To me, *Genderqueer* is an umbrella term that a person may use to label or identify themselves as someone who does not conform to the _genders defined by their culture._ But to first understand genderqueer, one first needs to understand gender, and how it differs from sex and sexuality.
Sex and Sexuality
Sexuality is a pretty easy one. Someone’s gender does not necessarily define who they are sexually attracted to. While Western society prefers heterosexuality on one’s gender, and in many places it is still illegal to break this preference – i.e. male-gendered people should be attracted to female-gendered people – a male-gendered person may identify as gay and be attracted to other male-gendered people.
Sex, on the other hand, is usually defined as the biological components of a person. For example, if you have a penis, then you are male; if you have ovaries, you are female. Western society expects sex to be strictly binary, but this is a lie: intersexed people (0.1-1.9% of people) do not conform to this binary.
One idea I’ve had is to define sex not as mutually exclusive, but as inclusive: one can be male sexed, female sexed, both, or neither. You can then extend this further into spectrums, or (controversially) define it according to reproductive capacity - but one needs to ask why we need to define ourselves or others through the presence or absence of particular genitals, and why we need to perform it constantly.
It’s easy to see that sex can be completely independent from sexuality. Just because you have a particular set of genitals, doesn’t mean that you must only be attracted to people with the opposite set of genitals.
Gender is a whole different kettle of fish, and a concept that most people have rarely considered. Most people consider gender to be synonymous with sex, but that is extremely inaccurate.
Gender identity is rather a set of social roles, expectations and traits that a person identifies with. The specific roles expected vary between different cultures, different groups and different people; for example, some people consider things like paying for dates and holding doors open a necessity, others consider it an archaic tradition, and others consider it offensive. This means that gender is not fixed, but is always changing, and everybody will have different ideas of what gender means to them.
Western society tries to define gender into an oppositional binary, based on your sex: If you are male-sexed, then you must be male-gendered; if you are female-sexed, then you must be female-gendered, and in both cases the two genders are not allowed to mix. But since gender and expected roles are always changing, this isn’t a sustainable approach.
These roles disintegrate when you introduce non-normative biology into the mix. If a woman does not have breasts, or ovaries, does that mean she is not a woman? What if she cannot become pregnant? What if she has facial hair? At what point does a woman lose her womanhood, or a man his manhood?
One of my favourite concepts is the following: If somebody identifies as a woman, than they are one. There are no absolute tests or checklists for womanhood, and you don’t need to pass a course or achieve a certificate to become one. (The idea of being accepted as a woman is a much more difficult story.)
Sources of Gender
Julia Serano argues very successfully that while gender should be considered independently from biological sex, gender probably does have roots in biological sex. For example, it’s reasonable to consider that the “female” gender is often associated with nurturing and the “male” gender associated with protection, because these traits consistently occur across most cultures and even many species.
However, it is unreasonable to therefore conclude that gender must only be based on biological sex. Male gendered people are just as capable of nurturing and female gendered people capable of protection, and in some cases may strongly identify or prefer those roles.
The source of one’s identity is a much more interesting question that will never have a complete answer. Spirituality, religion, culture, experiences, and pretty much everything else may all impact one’s self-identity and aspects of that identity, and this includes gender.
Now that we understand sex, sexuality and gender a little bit better, we can start to understand the label genderqueer.
The term genderqueer is generally used as an umbrella term by people who identify in any gender-nonconforming way. This can include (in a non-exclusive sense):
- Both man and woman (e.g. androgyne, two-spirit)
- Neither man nor woman (e.g. agender, neutrois, non-gendered)
- Moving between genders (e.g. genderfluid)
- Third-gendered or other-gendered (e.g. non-binary, hijra, fa’afine, kathoey)
- Having an overlap of gender, sexuality or sex
- People who “queer” gender through physical and/or political expression and/or self-identity
Optimistically, genderqueer is a place where diverse gender identities are explored, shared, respected and encouraged. There is no single definition or checklist for being genderqueer.
For example, I identify with the androgyne, non-gendered, genderfluid, non-binary, transgendered and queer labels. I try not to let binary gender roles define how I should act; I just try to be myself and act the way that I want to act, regardless of roles.
Was that so difficult?
Many people struggle with the concept of gender, of genderqueer people, or of non-conforming gender. Everybody is different and will have different reasons for disliking the concept, but some of the most common are:
Fear of the unknown. Some people may not know anything about gender or genderqueer people. There are so few publicly genderqueer people that it is hard to normalise the concept. Hopefully reading up on resources and sites like this one will provide useful and practical information to reduce this fear.
Misunderstanding. Some people may have had bad experiences with non-gendered people in the past. However, one should never take a single experience and apply it to an entire group of people.
Feeling threatened. Some people may feel that a non-gendered person is a threat to their identity, and that someone breaking gender roles is telling them to break them too. However, everybody gets to choose their own identity, and should respect the identities of others.
Disapproval of different world views. Some people may feel that their view of the world is the “correct” view, and that genderqueer people have an “incorrect” view. However, everybody is different and everyone should respect others’ opinions and views, even if they conflict with your own.
- Genderqueer Identities: What is Genderqueer? is a fantastic resource for understanding more about the label genderqueer.