These days it’s easy to select the non-binary (or any gender diverse) option on a dating app without really thinking about what it’s like to date someone who isn’t cisgender. Sure, you’re a person hanging out with another person – how different could it be?
Well, you would be surprised by some of the distinctions. If you’re straight and cis (let alone white and non-disabled), you may never have thought much about how you and your partners move through the world. How you perceive yourself and each other, plus how everyone else views you together.
Suddenly jumping into the world of non-binary dating will probably mean more self-awareness, communication, and challenges than you’re used to in your relationships. The good news is that all of this is very rewarding and will benefit your current and future relationships and friendships.
So, here are some important ways to reflect on your behaviour, plus conversations you can initiate when you give non-binary dating a try. Most of this advice applies to dating any gender-diverse person, be they trans+, genderfluid, bigender, agender, or genderqueer (like me). I’ve also asked some of my non-binary friends for their perspectives on this topic. I hope these suggestions and insights are helpful for your future dating adventures.
Content warning: the following article references genitals, sex and transphobic attitudes.
What not to ask on your first date
There’s one question you may think is an obvious way to show interest and gain insight on a first date with an enby (i.e. NB), but it’s actually challenging to answer. “Don’t ask “What’s it like being non-binary?” says my friend Harri, a writer based in Madrid. “It’s similar to being asked, “What’s it like being a woman? Or what’s it like being cis? Or even, what’s it like being German?” Think about how challenging it would be to answer questions like this yourself.
Similarly, don’t ask someone to disclose their biological sex. I often get asked this by cis men, and it feels like they’re checking what I have in my pants. If you’re that fixated on genitals, you probably shouldn’t be dating someone who is non-binary.
Remember that not everyone was assigned female at birth (AFAB) or male at birth (AMAB). Some people are intersex, an umbrella term for differences in sex traits or reproductive anatomy. While intersex folks make up a small portion of the population, they do exist and may not want to explain this to you on a first date in public.
Check-in with them before you go out in public
I’m lucky to have a fellow non-binary sibling, Iain, an entrepreneur, educator and bartender based in Brooklyn. When I asked them about dating, one key area came up. They recommended cis folks check in with their new enby partner to discuss navigating gender assumptions before going out in public. For example, how to handle a stranger using the wrong pronouns. “Many people will be drawing decisions based on physical presentation. It’s so great to know the person beside you is on your level or at least knows where you’re at,” says Iain.
One of the loveliest examples of this I’ve heard of was related to restaurant bookings. A friend of mine mentioned how a former partner would use this reservation call to make sure the waitstaff were aware of their date’s pronouns and ensure the restaurant didn’t use any terms like “ladies” or “guys” when serving them. It’s a simple thing to do but has an enormous impact on how your dinner goes.
They may use different language for their body
After suffering through a sex ed class in high school, where your teacher awkwardly pointed out names for different parts, you may think that everyone refers to their bodies using set terms. However, how we see and experience our bodies is highly personal, and we get to shape the language we use for it.
When you start dating someone who is non-binary, it’s crucial to think about any words you use for this person. Pronouns are obviously important, but that’s just the beginning. For example, before you get naked with someone for the first time and start using words you assume are ok, ask them. I love it when a new partner initiates this chat by saying, “Are there any words you aren’t comfortable with?”
As my friend Ara, a self-love and alignment coach based in Massachusetts, points out,
I would encourage people to make everything language-related be a conversation. Pet names, titles, words for body parts, compliments, etc.
Much of our language feels highly gendered, so checking in and re-checking which words feel good can go a long way in making a partner feel seen.
They may not have sex the same way you do
Newsflash: in general, most people probably don’t like sex the exact same way you do. Yet, in the cis straight world, the idea of what ‘sex’ constitutes tends to be limited to PIV (penis in vagina), perhaps served up with an entrée of oral sex. For cis gay and lesbian folks, their perception of sex is obviously different and often much broader than this. However, there can still be set expectations in the queer community about how sex should be, especially for gay men.
When you’re non-binary (an identity that falls under the trans+ umbrella), sex can often go ‘off script’ in a sense, which means you don’t want people making assumptions about how you will approach sex. As my friend Lxo, a research fellow from London poetically puts it,
Cis people know the sex they have is like a four-lane highway, straight is the gate, and there’s no traffic to manoeuvre.
Trans* sex is a bit more thorny and adventurous, a wild path that isn’t as easily walked on. So, it’s like constantly cutting grasses as you go along, but it’s wild and prickly.
For me, these assumptions often show up when I hook up with a cis man. They assume, because I have a vulva, that sex means PIV, and some express their disappointment when I talk to them about how pleasure for me doesn’t often include this. Their response always makes me wonder if they’ve had pretty much the same type of sex with all their previous lovers.
