What the Heck Is Genderqueer?

Photo illustration by Holly Allen. Photo by ThinkStock.

Are gender stereotypes a natural, if culturally influenced, outgrowth of sexual dimorphism? Or are they a coercively imposed social regime that stifles individual expression in order to maintain oppressive, entrenched power structures? A great many self-certain people argue passionately for the former point of view, using it to justify everything from differences in employment patterns and wages between the sexes to their distaste for individuals who fall too far outside the expectations for persons with their genital configuration. On the other hand, members of the LGBTQ community tend to incline more toward the latter view, which is intellectually based in queer theory and culturally practiced by individuals who declare themselves to fall under the genderqueer umbrella.

Genderqueer, along with the somewhat newer and less politicized term nonbinary, are umbrella terms intended to encompass individuals who feel that terms like man and woman or male and female are insufficient to describe the way they feel about their gender and/or the way they outwardly present it. The term genderqueer was originally coined in the 1990s to describe those who “queered” gender by defying oppressive gender norms in the course of their binary-defying activism. Members of the genderqueer community differentiate themselves from people who are transgender (itself originally intended as an umbrella term), because that word has come to refer primarily to people who identify with the binary gender different from the one they were assigned in infancy.

Some genderqueer individuals undergo surgery or take synthetic hormones, while others do not. Some genderqueer people continue to identify partially with one gender, others do not. What they share is a deep, persistent unease with being associated only with the binary gender assigned to them from infancy—apart from that, their expressions, experiences, and preferences vary greatly from individual to individual.

“Genderqueer is about acknowledging that gender expression and identity is not binary, that there are more than just two genders,” explained Jordan Miller, a grad student in Atlanta who described zirself as genderqueer, transmasculine, transgender, and femme. (Multiple and ever-expanding labels to describe the many different nonbinary identities seem to be a feature of the genderqueer community at this point in its development—along with the occasional use of bespoke pronouns.)

“I tend to not identify with a gender, because I would not be able to stick with one for a long time,” is how Sarah (who asked that their last name not be used for this article), explained their genderqueer identity, which they experience as something that shifts around significantly.

“From [ages] 7 through 9, I believed I was a boy and prayed I’d wake up and have the right body,” Kyle Jones, a blogger and workshop presenter who describes himself as butch and genderqueer, told me, “But, over time, I embraced more of my femaleness, being female but masculine. I was in my 40s when I did some soul-searching and realized that genderqueer really resonated with me because I’d always felt more masculine, but not male.”

“I’ve identified as genderqueer for a long time. Femme (which is my main identity) came later, after a lot of reading. My history is as a life-long crossdresser (we mostly use the term transvestite in the U.K.). I spent a long time trying to understand what I was doing without reference to notions of ‘femaleness’ (which aren’t correct for me; I’m not trans in that way). Eventually I realized that ‘femme’ fit me very well, though I came to that sort of by reflection: by reading about butch women, and in particular Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues,” writes Jonathan Tait, who blogs about gender from Nottingham, England, via email.

The complex and swiftly changing terminology of the genderqueer subculture creates a barrier to increased understanding and acceptance of genderqueer individuals by those on the outside. Identifiers such as agender, bigender, trigender, neutrois, genderfluid, trans*, transmasculine, transfeminine, bear, butch, femme, boi, demiboy, demigirl, genderfree, androgyne, and others form a densely overlapping and ever-expanding thicket of language that can make the terrain of genderqueer identities feel a bit forbidding to those encountering it for the first time. Dividing the world into males and female is such a big part of the culture that it can seem impossible, and perhaps even aggravating, to try to think outside those categories. This is not only a problem for squares stuck in a binary way of thinking—many of the terms associated with genderqueerness end up referring back to masculinity or femininity in some way, which is a bit tricky if the ideal is to move beyond the gender binary entirely.

Outside of academic arguments about queer theory, however, the fact is that some people feel constrained by a culture that insists that they be either male or female, with all the expectations, assumptions, and stereotypes that come along with choosing one of those identities. Whether they shift their clothing and expression to suit their moods, work to achieve an ambiguous appearance that cannot easily be classified as male or female, or dress or act in a way that fails to conform with the expectations for members of their gender, or any gender (or something else altogether—when reporting on this community one learns there’s always room for more exceptions), accommodating genderqueer individuals really isn’t so difficult. It comes down to listening to what they say about themselves, accepting that this is true for them, and not making a fuss about it. Occasionally, it may also mean making an effort to remember a pronoun that feels a little awkward.

The gender binary works fine for most of us, but who are we to impose it on those few people for whom it doesn’t? Perhaps the cultural concept of gender really did develop naturally from sexual dimorphism—but just as there are intersex individuals whose biological sex does not fit neatly in the categories of male and female, so, too, are there individuals for whom the standard gender categories aren’t working, for whatever reason. It seems unreasonably petty to seek to restrict them to those categories.