Let’s be real — the vast majority of dating advice is aggressively cisheteronormative. From popular magazines and dating advice books to talk shows and Bachelor Nation, we have a veritable dearth of suggestions on how cishet white able-bodied upper middle class folks can date each other within cishet, patriarchal structures. Fighting over the bill only to “let” the man pay, dressing in certain levels of revealing or put-togetherness for a certain date, when to engage in sex, when to say I love you, how to play “games,” the godforsaken “negging” — the scripts go as far as to label performing oral sex on a person with a vagina as “weak” or “lame,” while oral sex on a person with a penis can be considered “expected.” All of that is prescriptive, toxic nonsense.
Our humanity cannot be boiled down to a binary. There is a spectrum of gender, as well as a spectrum of sexuality, and there is also a full spectrum of personhood, needs, wants, desires, and abilities! Intersecting patriarchal constructs of gender, sexuality, race, ability, and beyond dictate what we’re supposed to want, and when.
Our media and societal lexicon is full of stereotypes and misconceptions like: young straight women should want to be married and have children, lesbians settle down quickly or never, young men should want to stay single and promiscuous, and asexual folks are erased. It’s beyond time to recognize that those constructions are based on prejudice, stereotype, and patriarchal anxiety.
Your dating life does not need to conform to any standard to be valid. You can and should have a dating life that makes sense for you. As long as there is safety, sensitivity, and consent for everyone involved, go for it! Now, I’ve already talked about sex outside the binary, so check that out here if you’re into sex. But now, I want to take a step back and give some advice about dating outside the binary.
Note: of course, this isn’t the be-all end-all of dating, this is just some advice from a nonbinary young person who’s lived and is living it! But hey, Cosmo doesn’t have all the answers and neither do I. And hopefully my advice comes a little closer to your truth as a nonbinary person.
And if you’re looking for reassurance that your nonbinary and/or gender-nonconforming self is absolutely valid and deserving of whatever kind of safe, consensual loving you seek — this is it.
First: put yourself first.
It begins here. You’ve heard it before: “Please secure your own safety mask before helping others.” When you are nonbinary, though there are some societal exceptions, for the most part, your very existence is anarchic. You prove the fallibility of the construct of the gender binary by living and loving authentically. That is pretty badass, however you choose to live it.
However, it can also be dangerous — nonbinary folks are often targets of violence and bigotry, and that matters in all aspects of life, but it also matters when you’re trying to have a healthy, happy dating life. So being nonbinary can also be achingly lonely.
As much as I can scoff at the constructs of binary structure we don’t fit in, they’ve lasted because they provide scripts for us to fall into, and when we do, it can feel validating. To look awesome in a skirt, to “score” with a “hot girl” — those can be mentally validating, because you’re “succeeding” at a game — albeit one that none of us really opted to play. So when we opt out, in whatever way, it can be harder to define yourself, to define a good night or a good date.
But you know what? That can be really, really exciting. When you feel that tension, when you feel like you’re only making a move in the dating world because you’re “supposed to,” take a step back. Remind yourself of the brave and excellent individual you are. Remember that your gender is valid, and you are not mandated to conform to a binary social structure when you are seeking love as a nonbinary person.
Ask yourself what you’re looking for.
A one night thing? An ongoing fling? A life partner? An open relationship? Multiple life partners? A polyamorous relationship? Are you just beginning to explore your identity and your dating life as a nonbinary individual, or has that been clear for ages, and you know what you want? This is solid advice for anyone dating, but it’s worth coming back to. Plenty of people in queer communities have happy, healthy open or poly relationships, but even though your gender might be open, your relationship goals may not be!
If everyone in your community is dating casually — or in committed relationships — remember that your dating life doesn’t have to look like theirs, Hollywoods’, or anyone else. You do you.
Allow it to change.
Your gender might be fixed and sure, and you may have always known it or worked hard to come to that truth. Your gender might shift and fluctuate throughout your lifetime, and/or so might your understanding of self and gender. What you want can change too. That doesn’t make your new needs and wants any less valid — and it doesn’t invalidate how you used to feel.
Safety as a prerequisite, safety as a dealbreaker.
Okay, you’re nonbinary and you’re reading this, so you probably already carry this truth wherever you go. Let me just let you hear it from another person. We live in this reality. I hope that we can get to a point where saftey won’t have to be not only a consideration, but a governing factor. I will fight and work to get us there. But for now, as I’d said, it’s dangerous to exist as we do. The fact that we can thrive outside of a binary that so many cisfolks cling to — that means they can perceive us as a threat to them, when all we are is a celebration of our individual selves.
So when you’re dating, how other people perceive you is as much an issue of safety as it is of identity and validity.
