Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Disclaimer: This is a big, complex issue. This post will never be able to do full justice to the topic, especially as I wish to remain accessible (which includes not writing a 20,000 word monster essay). I don’t intend to try and play an academic devil’s advocate, or create an argument where there isn’t one. The point of this post is NOT to ask ‘are these words okay?’ – large numbers of the trans community say no, and they deserve your respect. Nor is the point of this post to explain why they’re not okay – you can Google that though if you need to, as it’s important. Some members of the trans community reclaim the words as an act of empowerment, which I’ll come back to.

I had a really unusual experience of talking to a trans woman recently.  She referred to herself and all other trans women as ‘shem*les‘, and asked about the genitals of someone I know. For anyone in the know, you’ll know that when talking to trans people, both of these things are typically big red flags – offensive, insensitive behaviour. If she were cis I would have relied upon my educational privilege and assumed their ignorance, and called them out. It would’ve been an immediate moment of ‘ignorance alert! Need to set them straight in the name of challenging problematic behaviour!’. However, her transgender status changed the dynamic of the conversation, rendering me uncomfortable in putting on a teacher hat. Given that she’s trans, who am I to assume she doesn’t know the oppressive history of the word? Some transgender people (and other members of minority groups) reclaim words that have historically been used as insults, in order to empower themselves and challenge oppressive violence. Possibly the most famous word this has happened with is ‘queer’, which whilst still possible to wield aggressively, is used by many LGBTQ people to describe themselves. There’s even the academic field of Queer Theory. So because it would’ve been a very different (and problematic) thing for a cis(ish) guy to tell a trans woman how to use transgender-related language, instead I said ‘it’s interesting that you say X and Y, because I know many trans people who would have problems with this’.

It was clear from our conversation that her choice of language wasn’t a political decision, and that she wasn’t aware that the word is more often used to insult and oppress. Whilst many transgender people are very well read on transgender issues, as with any large and diverse group not everyone will be. It’s important to recognise that being trans absolutely does make that person the authority on their own experience of being trans, and that people should listen when they have something to say about how it is to be trans. But, being trans *in and of itself*, does not make an individual an ‘expert’ on transgender activism, politics, or language. It just so happens that, for obvious reasons, many people who experience social oppression of one sort or another (and their intersections) are motivated to learn about how to challenge it.

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It emphasises a point the wonderful Helen Belcher made in a talk I attended recently. She said (I’m paraphrasing) that ‘coming out as trans could be likened to expressing an interest in GCSE maths, and then having people assume you know degree level calculus’. In being an ally to transgender people, it’s important to listen. But assuming that one trans person can necessarily speak for all trans people not only isn’t realistic, but puts a lot of pressure on that person. I hold to the fact that it was impolite of the trans woman I spoke to to ask about the genitals of another person, close to me, who came up in that conversation. That conviction is informed by both lived, and academic experiences working with the transgender community.

I don’t want the take home message to be ‘trans people can be wrong about trans things, so listening isn’t all that important’. It is. The two points aren’t mutually exclusive – one can recognise that trans people are inherently the authorities on transgender experiences whilst recognising no one person’s points can ever represent what everyone thinks or feels. After all, plenty of LGBT people still loathe the word ‘queer’, and if one such person were to say ‘never use that word, it is always bad’, the queer people who do identify with the term (which includes me) could challenge that claim.

The slur ‘tr*nny’ is a very good example of vocal disagreement between different members of the trans community. For example in reference to controversies involving both slurs on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Justin Vivian Bond wrote how the policing of language is ‘trifling bullshit‘, and that there’s bigger problems to worry about. ‘Pro-slur’ arguments have been slammed – though with caveats pertaining to linguistic reclamation.

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There have been conversations about how the slurs are not RuPaul’s to reclaim as a cis-male drag queen, which emphasises how the queer community has changed since the days of the Stonewall Riots – when there was arguably less factionalism (and distinctions drawn) between L, G, B, and T. That may be in part due to there being less information and understanding broadly within society, with the oppressions still being experienced across the board. Now, it’s fair to say that gay and lesbian people have gained more ground with legal and social acceptance than the transgender community – and the differences between the political struggles and communities’ needs are a big conversation all on its own. One might raise an eyebrow at the seeming hypocrisy see with RuPaul’s use of the above slurs, but then calling out Amanda Bynes for her use of the word ‘faggot’. If fag isn’t her word, tr*nny and sh*male aren’t his, despite the historical connection between drag and trans communities, from a time when there weren’t the words or identity categories for clear distinctions that there are now.

