Presented at A Night of GenderQueer Readings at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco on May 4th, 2013
There are at least two ways to find out what it means to be genderqueer, whether you are genderqueer or consider yourself an interested ally. One way is to look up definitions in books or on the Internet and be inundated with interesting, but frequently contradictory information from many different viewpoints. These definitions can lend a voice to the variety of genderqueer experience that exists out there, but this is also an area where caution around inaccuracy and erasure is needed.
Here are just a few definitions of the term genderqueer:
In the anthology Nobody Passes, Rocko Bulldagger wrote that their own “personal definition of [someone who is] genderqueer” includes those who are “painfully deliberate and consciously political in their gender expression.”
In a book called The Transgender Child, we are told that “genderqueer people embrace a fluidity of gender expression and sexual orientation.” We are also told that this is an “adult identifier” and not for children.
In Evolution’s Rainbow, genderqueer is referred to by evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden as an “experimental genre” of gender where “young butch lesbians and young trans men are exploring interesting and appealing new combinations of the masculine and the feminine as full-fledged lifestyles.” This author, a transgender woman herself, unfortunately overlooks in this limiting definition the significant presence and contributions that those of trans feminine backgrounds have brought to the community. While likely unintentional, it nonetheless contributes to the idea that being a member of the genderqueer community must somehow be tied to birth sex assignment.
The most complete definition I have encountered so far is one that I’ve arrived at through my own life as a genderqueer person, my intensive research through the City College of San Francisco LGBT Studies program, and at my website (genderqueerid.com). This definition incorporates the major ways that I have actually seen the term used, rather than how I think it should be used. It goes something like this:
Genderqueer is a term that has been used to describe non-normative gender identity or presentation, whatever that may mean in the given society where the term is utilized. Genderqueer has been used by people to describe themselves in one or more of the following ways:
they may be both man and woman,
neither man nor woman,
they may move between two or more genders,
they may have an entirely different name for their gender that does not reference a binary at all,
they may have have an overlap or blur of gender with orientation and/or sex.
Finally, there are those who “queer” gender, that’s “queer as a “verb”, through presentation or other means. They may or may not see themselves as having a gender that is queer. They may be consciously political or radical.
Usage of this term can be traced to the early ‘90s and is found throughout the world, though it is concentrated heavily in the United States, Australia, and Great Britain. For those uninterested in identifying with the political or Western connotations of the term, or who still are reeling from less savory experiences with the word queer, the more neutral term non-binary is available, as well as culturally specific terms for non-binary genders. For these reasons, I recommend taking care in using genderqueer as an umbrella term, only applying it with certainty.
If you recall, I said there are two ways to find out what it means to be genderqueer. The other way that is not so strictly definitional is to find out what it means in the context of the lives of genderqueer people. Talk to people who are genderqueer with respect, getting to know what their lives are like, the parts they want to share with you. Even if you are genderqueer yourself, the version of others may not remind you of your own. Still, you may learn more about yourself in the process than you had thought possible.
One aspect of this ongoing dialogue may include finding out about the curious things people have said to someone who is genderqueer when they find out about their gender. These reactions that can come about due to, yet again, a lack of understanding of meaning. Here are a few things that people have said, in physical as well as digital spaces, when they find out that I am genderqueer. This word, for me means to not see myself as a man or a woman, while identifying with gay male sexuality:
“Are you going to have…the surgery?” I asked if they knew what surgery they were even talking about, as there were quite a few possibilities. They said no.
“They, them, and their are grammatically improper as a first-person pronoun set.” I wish I would’ve known then the little bit of English grammar trivia that I know now: “in 1850, male grammarians petitioned the British Parliament to pass a law declaring that all gender-indeterminate references be labeled he instead of they.” (Reflect and Relate, Second Edition)
“Androgynous? I can’t handle all of these different names that you put to your identity!” This was said after the description of my identity has remained fairly consistent for several years.
“So does that mean that you’re into strap-ons?”
“Oh, okay. So it’s like the bisexual of gender.”
“Please stay a girl. It’s what everyone loves and knows you as.”
And, finally, the dreaded: “Why are you labeling yourself?”
There are people who bemoan the ever-expanding list of so-called “labels” for gender. I respect and recognize as valid anyone’s decision to not name their gender identity or to find it indescribable. Since there’s so much pressure to pin a description on oneself, it is certainly a viable course of action to take. There are many types of identity and expression that there are not adequate single words to describe: language has its limits.
However, I recognize my right, everyone’s right to accurate self-description, to create our own lexicon and make it meaningful. This is an important part of how we form communities and know that we are not alone. Before this term, and the communities that come with it, I only knew to type in “gay man trapped in a woman’s body” on Google. It took awhile for me to learn the best way to speak about myself; that is, the way that felt right to me. The course of my life has changed, my studies, my career trajectory, all because I wanted to understand myself and help other people not feel lost like I had felt. I needed to know how to find other people for whom the words “man” and “woman” were confusing, challenging, and interesting, and those who could see further dimensions previously hidden. Learning about genderqueerness is what brought me to this point, to be able to both teach and continue to learn from others.
I still get questions about whether or not it is okay to identify as genderqueer if the person only realized it as a teenager or adult. These people have been told you must be gender non-conforming as a child for it to be real. I still get questions about whether presentation must have anything to do with gender or sex. The short answer is: it doesn’t have to, but you can if you want it to. This work is necessary to bring comfort to those who are newly exploring gender possibilities.
People who identify and present between, beyond, and without reference to the binary are slowly but surely coming into the spotlight of gender and sexuality rights. Misunderstandings and prescriptive declarations will not ensure the strength of our community. Let us all who are out as genderqueer and willing to to tell our story of what it means to us to be genderqueer also accept the descriptions of others, even if they don’t fit our own personal model.
Constantly interrogating, expanding, and bringing to light the multi-faceted meaning of this little word called genderqueer should be enlightening, but please don’t forget that it is through lived experience that the word has any meaning at all. In the end, this is what it means to be genderqueer.