Genderqueer

The term “genderqueer” originated in the 1990’s3 and is used to describe a person who identifies in-between or outside of the gender binary. The widespread belief that gender must be placed into one of two categories—either male or female—is known as the gender binary, and genderqueer individuals are aiming to challenge this idea of gender. Genderqueer is an inclusive, all-encompassing “umbrella” term,2 meaning that there are many more terminology that can fit into it, such as gender-nonconforming or nonbinary.

These terms are very similar and often used interchangeably, but more specifically gender-nonconforming refers to someone who does not restrict themselves to a binary representation of gender, while nonbinary emphasizes a disregard for the gender binary ideology.4Genderfluid means an individual that is comfortable expressing themselves as different genders, whether simultaneously or at different points in time. Androgyny describes someone who incorporates a blend of both masculine and feminine traits when expressing their gender identity. There are also people who identify as having two or more genders (bigender, trigender, etc.), a gender outside of male and female (third gender), or no gender at all (agender, genderless). These terms can all be considered as genderqueer; however, the word genderqueer can also carry connotations about appearance related to certain Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) subgroups.4 Sometimes genderqueer can refer to punk or goth LGBTQ counterculture subgroups that incorporate grungy fashion, tattoos, piercings, brightly dyed hair or bold hairstyles into their aesthetic.4

Similar to the words “feminism” or “patriotism,” the definition and connotations of these terms can vary between each individual. Although this can create confusion, it is important to acknowledge that the flexibility of these terms is purposeful. The inclusivity of the word genderqueer accounts for and promotes the diversity of individual expression. “Queer” used to be a derogatory slang that demeaned LGBTQ people, but the LGBTQ community subversively embraced this term and added it to the previous acronym LGBT in order to be more inclusive of individuals who did not fit within those four categories, and to unite more people together who do not identify with the widespread beliefs about sexuality and/or gender.3

If you ever feel unsure about what the correct term should be when describing an individual’s gender identity, it is always best to respectfully ask them. However, some people may not believe in these labels and will choose to not define their sexuality or gender at all.

The Genderqueer flag. Androgyny is represented by the lavender stripe, which reflects the mixing of the two traditional male and female colors of blue and pink. The white stripe represents the gender neutral (agender) identity. Finally, the green (the inverse of lavender) represents the third gender and people who do not identify with the gender spectrum at all.

 

Cisnormativity and Cisgenderism

Comparable to the more popular term heteronormativity, which is a cultural assumption that heterosexuality is the normal and natural sexual preference, cisnormativity is the cultural ideology that cisgender is the only acceptable gender identity. A cisgender individual identifies as the gender they were assigned to at birth, based on their external genitalia or chromosomes (i.e. if someone is born a male, they identify as a male their entire lives, and same with female). The cisgender identity is typically seen as the predominately accepted norm in society. Furthermore, cisgenderism is a concept developed by gender researcher Gávi Ansara, which essentially is a synonym to cisnormativity, however it emphasizes the impact this ideology has on society and genderqueer people.1 Not only does cisgenderism (also called cissexism) limit the gender expressions of the people who identify as cisgender that believe it is the natural way to be, it can also cause them to misgender and marginalize genderqueer people, limiting their gender expression as well.1

Although people do have a biological sex at birth (with the exception of intersex individuals), gender is more of a social construct than a biological one. From a young age, boys and girls are faced with gendered colors, toys, media, and treatment from parents that focus on the differences between boys and girls rather than the similarities between both genders. Since male and female are considered to be the acceptable and natural genders of society, these are the ideals that continue to be enforced culturally, therefore making people fit within them. According to gender theorist Judith Butler, gender is performative, meaning it is created through the way you act and present yourself, not who you biologically are.2 For example, if a person who is born biologically female is raised to wear dresses, play with dolls, or exhibit other typical “feminine” behaviors, she will likely identify as female. When gender roles such as these are set in place, anything outside of these normalized roles are considered different, unnatural ways of being. Genderqueer people are forced to subversively act against the gender binary when they chose to identify as something other than cisgender, making it harder to express themselves freely in a society that often deems this unacceptable.

Because gender is performative and socially constructed, it makes more sense to think of gender as a continuum rather than a binary. People can express themselves as male, female, both, or none of the above, and these gender expressions can be exhibited simultaneously or at different points in time. People constantly change their opinions, tastes, and interests, and gender is no exception to this.

