[About the author: Kasey is a queer, polyamorous, genderqueer person finding their way in the world. They have a pet hedgehog, and aspire to be a librarian one day. You can read more of their writing, on gender issues, mental health, abuse, and so much more, at Valprehension (http://valprehension.wordpress.com/)]
Hi, I’m Kasey, and I’m genderqueer. And yes, that is a new word that bunch of weird (or rather, probably queer) people made up in the last decade or so. But it’s also an important word, at least for me, and for many others who feel the same way. So, I wanted to share with you all what it means, because the more people that know this stuff, the easier life will be for…well, I like to think that it’ll help everybody, really.
So, gender is a really complex thing, and it has a whole lot of different facets. Rather than talk for hours, though, I’m just going to show you something, and talk you through the less obvious parts of it. This is the Genderbread Person:
This little dude wants you to understand that sometimes our biological sex (or the gender we are assigned at birth by our parents and doctors) doesn’t line up with the gender we feel we actually belong to or have most in common with (this is what’s called a person’s gender identity). This means that not every male-bodied person is actually a man – some people with penises are really women. I think most of us are at least aware that transgender (or Trans*) people exist, so I hope this part is fairly simple to grasp.
But there’s another aspect that the Genderbread Person identifies: gender presentation. I think that this is the one that most gender lay-people don’t really think too much about, though it’s extremely important to most Trans* identified people. Gender presentation is all about what we look like to other people, based on our grooming choices and what we wear, as well as how we behave, what our voice sounds like… the list could go on. Trans* people talk about how their genders are “read” by the general public, and when a person decides to change the way they present themselves publicly, there is usually a progression, where they go from being read mostly as their birth-assigned gender, to being read sometimes one way and sometimes the other, until they finish “successfully” transitioning and are pretty consistently read as the gender they identify with.
It’s important to note, though, that gender presentation doesn’t have to reflect someone’s gender identity. I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of a butch lesbian. While I want to make it clear here that not all masculine-presenting women are necessarily lesbians, I find this example useful to point out that it is possible to identify as a woman, and to also prefer to put forth a masculine image to the world. And of course, the reverse is also true.
The Genderbread Person also includes the facet of sexuality, which isn’t actually all that relevant to gender. But it’s important to include it here, because the point is supposed to be that you can’t assume a person’s sexual preference based on knowing their biological sex or their gender identity (i.e. not everyone is straight), or based on their gender presentation (i.e. not everyone with a non-standard personal presentation is gay, or lesbian, or bisexual). These are four completely separate aspects, with unlimited possible combinations, and isn’t that just so exciting?
But yeah, what does any of this mean for me? I already said that I am genderqueer. What this means is that my gender identity is neither as a woman nor as man. I don’t feel comfortable with either category, and I decided I didn’t want to choose, so now I identify as none of the above. For the sake of clarity (though there’s really millions of ways that genderqueer people might fall on the spectra), I’ll help you out by defining myself according to the Genderbread categories:
Gender Identity: one of the example people in the image under this category is “genderqueer”, and I feel like it’s important to differentiate between this, and “nongendered” – the point here is that I can identify with some aspects of “woman-ness” (I was raised as female, and share a lot of experiences with women) and other aspects of “man-ness” (I brain sometimes works in ways that are considered to be more masculine) to the point where it makes no sense to me to pick a side. I should also say here: this means that I prefer not be called “he” or “she”. My preferred pronouns are they/them/their.
Gender expression: I’m all over the place on this one. I have short hair, and I’ve never worn make-up. I shave under my arms, but not my legs. Most of my clothes for now are pretty solidly feminine, because I don’t have much of a budget to get a new wardrobe, but I can get away with borrowing my (male) partner’s clothes, since we’re the same size). So, some days I just simply present female (which it’s easiest for me to do, as I haven’t been able to afford to get myself a binder for my chest or a packer (i.e. a codpiece designed for Trans-masculine folks)). Sometimes I aim to be read as masculine, though that’s a bit of a crapshoot, and usually most people still look at me and think they see a woman. Mostly I like to be androgynous – I want people to feel unsure, and possibly even uncomfortable, about my gender presentation, because I want to send the message that I can’t be put in those boxes.
Biological sex: this is the simple one, for me, though not for everyone. I have a vulva, and all of the parts that are traditionally associated with that. Although I haven’t tested the theory, I’m fairly certain that I am capable of growing a fetus inside me, and giving birth.
Attracted to: I’m attracted to people of all kinds of gender identity/expression combinations. I don’t identify as bisexual, because it seems kind of silly for me to identify my sexuality in terms of a gender binary when I’ve rejected the gender binary. I usually just identify as “queer,” because that’s suitably ambiguous for me tastes, but omnisexual might also work.
But, all of this is really analytical, and I’d also like to get more personal about this whole thing. The thing is that identifying as genderqueer can be really hard work, and emotionally draining in some ways.
In fact, sometimes I even feel like my whole gender identity thing is just really silly. Does it really matter what pronouns people use for me? In practice, it almost kind of doesn’t, since basically all strangers everywhere still use words that match my biological sex to address/talk about me, since I am almost always read as belonging to the ‘corresponding’ gender. The “best” I could aim for in my general interactions with the world at large would be to create a personal presentation that resulted in a healthy mix of masculine and feminine pronouns from different people – but that kind of straddling the line is dangerous and scary.
The thing is, I’m not super emotionally affected by whether people remember to use the “right” terms or not. And of course all of the people I’m out to about it are people who would never have judged me based on my gender anyway, or expected me to fit in some sort of gender box in the first place. Because they all are awesome like that. And the whole point that my desire for gender neutral pronouns is kind of intended to make is that the gender boxes our society naturalizes are silly, and constricting, and dumb, and they all pretty much know that.
Gender fuckery can sometimes give me a really great sense of fulfillment. It makes me feel more centred and myself when I know that I’m with someone who is actively supporting my ongoing effort to reframe the way I conceptualize myself. Because ultimately, I think that’s what it’s about for me. When I think of myself as a woman, I have a sense that I am somehow failing at that – and while there’s all kinds of methods of dealing with this kind of problematized self-image, and lots of people defy gender boxes without changing the words they use to describe themselves (there’s plenty of comfortably female-identified but super butch women out there), this is really just what feels right for me, and what makes me feel most able to just be me. And that’s worth a lot.
I also think that a big part of the silliness I sometimes feel comes from a more generalized problem I have with being vulnerable to other people – I almost always feel similarly silly about asking for things I want sexually, for instance. Because I’m asking for something from someone else, and they could turn me down or laugh at me (not that this has ever really happened), and regardless of how legitimate or central to my sexuality the request may be, it always feels trivial in that moment for some reason.
So I guess, yeah, I totally acknowledge that every single one of us possesses our own combination of traits that society defines as feminine, and others that are defined as masculine, and I’m not trying to suggest I’m anything special in that regard; I’m really not. But I like the idea of making explicit the fact people don’t actually fit these categories – not least since so many people actually really think there’s something wrong with not fitting in certain ways.
My favorite comment I got in response to the various comings out I did last year was this: “…retraining neural pathways on gender & requiring frequent thinking about it seems inherently desirable, really.”