The good news is, conversing about sex can be very rewarding. “Each partner is unique,” observes Lxo, “but taking the time to talk about these things first and discussing it, even before and during sex, kink or play – and then after – can be so helpful and eliminate any trauma from being created.”
Am I still straight if I’m dating a non-binary person?
This thought blew one of my lover’s minds recently. We’d been seeing each other for a few months, and even though he was relatively thoughtful with his use of language for me, he often said that he “dates women.” When I pointed out that this didn’t include me, it made him stop for a second and wonder if dating a gender-diverse person meant he wasn’t straight.
If you’ve always seen yourself as heterosexual, then non-binary dating can make you ask big questions about how you identify – and that’s not a bad thing. Thinking about yourself and your sexuality is a great way to develop your self-awareness and work out what you actually desire, away from normative labels. But don’t stress about it too much. Nothing says that you can’t still see yourself as straight. But if you’re looking for a more inclusive identity, then pansexual is a common one.
All identities (including ‘heterosexual’, ‘man’, ‘woman’, etc.) are all social constructs, which is a fancy way of saying that our society has made them all up. It’s why our language and ideas around identity have evolved over time. So, we all get to identify however we like because none of these labels is innate.
That said, if you get into a relationship with someone non-binary, you should also be mindful of how your straight identity could make your partner feel. Saying that you only date men or women won’t include them and will suggest you see them as belonging to one of these categories. So, talk to them about how your identity feels for them and be open to discussing it in the future if their feelings change.
For me, I don’t mind if a partner says they are straight (their identity is their choice) as long as they always include non-binary folks when talking about who they date. Otherwise, I’ll understandably feel pretty invisible.
Reflect on the gendered way you unconsciously treat them
So, perhaps you’re a cis woman dating an enby who is AMAB. You put a lot of effort into getting their pronouns right, but, for example, when there’s a spider that needs dealing with, or there’s something heavy to lift, you immediately look to your partner because… well, surely they should be the one to do this, right? No, not necessarily.
It’s important to remember that how we gender people goes deeper than language. Becoming conscious of how you treat a person, be it how you defer to them or what you assume/expect from them, says a lot about how you see them. “What (other people) ask for in the way they interact with us is energy that aligns with our gender assigned at birth,” observes Harri.
But how do you unpack such profoundly ingrained behaviour, such as chivalry or expecting the masc person to pay for the first date? “Shift your own binary thinking and work to see a nonbinary person fully and not as a man or woman,” recommends Ara. “It sounds simple, but it can be hard to shift out of.”
How they identify and present may change over time
You may be surprised to find that the way you identify and present may change too. Dating a person who isn’t straight or cis has a habit of making you think about yourself in a new way. Who knows what you may discover, but either way, you shouldn’t be limited in how you express yourself. And neither should your partners.
If you are dating someone non-binary who currently presents in a masc or femme way that appeals to you, be mindful that this may change over time. It could happen in small ways (growing facial hair or painting their nails) or quite radically (taking hormones and/or having top surgery) – and you need to be supportive of this, just as you hope they would be for you.
It’s essential that you don’t police the gender presentation of any person you’re dating. If it makes you uncomfortable, then that’s work you must do on yourself, not them. Think about where this is coming from. For example, does it challenge how straight you feel? Do you want to be the only masc or femme person in your relationships? If so, why?
Above all, don’t make your partner do this work for you. You can talk to them about it, but I recommend waiting until you have sat with these feelings and tried to work through them yourself. That way, you can talk to them about why this has come up for you and how you are processing that within yourself. As Harri says,
Do not expect me to reassure you about what level of femmeness I will express.
“I like you, but I don’t see myself long-term with someone non-binary.”
Firstly, please don’t ever say this to someone. Even though it may be true, you don’t understand the impact that this sentence could have. It took me decades to accept that I am genderqueer because I thought no one would ever love me unless I were a cis woman. Thankfully, experience has now shown me that this is untrue.
If you find yourself thinking this way as you begin a new connection, then take some time and space to explore these feelings. Why wouldn’t you want a long-term relationship with someone who is non-binary? Why does this challenge your idea of a happy, healthy relationship? Does it make you fearful about the way others see you? Are you worried about not fitting into ‘the norm’?
Sit with these feelings. Do some reading about gender and sexuality. Listen to some podcasts. Talk to your cis friends about it but don’t ask other gender-diverse people. It could be triggering and pressure them to do emotional labour on your behalf.
If you still feel this way after some self-reflection and education, then own this within yourself. Don’t casually date non-binary people when you know there isn’t a potential to grow that connection. They aren’t a novelty or a fetish. Change the search settings on your dating apps. Be intentional about who you form connections with and leave all the hot enbys to the rest of us.
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