Non prefix identity - hero CREDIT Alonso Reyes Unsplash

Does ‘non-binary’ and ‘non-monogamy’ sound negative?

I’ve increasingly found myself using the term non-binary lately in a casual way. Less in conversations about how I identify but more as a shorthand in passing moments. For example, when my teacher asks me in Spanish class for my perspective “as a woman.” I could take up space and educate everyone on what it means to be genderqueer, but I can’t be bothered. It’s easier to say that I’m non-binary. I’m thankful most people get what that means.

Another ‘non-’ identity often comes up for me, too, as I write a lot about non-monogamy. It’s an umbrella term that encompasses a whole host of incredible relationship structures and agreements around sex and love. Not everyone sees their approach to relationships as an identity, but many do. While I identify as polyamorous, which prominently sits underneath its expanse, I have toyed with the idea of simply being non-monogamous. After all, committed romantic relationships are like rare gems for me these days. But, still, I can’t quite bring myself to be a ‘non-’.

Not yet, anyway. Something about being defined by a non prefix irks me a little. It doesn’t give me the ick, but more of a tiny, internal shiver that stems from my assumption that a ‘non-’ is negative. It’s an energy that I find hard to resonate with wholly. And yet, I find myself on almost a weekly basis ticking the non-binary box on forms and looking to connect with non-monogamous communities on my travels. It clearly can’t bother me that much, but I’m still hesitant to embrace it.

So, I wanted to explore the non prefix and what it potentially means for identities. I am not a linguist by any stretch of the imagination. I did reach out to a few queer ones over the past couple of months to gain their perspectives on structuring language this way. My general impression from their brief responses was that this was something that academics had discussed at length and that they are incredibly busy (and, thus, probably underpaid). That means the following is simply a collection of my thoughts – and I’m very open to hearing yours.

Is the non prefix inherently negative?

The Collins Dictionary has the most neutral definitions of this prefix. “Non- is used in front of adjectives and nouns to form adjectives that describe something as not having a particular quality or feature,” it states, giving non-verbal communication as an example. The definition with more relevance is their other one: “Non- is used in front of nouns to form nouns which refer to people who do not belong to a particular group or category.” For example, non-citizens are cited as being the opposite of American citizens. 

Elsewhere, the interpretations are more gloomy. Merriam-Webster uses words like “absence,” “lacking” and “worthless” in their definitions. But Wiktionary comes closest to understanding how it applies to identity when it states, “in the sense of not, to negate the meaning of the word to which it is prefixed.” All these definitions give the impression that the non prefix is a versatile linguistic tool and a powerful way to create antonyms. However, it does lend itself to binary thinking because it is defined by its absence of a particular characteristic, which is where it gets tricky concerning identity.

Arguments against having a ‘non-‘ identity

One of the most common gripes people have about using the non prefix for identity is that you’re always defined in relation to something you ideally want nothing to do with. Take monogamy, for example. The beauty of the term polyamory is that it feels like a way of loving that stands on its own. In a sense, it doesn’t matter if monogamy does or doesn’t exist. Whereas for there to be non-monogamy, you must already have monogamy.

Non prefix identity - E-J Scott
E-J Scott

It’s a similar sentiment that E-J Scott, curator of the Museum of Transology, once expressed concerning the gender binary on the NB: My Non-Binary Life podcast. “I don’t like the term non-binary. I find it really problematic that people are starting their description of their gender freedom with a negative,” explained E-J. “I find it difficult that they are also defining themselves as not being normative. So, in a way, the term non-binary reinforces that there is a binary. I don’t think it gives enough creative and spiritual freedom to people who are actually in this incredibly vast space that is the breadth of the spectrum at their fingertips.” 

I should note that the BBC recorded this podcast in 2018, and perhaps E-J feels differently about the term non-binary now. However, it does showcase how complicated it is to base an identity upon the non prefix. Similarly, non-monogamy reinforces monogamy as the norm and positions any other approach to love and sex as a deviation, which again adds another level of negativity.