Here’s the thing — how you navigate dating depends on my second point, what you’re looking for. Some nonbinary and/or GNC folk choose to pass or perform as a single gender if they’re looking for something casual. Some cishet folks have reacted with outrage and violence in response to this, which is all the more reason I’m going to tell you — do what keeps you safe. And if all you want out of someone is a fling, if you don’t want them to know you any better and they’re on the same page about the fling thing — you don’t owe them anything. They don’t need to know something as personal as your gender identity. That is yours. You choose who you share it with. You’re not “deceiving” anyone, you’re keeping yourself safe — and more often than not, they’re the ones making assumptions about you they shouldn’t have made in the first place anyway.
However, if you’re looking for something more serious or long-lasting, you deserve to be with someone who knows, supports, and loves your nonbinary gender identity. You should be able to approach your partner and tell them who you are and who you are not, and all the truths and preferences that that entails. They should be willing and ready to listen, learn, and support you, to provide the love that you as a nonbinary person need and desire. Before you bring it up, ask yourself honestly if you feel safe coming out to them. Again, you have to put yourself first. If there is a risk of violence, walk away. If they respond with disgust or resistance, if they try to persuade you that your identity is invalid or if they take it as a personal insult, you have to weigh your options. Is this person willing to learn? Is it worth your time and emotional labor to persuade them that you know yourself? If not, walk away.
Writer & activist Son of Baldwin emphasizes: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
That’s not to say you should immediately dump a partner who doesn’t know what your gender means! Not everyone knows what it means to be nonbinary, gender nonconforming, demigender, agender, gender fluid, etc. — and of course, no one knows exactly how you identify until you share it. Sometimes, it is worth explaining to a loved one. They might be confused or unsure at first. It can get a little messy, for example, if you’re dating a lesbian who has only been with cis women, and you come to realize you identify as genderfluid, as a demiguy, or gender non-conforming. However, if both of you are willing, and if you feel safe and comfortable with that person learning you and your gender, you can lean into that messiness!
You exist outside of the constructed confines of a binary — so does your love.
You can lean into your truths. You can create a love that best suits you. Throw the gender roles out the window — or pluck seeds from them and plant them where you choose. Just make sure you are the one who’s choosing — that you’re not doing anything that doesn’t fit you. From who is the little spoon to who pays when, to who carries the child and who is the disciplinarian, to who picks the dinner place and who picks what to watch that night — throw the scripts and expectations out the window. Your love is between you and your partner(s), be they your boyfriend, girlfriend, datemate, primary, secondary. Write your own love story.
…just remember you are a co-author!
Check in with your partner(s). Communicate. Set boundaries if need be, and check in to re-evaluate if they still make sense. Is this working for everyone involved? You are nonbinary. If they aren’t, your love still can be! But make sure your needs, wants, and desires align.
Don’t be afraid to let go.
This is probably advice in every dating guide ever, at least I hope so. But it can mean something different for NB folx like us. When you exist outside of something as encompassing as the cishet structure, finding a partner who sees you — who understands you, who wants to know you and love you and be with you — can be all the more precious and powerful. True love, trust, and connection is rare, and it can be all the more so for us. But even when you’ve found someone who loves all of you, every nonbinary bit of you…that relationship, whatever it looks like, still might not last forever. I know it’s painful.
But as bright and badass and genderfucked as we might be, we still do have some of the same damn issues cishet folks have on top of all the oppression. They may not want kids, while you do. They may want to settle down, when you’re not ready. They may want an open relationship, and you want one with just them. Sex might be important to them, and the kind of sex they want to have is undesirable, less desirable, or not possible for you.
It’s horribly hard for anyone, but it can have another dimension of difficulty for us, as nonbinary folx, to realize that a love that makes sense in some ways isn’t going to last. Because love outside the binary often doesn’t just happen. It’s a triumph in the face of tragedy. It’s a resistance to the standard. Even when it almost looks like cishet love, it can be a hard-won fight, every day, just to walk down the street with your partner and know your love is valid.
But just because it’s valid doesn’t mean it’ll last forever. And just because it doesn’t last forever doesn’t mean it wasn’t valid!
It can feel all the more heartbreaking for a relationship to end when you had to fight so hard to find it. But people change, and so do wants and needs and relationships. You are just as worthy as a cishet person of walking away from something that doesn’t make sense anymore. Be true to yourself. You are at once a nonbinary person and a person who is nonbinary among almost infinite other traits. You deserve a dating life and love that makes sense for all of you.
And with that said, allow me one last bit of advice:
More Radical Reads: Where Do I Fit In? On Being Nonbinary and Confused
Don’t be afraid to hold on.
If you’ve found something that works for you and your partner(s), hold onto it! Work for it, fight for it, even and especially if it looks like nothing you were ever told you could want. A poly family. A series of BDSM relationships. An open lesbian marriage. A committed marriage that may “pass” for straight but one or more parties is nonbinary/GNC. Or just lots and lots of glorious safe queer dating! Let yourself date and love and be. Create yourself and your own love. Learn to love your incredible nonbinary self in whatever way best suits you, and date people who fit into that love and build it up.
[Feature Image: A photo of a person with short dark wavy hair. They are wearing a pinstripe short sleeved shirt. Their face is in profile. Source: Marilyn Roxie]