What is Genderqueer?
For the last year I’ve been more visible about being genderqueer. It’s an identity I feel is very important to put forward, especially as I find myself receiving more mainstream attention, though I could just as easily identify with any number of other identities I hold to my being. Despite the fact that I’ve used the word “genderqueer”, I realized I haven’t shared much on my site about what the term means to me.
What is Genderqueer? (for me, right now)
Nutshell: Someone who is “genderqueer” has fluid ideas about gender expression and may not identify as being a man or a woman.
The longer story: Genderqueer is a pretty new term. I believe it started to be used early 2000, mostly by youths, as I was then. When I first saw the word “genderqueer” in a zine, I immediately could identify.
I also loved other terms such as androgynous/androgyne, genderfuck, two-spirit, trans entity, bi-gendered, third gendered, multi-gendered, fluid, transboi, boydyke, boi, and many more. I was drawn to genderqueer because it contained within it the word Queer. It made since to me as a queer person. My sexual orientation is queer; so is my gender.
As someone who struggled (and still struggles) with gender I found myself uncomfortable with what was expected of me in terms of cisgender appearance and behaviors. Hold on you say, what is “cisgender”? I believe cisgender to be a word that can be used to describe someone whose gender expression generally corresponds with the traditional or socially accepted behaviors and attributes expected of the sex that they were assigned at birth.* I first saw the word in Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity and I’ve seen cisgender described as “the opposite of transgender”. I’ve also understood it to be good to use the word because it challenges the assumption that cisgender is “normal”. So as a person who was assigned female at birth, many things that society expects of me as a “woman” feel unnatural. (And it actually feels extremely charged; hence feminity is something I play with from time to time and explore when I feel safe to.)
*Update – I appreciate and agree with the comments below challenging this original description. Cis-identified folks shared their experiences transgressing “social or traditional” gender expressions. Hearing these perspectives helps me understand that people — cis, trans, and otherwise –share much in common with one another, presenting gender itself as a concept that permeates our lives in ways more complex than can easily be defined.
Another word that may be more familiar is “transgender”. The definitions I have experienced around the word transgender often fall inline with my identity, however when I identified as transgender, I felt pressure towards becoming the “opposite” gender — that is to say, I felt a pressure to be a man and to adopt masculine behaviors that felt as equally uncomfortable as feminine ones. I also felt a pressure to alter my body, and it was ultimately through my accepting my body which led me to find happiness in the middle. (And like femininity, masculinity also feels very charged in a way that I love to explore, particularly in sex.)
Trying to balance between what I at the time felt were these two extremes, I thought of myself as being inbetween cisgender and transgender. Being gender-neutral, and genderqueer.
I say that this is a definition “for me” because I am still figuring out all of this for myself, which includes using genderqueer as a label even though I believe it shouldn’t be. Many folks refuse to attach a label to their identity, something which when you get down to the science and sociology of gender and sex, sure is complex. What is a man? What is a woman? When you break it down, the only true definition is the one we make for ourselves. There is no gender test. There’s no “right” way to be genderqueer. There’s no dress code, no label, no correct pronouns. For myself, I love the pronouns “they/them”, such as “They are so beautiful” or “I’m going to buy them a beer.” While I don’t mind being called “she/her”, I really prefer epicene or gender-neutral pronouns, especially if it’s a chance to represent me as accurately as possible. Fuck grammar*, it makes me happy!
Though modern medicine is available to us, some choose to use it and some don’t. I believe we do not have to have surgery or take hormones to be a “man”, “woman” , both, neither, or whatever we choose to be. And I believe that queer pornography and the internet will bring the validation of our bodies that we need as a community — something which I think is really powerful because even 50 years ago, we were isolated and forced to go to doctors to be treated as diseased… today, we have websites, YouTube videos, sex tapes, forums, books and most importantly, each other.
If you’d like to read more, Wikipedia actually has some great definitions on Genderqueer, Transgender, and Cisgender. A good resource is GLBTQ.com, and the amazing project genderfork.com. Got a good gender resource? Let me know!
*Also check out Singular They and the Many Reasons it is Correct.
Really enjoyed this thoughtful musing. I feel much the same.
As you know I’m a huge fan and agree with every word, so these are just a couple of random thoughts.
