gender and the roles that are being associated with it. In the last 2 decades, I never felt people were wrong when calling me a woman however it felt like they were labeling me and assigning me roles I didn’t ask for and didn’t want. It was in the last 3 years that I learned about non-binary identity and it suddenly fit. The gender binary made me feel restrained and restricted and I don’t identify with it.
What People Get Wrong About Being Non-binary
“Looking Non-binary” Doesn’t Exist
The vast majority of people comprehend that you don’t need to wear dresses to be a cis woman or wear jeans to be a cis man. However, many individuals seem to accept you need to dress androgynously to be non-binary, making the presumption that I and other non-binary individuals who express ourselves as women should be women.
People need to stop gendering how others look like and/or present themselves. The fact that someone decides to wear pants, or dresses, or have an androgynous style doesn’t necessarily make them male or female or non-binary.
Non-binary people don’t look one specific way. They have all types of gender presentations similar to women and men.
Being Non-binary Doesn’t Mean That’s the Only Gender Identity Someone Has
Some people identify both as non-binary and as male or female or trans or something else. I choose to see my gender as a creature that exists not because of me or for me, rather, it exists through me. There is a gender identity commonly used by Native Americans to share their gender “two-spirits”. When talking about my gender identity, I sense two souls/two spirits within me who both identity as non-binary womxn and therefore we prefer the pronouns “they/them/their”.
Non-binary People Can Have a Variety of Pronouns
Some go by they/them, some go by he/him, some go by both, and some go by more than that. The only true way to know that is to ask.
In that direction, a few non-binary people won’t have problems with any pronouns, while some will have a strong preference for specific pronouns and will feel deeply unseen when it’s not honored.
Being Non-binary Doesn’t Mean Being Transgender or Anything Else People Tend to Assume
There’s confusion about being non-binary. Some align it with being transgender, which is to identify with a gender other than the one someone has been assigned at birth. Some non-binary people feel this definition applies to them, but there are a lot who don’t.
Being Non-binary Isn’t Just a Trend
Day by day people gets used to the idea of transgender people, especially because it’s easier to explain that there are people who feel more in sync with the opposite gender however, something that is either in the middle or far away from the gender spectrum is still difficult to comprehend for many. Still, some individuals dismiss being non-binary as a personality quirk instead of what it truly is; an authentic experience.
Not All Non-binary People Feel They Were “Born in the Wrong Body”
This tends to be true for transgender people as well as for some non-binary people, and even though it’s true for a few, others cannot relate to the “born in the wrong body” narrative as non-binary people. I don’t feel I was born in the wrong body; my non-binary identity reflects my disagreement with the gender system. For some people, there’s little to no distress and just an internal acknowledgment that their gender is different and/or more complex than men or women. (Aida Manduley, 2022)
Non-binary People Don’t Have to Prove Who They Are
When I first started sharing with friends and family that I am non-binary, I used to feel weird like I had to prove it somehow for others to believe me because nothing had changed from when I used to identify as a woman. I was dressing and acting the same.
It took me a while to realize that being non-binary isn’t about them, it’s about me. I don’t have to do something special or come out to or behave differently than I used to. My gender identity is mine and mine alone.
Unlearning These Assumptions Is Part of Being Nice to Each Other
The reason all of us need to strive to unlearn these assumptions, learn more about being non-binary and try to understand how others identify is because it makes us more supportive as friends, partners, and humans.
Coaching Non-binary People
When I ran a literature search for “non-binary people and coaching” or “how coaching can support non-binary people”, I ended up with zero results. I was confronted with the idea that there are no reliable sources for coaches who want to understand the nuances of being non-binary and how coaching can support non-binary people. With this research paper, I have the opportunity to create a path toward that direction. So, a coach may assist individuals who identify as non-binary people to navigate their situations by exploring the following aspects:
The Goal of the Coaching Session
Discovering what the client would like to walk away with from the session. In a lot of coaching sessions, the goal that the client will come in with might change during exploration. The coach might have a non-binary person as a client who might present with a desire to be accepted by friends, family, partners, colleagues, society in general, and going through the exploration the coach will need to support the client to understand the reasons behind this desire.
For example, a client comes in who may want to be able to ask close family and friends to use their correct pronouns and through exploration the coach may support the client to realize that what they were looking for was, to feel seen by said close family and friends. These elements when explored can lead to specific action points.
The client may hold underlying beliefs that prevent them from discovering who they are and fully accepting themselves, what do they want and what are they looking to discover. For example, a client comes in who may think that their lifestyle and way of living aren’t non-binary enough and therefore they cannot identify as non-binary. The coach may help them realize that being non-binary isn’t a trend, a label, or a quirk and support them in accepting who they are. The client doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. If they identify as non-binary, then they are right.
The decision to discover “why now”, “what’s happening within me?”, “what changed?”, and many other questions related to their non-binary identity sometimes hide answers and sometimes will bring more questions to the surface. The coach may explore these questions in a non-judgmental way and support the client to unearth emotions, beliefs, values, needs, wants. Moreover, the coach can support them to explore how they will feel when they have found the answers.
Client tends to judge themselves and might tend to blame themselves for not feeling that they belong within the binary system. With exploration, the coach can help the client understand that they are in control of selecting their gender identity, an identity they feel fits. The first step forward can be their acceptance of who they are and what their gender identity is.
Clients often have a strong judgment towards other people whom they might plan to inform about themselves and their identity. An example, a client may feel that their family member or their friend may be homophobic. The coach can support the client to release judgment toward others by helping them empathize and find their way forward. Many times, the judgment that people may hold towards non-binary people comes from fear of the unknown rather than hate. Inviting those people to get educated and/or giving them resources to be educated can help immensely.
Not identifying within the binary gender system is still taboo in many countries worldwide. When a client decides that they are ready to share who they are and what they identify with, with friends, family, partners, etc. the coach can support them by inviting them to gather videos, articles, posts, books, information on what it means to be non-binary, misconceptions around being non-binary, and inviting their client to share these with the ones they are planning to share their non-binary identity. In that way, the people who will be on the receiving end of the sharing will have resources to educate themselves. Furthermore, the coach can help the client to search for allies within their friends, family, colleagues who will support the client in moving forward.
Gratitude can play a key role because, in addition to any specific goals a client might come with, the coach is ultimately employed to support their clients to not only have a better life but to live the life they have. The coach can support their clients to adopt a deliberate focus and daily practice of gratitude that can increase their happiness and in parallel help them appreciate the happiness they already have and might not recognize.
Coaching Non-binary People’s Issues
Closing, even though a coach doesn’t need to be an expert in non-binary issues that a client may potentially bring to a coaching session, it helps immensely if the coach has taken the time to research and isn’t ignorant of it. When coaching non-binary people, this knowledge can be useful to the coach to support their clients reach their maximum potential.
Non-binary People Around the World and the Elan-Cane Case - JURIST - Commentary - Legal News & Commentary. Non-binary People Around the World and the Elan-Cane Case - JURIST - Commentary - Legal News & Commentary.
Richards, C., Pierre, W. and Barker, M. Genderqueer and Non-Binary Genders. Springer.
Condé Nast. 9 Things People Get Wrong About Being Non-Binary | Teen Vogue.
Module 8, Gratitude, Facilitating Growth by International Coach Academy (ICA)