A reader writes in about her struggle in trying to understand genderqueer as an identity. How is it distinct from gender roles? What can she do to respect her family member’s process? How can she understand it?
I have a cousin who has recently come out as genderqueer. She and I were best friends growing up, and naturally I want to understand what her experience is like, but I just don’t get it. (I also don’t know if I am allowed to refer to my cousin as she/her anymore.)
I can understand feeling like you should be a different gender from what your parts are, or from what you were raised as, but I don’t understand what it would be like not to feel like either gender. Is it about the social constructs around what society tells you that girls and boys/men and women should be like? Because I understand rejecting those, not wanting to like cooking/the color pink/high heels/etc.
I guess I should ask her, but I don’t want to bug her too much. Can you provide any resources online for reading about the experience of being genderqueer?
Thank you very much for reaching out and making an effort to understand your cousin. What your cousin did in coming out was brave, and a sign that they trust you with such personal information.
What is Genderqueer?
First, every person who identifies as genderqueer defines their gender differently. This is because genderqueer has become a big umbrella term encompassing so much variation in gender that it really does come down to each individual.
I am using gender neutral “they” pronouns for your cousin because it’s the safest option in my mind. We don’t know your cousin’s pronoun preferences: you’re going to have to ask. Seriously, just say “what pronoun do you prefer?” You’re going to have to ask a lot of things, like what name they prefer, how you should address them in public, and in private (because they can be out or not to different people), and most importantly, what genderqueer means to them.
For a lot of people who identify as genderqueer, their gender identity – and the way they express it – continues to evolve for a number of years. This includes clothes, pronouns, name, physical transition, medical transition, and other stuff. It’s not necessarily that genderqueer people are confused, it’s just that discovering who you know yourself to be can be a long process, which often involves unlearning years of what we thought we were supposed to be.
Coming out doesn’t mean they will necessarily share the whole process with you, either because they choose to keep some things private (for whatever reason), or they are just shy about bringing it up. I didn’t share much with any of my friends for years. As an outsider, it can be frustrating to see changes and feel like you’re being kept in the dark. Be patient with these changes. If your cousin was comfortable enough to come out to you, keep checking in. It’s better to ask than to assume.
The best thing you can do right now is ask questions: to others (like me, or other bloggers), to yourself (you’d be surprised how much you can learn about yourself in the processs), and to your cousin (though not all questions should be directed at your cousin, try not invade personal privacy).
Know that you will probably make a lot of blunders along the way, but we all started out at the beginning, and eventually learned. As long as you are respectful and honest with your intentions, it will show, and your actions will be appreciated.
Explaining Genderqueer to Someone Who is Not
Now to get to the meat of your question:
I can understand feeling like you should be a different gender from what your parts are, or from what you were raised as, but I don’t understand what it would be like not to feel like either gender.
Like I said, start with asking yourself some questions. I’m going to assume you are a girl, and that you’re comfortable identifying as a girl. But perhaps you don’t like to wear high heels, or to cook, or you hate pink – rejecting stereotypically “feminine” things, as you pointed out. Yet you still feel like a girl. Why? What makes you feel this way? Hopefully you can understand how it can be extremely difficult to explain why your gender identity is what it is to someone else.
What if I told you that tomorrow you will feel exactly the same, and see yourself in the same way. However, everyone else sees you as a man, treats you as a man, and expects you to do man stuff. It’s hard to realisitcally imagine this, I know, so let’s do an experiment.
Try walking into a men’s restroom. Seriously, try it the next time you are at the movies. Gauge your comfort level, your sense of safety. Try walking into a men’s locker room. Introduce yourself to someone as “John” – how does that feel (wrong, weird, awkward)? How do othe people treat you (with disdain, with surprise, with ridicule)? Now imagine looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing a beard, or stubble, and having a buzz cut. Nobody is staring at the mirror except you, but how do you feel?
Transgender people experience something similar: a disconnect between their birth sex and the gender they are, in addition to how people see them and what is expected of them. Transgender people who are binary-identified find comfort on the other side of the spectrum: if they were born male, they see themselves as female, and are at home looking like and being seen as girls or women.
However, some trans people find distress or discomfort when putting themselves in the female side as well as the male side. Neither box feels quite right. Other people feel like they belong on both sides, or more on one side than the other. This is just a sliver of how genderqueer people experience their gender.
What does it really mean to be a man or a woman? Gender identity goes beyond gender roles. It runs deeper than clothes, hair, makeup, colors; although these are means to express it, they do not make your gender. To me gender identity is a feeling: something internal, intangible, and very difficult to explain with words.