– like ‘gay’, the term ‘queer’ once had a different meaning (it referred to any non-‘standard’ sexual behaviour and had little to do with gender identity) so perhaps one day it won’t be appropriate for you. But right here, right now, it’s exactly right.
– find your journey inspirational because I think it’s a visible version of a journey to identity that many, perhaps most, people go through. So I hope you’ll continue to extend your thinking and commentary past the purely physical aspects of your journey. It would be interesting to know whether you explore (say) food and culture in the same way you explore sex?
Thanks for this. I appreciate you sharing more about your journey through gender. The only sticking point I have is when you said, “I believe cisgender to be a word that can be used to describe someone whose gender expression corresponds with the traditional or socially accepted behaviors and attributes expected of the sex that they were assigned at birth.”
That’s a really fraught definition. As a polyamorous, queer feminist, according to that definition, I’m unable to be cisgendered, because monogamy, heterosexuality, and patriarchical beauty standards are all “traditional” and socially accepted. In fact, I think it’d be impossible for MOST people to be cisgendered according to your definition.
I identify as cisgendered, because there is alignment in how I see myself, how my body is configured, and (to a lesser degree) how the world sees me. It doesn’t mean I’m traditional or socially accepted by any means. The social norms of the gender binary are intense, and the vast majority of people don’t fit into them. I fear that the definition you share may diminish the experience of transgendered people, where it’s not that they just don’t fit traditional expectations of gender norms (again, who does?) but that their bodies and their minds simply do no match, and this lack of matching causes serious mental strife.
Now, it’s not like cisgenderism is something I’m ascribing to; it’s not an identity that I need nor want. However, gender, in my mind, is not only how to identify yourself to yourself, but how you move through the world and how others identify you. While I’m not eager to offer my identity to a popular vote, my body, my face, and my voice all tell the world “woman.” Sadly, there’s not a lot I can do to change that. I wear masculine clothes a lot, I have short hair, and even bind and pack on occasion, but unless I took some serious steps to make my body more androgynous, I will never not present as a woman (even if I can be a particularly butch woman at times). Thus, I do see a certain amount of “androgynous privilege” in your statement about gender.
I realize that the definition I quoted is only one of the two that you offered in your post, and only one of the many that people use now. Gender is so rife that pinning down a definition is difficult, but I do think it bears a lot of examination.
Tiara the Merch Girl
” I believe cisgender to be a word that can be used to describe someone whose gender expression corresponds with the traditional or socially accepted behaviors and attributes expected of the sex that they were assigned at birth. ”
I struggle with this. I personally identify as a woman, female, am pretty comfortable with the femaleness of my body, haven’t felt the need to transition, etc, typical cis stuff – but I do have a hard time trying to conform or correspond *behaviourly* to any specific gender type. I don’t feel particularly feminine or masculine. In queer circles I sometimes get asked “butch or femme?” and I go “can I claim geek?”. As it is, I’m a migrant from one culture to another, where each has quite different societal norms and behaviors for each gender role – some of which contradict each other.
Female, woman, gender-presentation-meh?
tiara the merch girl
allison’s point about presenting as a woman socially no matter what resonated with me. It reminds me of a quote i read somewhere about how as far as society is concerned you are what you have to defend – which includes gender presentation.
Interestingly enough, though i am not andro-looking (boobs and belly woo!) there are certain situations where people have read me as a man (not masculine or butch, but straight up male). In bangladesh all i have to do is wear pants and a shirt and tada, i’m a guy – just coz it never occurs to the local girls to wear anything different. I walk out of a sex shop here in brisbane in cargo pants and a tshirt and random folk on the street say “i thought you were a guy!”. So some of what jiz talks about with regards to gender and behaviour does apply, in that it often sets people’s first assumptions of you.
Further to Allison’s comment above, i wanted, as someone who is hirself a feminist trans woman, to discuss why i disagree with your definition of ‘cisgender’.
Transphobic feminists such as Germaine Greer make a lot of noise about how we trans women are ‘parodies’ of ‘real’ women, basing their claim on the notion that trans women inevitably present in ‘ultrafeminine’ ways. Others perpetuate the claim that we only transition to avoid having to recognise that we’re ‘really’ non-heterosexual and identifying as such.