Arguments for having a ‘non-‘ identity

Non prefix identity - Alok Vaid-Menon CREDIT Eva Schwank-Wonderflaw
Alok Vaid-Menon (Image credit: Eva Schwank- Wonderflaw)

Another way of looking at non prefix is that it can be a source power. It can dispute the validity of what it is defined in relation to. A great example is author and poet Alok Vaid-Menon’s description of their identity. “I’m non-binary, which means it’s not just that I’m challenging the binary between male/female, man/woman, but between us and them,” they explained on The Man Enough podcast in 2021. “Any movement that’s trying to emancipate men from the shackles of hetero-patriarchy, or emancipate women from traditional gender ideology, has to have trans and non-binary people at the forefront because we are actually the most honest.”

In this sense, the ‘non-’ in non-binary signifies a departure from binary understanding, emphasising the incredible fluidity and diversity of gender identities. It challenges conventional norms and encourages inclusivity, acknowledging that gender is not a strict binary. Similarly, the use of ‘non-’ in non-monogamy signifies a departure from the one-partner-for-life paradigm, forcing an acknowledgement that there are various ways to form meaningful, consensual relationships.

In both cases, the non prefix can serve as a tool to highlight the existence and validity of identities and ways of living that do not conform to societal norms. It challenges the binary thinking that often prevails in discussions of gender and relationships, emphasising the richness and complexity of human experiences.

Final thoughts

As you see, it’s difficult because I can easily understand both arguments. I’m also struck by how happily I embrace the word ‘queer’ for both my gender and sexual identities when this is a reclaimed word that holds a profoundly negative meaning for anyone born a generation or more before me. My willingness to see power in one and not the other is significant. 

It’s important to remember that language is constantly evolving in broader society, within our community and ourselves. What irks me today could be what I find inspiring tomorrow. I also have to remind myself that it’s almost certain that many people spent a long time hotly debating the terms for these identities long before they ever entered the mainstream. 

So, no matter how I feel about them, the terms non-binary and non-monogamy aren’t going anywhere. And while the non prefix may technically denote a negative or an absence, it also plays a vital role in affirming diverse identities and fostering inclusivity in our ever-evolving linguistic landscape.

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  1. Hi, Minka! I really value your articles, which I receive in my email. I am polyamorous. Thoughts: I agree that the “non-” reinforces the norm. “Queer” is of course an umbrella term. It seems to me that one can be queer in gender, orientation, OR relationship structure/agreement (or any combination of the 3). I love “gender-queer”. The parallel term in sexual orientation would be “orientation-queer” ~ hard to say. The term for that “host of structures & agreements” would be “relation-queer”. But that’s a bit hard to say also. How about the word “free” as a prefix or suffix? As in “fat-free” or “mono-free” ~ but it does still specify whatever we’re free of. Back to specifying orientation rather than gender or relationship: the word “toward” means orientation & “toward-queer” is easy enough to say. For relationship variety, the word “with” would make “with-queer”. “Toward” & “with” are both prepositions. But the pronoun “us” would make “us-queer” ~ very easy. And it opens up a range of possible terms such as “me-queer”. Anyway, using non-nouns (oh, did I just do that?!) can offer lots of possibilities! Take care, Minka!

    1. Ah amazing Willow! Love all of these ideas and it’s so interesting to have your perspective on this. Thank you 🤗 Yes, genderqueer originates from back a few decades when people in the LGBTQ+ community were trying to look at who was in the community and identitief that there were a) people who were queer in gender and b) people who were queer in sexuality (according to Jacob Tobia’s excellent video on this subject). The latter dominated discussions at the time, so queer did become an umbrella term for non-hetero sexualities and genderqueer spent a long time being the name people used before non-binary. So fascinating how language evolves!

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A lifestyle blog for everyone who questions the norm. From polyamorous relationships and personal growth to being genderqueer, Minka Guides helps you live a fabulous life with intentionality.

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