 

Trans* and Intersex People

Because trans* (transgender, transsexual, etc.) people do not conform to a cisgender identity, they can be regarded as genderqueer individuals. However, not all genderqueer people commend the idea of transgenderism (identifying as the opposite sex one was assigned to at birth) because it still enforces the gender binary by fulfilling the societal desire to identify as either male or female.4

Intersex refers to a person who was not born biologically male or female due to an anomaly such as a combination of male and female genitalia, abnormal chromosome pairs (XXY or XO), having male (XY) or female (XX) chromosomes but developing physical characteristics of the opposite sex, or having an absence of characteristics from the chromosomal sex.4 These are all considered to be intersex conditions but there can be many more variants. Every one in 2,000 births has intersex characteristics, which is far more common than most people realize.4 This statistic alone can help to represent how gender is much more variable than it is portrayed to be. However, intersex people are often forced to alter their body medically or hormonally (usually from a young age) to fit within the gender binary, which can be both physically and mentally damaging.4 Although intersex is defined by biological characteristics at birth, it can also become a personal sense of identity over time.

The term genderqueer can include trans* and intersex identities because they do not fit within the realm of cisgender and the term is meant to be inclusive. However, it is important to be aware that not all trans* or intersex people may identify as genderqueer or are considered to be genderqueer by other members of the LGBTQ community. Some trans* or intersex people may also choose to celebrate their own specific and unique identities rather than categorize themselves under an umbrella term.

 

Being a Genderqueer Ally

Even if you do not identify as genderqueer yourself, there are ways you can still show support to the genderqueer community. While some of these practices may be initially difficult or uncomfortable to try, remember that the effort to be more inclusive and open-minded is essential to creating a society that is positively accepting of all gender identities. Here are some ideas that can help you become a genderqueer ally:

  • When introducing yourself, include your personal pronouns (my name is           and my pronouns are she/hers, he/his, them/theirs, etc.). Even if you feel as though you are clearly presenting yourself as a specific gender, saying your pronouns can help genderqueer people be more comfortable saying their pronouns without a fear of standing out.

  • Avoid assuming an individual’s gender.5 Instead, ask someone what their preferred pronouns are as a respectful and inclusive action. This may be uncomfortable for you if you are worried about offending the person you are asking, but it is better to ask than misgender someone.

  • If you are unsure about someone’s pronouns but are unable to ask them (i.e. you are talking about them but they are not there), use gender neutral pronouns such as they/theirs. Genderqueer people may choose to go by she/hers or he/his pronouns, or they might prefer gender neutral pronouns such as they/theirs, per/pers, ze/zirs, hirs, or Mx. (instead of Mr., Mrs., or Ms.), among many other pronoun options.3 Whatever the preference may be, they/theirs is an inclusive gender neutral pronoun that is easy to incorporate into conversation because it is typically used for any gender identity. In addition, you can choose to include gender neutral language in your everyday conversations, even when you are not referring to someone who is genderqueer. This will emphasize the normalization of gender fluidity, help genderqueer people feel less alienated, and break down the gender binary that is often reinforced by gendered pronouns.

  • If you accidentally misgender someone, it is important to apologize, correct yourself, and move on. Focusing on the issue or apologizing too much may draw more attention to their genderqueer identity, which may not be preferred by that individual.

  • Respect people’s pronouns, preferred names, and choices of bathroom. Due to LGBTQ hate crimes, a genderqueer person may not use a bathroom that they identify the closest to, but rather one that they feel safest in.5

  • If you own an establishment, try to have gender neutral and/or private bathrooms to ensure both inclusivity and safety.

  • Acknowledge and create safe spaces where genderqueer people can gather and be free to express themselves without fear of judgement.

  • Educate yourself on genderqueer topics and issues. If you find certain aspects of genderqueer confusing, try to ask more questions, but know that you do not need to fully understand the concepts in order to respect them.5

  • Advocate for genderqueer friendly policies at work, school, and in your community.5

Gender identity can be a very personal, sensitive issue. By following these steps, not only do you help genderqueer people express themselves more freely, but you also contribute to making the world a more inclusive place.

 

Concluding Remarks

Being genderqueer in a society that more widely accepts cisgender identities can present several challenges. These challenges may be worsened or strengthened by the differing definitions of genderqueer through separating or uniting people. Even if someone is cisgender, there are plenty of ways they can become allies to the genderqueer community. As the idea of gender transforms over time, there is a greater importance to learn about these changes and work towards creating a more inclusive society.

 

References

  1. Ansara, Y. Gavriel and Israel Berger. “Cisgenderism.” The SAGE Encyclopedia of LGBTQ Studies. Ed. Abbie E. Goldberg. SAGE Publications, Inc., 2016. pp. 231-234.
  2. Barker, Meg-John, and Julia Scheele. Queer: A Graphic History. Icon, 2016.
  3. Beemyn, Brett. “Genderqueer.” Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. Ed. Jodi O'Brien. Vol. 1., SAGE Publications, 2009. pp. 370-371.
  4. Stryker, Susan. Transgender History: The Roots of Today's Revolution. 2nd ed., Seal Press, 2017.
  5. “Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive.” National Center for Transgender Equality, 5 Oct. 2018.

Last Updated: 21 May 2019.