The reality is that many trans women are /forced/ by heteronormative medical gatekeepers to adopt an ultrafeminine presentation to ‘prove’ to those gatekeepers that they should have access to hormones and/or surgery. Further, i know many trans people, and those who don’t have some form of non-heterosexual identity (e.g. lesbian, bi, queer, pan) are in the minority. (i myself identify as polysexual / queer, but am basically happy to also be described as bi.)
Your definition of ‘cisgender’ – and by inference, ‘transgender’ – is unfortunately more in line with the myths i described above than with the realities of trans people’s lives.
i was assigned male at birth, but i now know myself to be a woman as well as a man. i recently tweeted: “i’m a woman not because i exhibit particular traits or behaviours, but because …. i’m a woman.” That is, the fact that i have a cock, the fact that i love mathematics, the fact i enjoy watching porn – none of these stereotypically ‘male’ things change the fact that i know i’m a woman. Similarly, a close friend of mine is a civil engineer who loves watching the footy and only rarely wears clothes typically gendered as ‘feminine’ – and she’s a trans woman.
Thus, i feel that a definition of ‘cisgender’ that reflects these sorts of realities is: “A person is cisgendered if their own sense of their gender completely matches the gender they were assigned at birth”. Similarly, a person is trans when their own sense of their gender does /not/ completely match the gender they were assigned at birth.
Hope all that makes sense?
I’m really glad you posted this. I’m a bisexual cisgender female, and although I have several friends that identify as queer, genderqueer, boi, etc., I’ve often felt confused about what these terms really mean. I didn’t really give it much thought – choosing to just see my friends as individuals rather than as their gender identity – until I began research for my upcoming book on online dating and got into a heated discussion with a (trans female) friend about discrimination on dating web sites. My friend expressed emotions ranging from annoyance to outrage at being forced to select from such a small list of genders (male, female) when signing up for an account, as well as being limited only to gay, straight, or bi (and sometimes even bi is not listed) when asked about sexuality. As someone who easily falls into these categories, I hadn’t given much thought to whether they accurately represent all users. But as we discussed the issue, I wasn’t completely convinced that it’s necessary for all of the labels to be represented in the basic checkbox section. Some updates are necessary, certainly, but as someone who doesn’t identify with certain labels I couldn’t decide what those updates should be.
Perhaps this is outside the scope of your article, since your focus is more on how you identify yourself than what this means when looking for a partner, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and those of your fans on the importance of labels like genderqueer in dating. It’s been my experience that in most, but certainly not all, cases people narrow down their dating choices beginning with – to put it bluntly – genitals. Does that person have the “parts” that I want to play with? Obviously there’s much, much more to dating than that, but it’s a starting point that opens the door for all the rest of the questions (Do I find this person attractive? Does this person make me laugh? Do we have anything in common? Etc.). While terms like genderqueer do tell me something about the way a person identifies as an individual, they don’t tell me if the person has the fundamental parts I’m looking for in a sexual partner (and I believe that sexual compatibility is a huge part of finding love – since without it we just become good friends).
On dating sites we are somewhat at the mercy of a bunch of computers doing algorithms, and therefore some concessions must be made. In order to narrow down our choices from the hundreds of thousands of potential matches, some basic details must be disclosed. My proposal was that sites allow users to select which “parts” they have (using checkboxes to allow for multiple selections, rather than radio buttons forcing the user to choose one or the other), and then select which “parts” they would like in a partner (again, allowing multiple selections). Then users could further identify themselves in their profile descriptions, which is the more appropriate place to address identity. But my proposal was met with more frustration by my friend and we decided to let the topic rest so as not to risk our friendship. But I still can’t help wondering what the right solution is…
Not only do you provide great visual materials on your site, you also provide food for thought. I do acknowledge that all people share both male and female characteristics. Many people may have a greater percentage of one over the other while, others may have a more equal percentage etc… Some people such as yourself have become, comfortable with their balance while other people may be comfortable with being to one side or the other and there are of course people who will go through their whole lives not being sure/comfortable in refernce to their gender identities.
I did have a question though about your use of they/them in referring to an individual that is until, I went to Wikipedia and did some brief research about neutral pronouns. In the English language the article I read about this seemed to indicate it was very difficult to come up with a non gender pronoun to descibe an individual which did not seem to be insulting in some way. Until we use one from another language or come up with one in English which is not considered insulting we may have to use a combination of the they/them and the gender pronouns to decribe individuals just so we know as a society to whom we are referring to especially in contexts of individuals and groups. To refer to one of your examples you may want to buy them a beer could refer to an individual or a group of two or more people of any gender identity. Language of course evolves over time and hopefully by incorporating a term from another language or a new English word or a combination of these we will come up with pronouns which everybody will be comfortable with.
Thank you so much everyone for sharing your thoughts and experiences with me!
I have huge respect for your work and this is a wonderful piece, provoking a wonderful discussion. Because of that, I feel a little bit mean when I say…
Second last line should read “treated as diseased” rather than “treated as deceased”. Doctors tend not to be able to treat death very effectively.
Apart from that…
I like the use of “they”, a lot. I think that gender would be less important to cispeople in everyday life if it were possible to talk about one another without gendered pronouns. There are a whole host of ‘phobic problems to be tackled, of course, but having the language to build the world that we want to live in would be a really good start.
Keep on blazing a trail, opening minds,
Happy sky-pixie birthday and arbitrarily chosen first day of the year,
@Alexis Cosign on your post. You articulated what I wanted to say better than I could. Thank you!
Congratulations on finding your voice, and true identity.
Chris! – Thank you for catching that. I do believe that’s the second time I’ve made that mistake and I ought to know better by now. Happy Eleven!
WorkInProgress – Thank you. 🙂
Thanks for this article, it helps me define what I am when I see other person talking about gender. I agree with what you writed, I see it’s not a problem to feel not really a woman (because of the pressure the society makes on what the behaviour of a “woman” should be ; I now dislike this word and prefer “girl” to define me) and do not want to be a man either (for the same reason, and because it’s not appealing this way and I, finally, like my body even if I’m a girl).
I’m glad to know there is such others persons like (I didn’t doubt it, but it’s always a little relief to know sombedy can really understand me).
Genderqueer is a likeable word.
(Haha my english is so bad.)
Thanks you =)
Right on! I’ve always felt like I was somewhere in the middle ground of gender, but never really felt at home with the term “transgender” because I’ve made peace with the body I was born with (male) and never felt the need for surgery. I was raised by a pack of wild lesbians and taught to accept myself and everyone for what they are and as equals, so I never felt the need to choose one way or the other, gender-wise or sexual orientation-wise. I’m totally adopting the word “genderqueer” for my idientity description, it’s the best I’ve heard yet!
There’s a doc that aired on Logo, that can be watched online now, called Gender Rebel. It followed three people dealing with gender identity, at least one of which I know identified as genderqueer (don’t ask me why the site uses all female pronouns…. ). If I’m remembering the right doc, there’s this startling moment when they come out to their lesbian aunt, who genuinely gets ANGRY at them. Expecting hetero-normative people to accept the concept of genderqueer identity, she argued, would negatively impact the gay rights movement. It was jaw-dropping and sad to realize there are people in the community who would feel that way, and it illustrated to me how large the hurtle for trans and genderqueer people really is, and the amount of bravery and patience YOU must have to be so open to and so willing to educate what must seem like everyone you meet.
Anyway, link: http://www.logotv.com/shows
“I believe we do not have to have surgery or take hormones to be seen as a ‘man’, ‘woman’ , both, neither, or whatever we choose to be.”
As a genderqueer trans woman whose everyday presentation is not too different from yours, my experience is that this statement is just not true. While I’m thrilled that you’ve been able to achieve a certain degree of androgyny just by wearing your hair short, the fact is that in order for me to achieve the same freedom from gender labels as you, I have had to go through months of hormones and hundreds of hours of electrolysis.
Of course, you might say that there are no-hormone identities open to male-assigned, genderqueer people and that I just happen not to have one – and that’s true, to some extent, but do you see those bodies being represented on Crashpad or QueerPornTV?
In general, I would be happy if we spent more time examining the “all-natural”, “love-your-body” ethos that prevails in the queer community, and the ways it intersects (often confusingly and painfully) with the experiences of trans people.