It’s complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. One can recognise that words have different meanings for different people, and use words in a way that is sensitive. I agree that only people who are oppressed by a word have the right to reclaim it, and that it’s insensitivity or ignorance when others play with such words. Words have the ability to oppress and to empower. If you feel strongly about challenging oppressions, then understanding the histories and conversations had about particular words can let you see the bigger picture.

The Documentary Transgender Kids is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until 30th April 2015 – which can be found here. Apologies if you are outside of the UK and this link doesn’t work.

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On the 5th April, Louis Theroux’s latest documentary aired on BBC 2. To quote the BBC’s description of the programme: “Louis travels to San Francisco where medical professionals are helping children with gender dysphoria transition from boy to girl or girl to boy”. Whilst even this is an oversimplification (structuring transgender narratives as always having a binary ‘end result’, and also trans narratives or realities being dependent on gender dysphoric feelings, non-intuitive though this might be for some), the content of the program has been well received.

I agree with Paris Lees when she says that Louis excels at asking questions designed to aid the average viewer’s train of thought in understanding the subject matter. Whilst maintaining his position as ‘guy who doesn’t know much but wants to learn’, he also avoided tired issues of etiquette such as referring to people by the names and pronouns they identify with – as this is easily Google-able, but they moved through this in such a way so that viewers who didn’t already know this kept with the program.

The start of the documentary is strategically important and intelligent. We meet the parents of the little girl Camille, who iterate that their chief concern is doing right by their child, and learning how to best ensure their welfare – a position anyone can get behind. We are also introduced to Diane Ehrensaft who for me, was a highlight of the programme in demonstrating exceptional warmth, sensitivity, and wisdom. One would hope to see Diane’s approach in any professional working to support transgender and gender variant people, but which the voices of the transgender community tell us is sadly not the case.

People with little to no knowledge of transgender often ask the question ‘but how do you know’, and more so in the case of children. The anxiety surrounding the notion of supporting a ‘mistaken’ transition, of the risk of ‘getting it wrong’ is at the front of many people’s minds. It’s a big problem that many people (including medical professionals) can assume that it is ‘safer’ to prevent any kind of gender expression or transition that runs contrary to assignation at birth, because of potential risk. Louis raises this question (at 14.17 in, to be exact). Diane Ehrensaft is worth quoting directly in her response:

Is it a risk? Let’s call it a possibility. So with that possibility then we think, the most important thing is the same exact idea – to find out who you are and make sure you get help, facilitating being that person *then*. We have one risk we know about. The risk to youth when we hold them back, and hold back those interventions – depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, even successes – and if we can facilitate a better life by offering those interventions, I weigh that against there might a possibility that they’ll change later, but they will be alive to change. So that’s how I weigh it on the scales.

Bravo.

It’s also worth mentioning that whilst stopping or reversing transitions does happen, it is comparably rare. These examples shouldn’t need to be ‘hushed up’ because of the fear that they will be used to de-legitimise transgender people’s access to gender affirming services. Indeed one can see that being able to access such things and then stop can also be highly beneficial for an individual, to help work out who they are, and what they want.

The program didn’t make the mistake of trying to make a fictional debate about whether kids should or shouldn’t be given access – it was clearly sympathetic. I felt the show helped lead its audience to accept the importance of this point. It skillfully managed to do this without reducing the transgender voices on the program to one ‘line’ – there were definite differences between the children appearing on the show.

This was perhaps illustrated most clearly by Crystal/Cole, who exhibited a non-binary gender (although the show didn’t name it as such), sometimes expressing herself as Crystal and sometimes as Cole. They broached the fact that for some children (and indeed, plenty of adults as well) gender expression and pronouns could depend upon environment (‘he at school but she at home’) or on time (‘some days I’m Crystal but some days I’m Cole). There are also some conflicts within this particular narrative – Crystal’s mother (at 24.56) says that:

She has said in private with her therapist that she is a girl. Almost 100%. When I’ve sat down and had private conversations with her and said would you ever be interested in [transitioning medically], how do *you* feel about it? And her answer is ‘I can’t do that mommy, I have to be a boy’, and I enquire further as to why and she says ‘because I’m poppy’s only son, and it would destroy poppy’.

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This hints heavily at a father who isn’t supportive/understanding/accepting of his child’s gender expression, though we also hear Crystal herself say that she doesn’t prefer one name over the other, and later in the program says she wants to be male when she grows up (though for the very normative reasons of liking the thought of a wife and children, as if one must be male to have this). The show deals with this complexity well, and reflection upon Dr. Ehrensaft’s words are fitting. Crystal/Cole may be a transgender woman who, as a child, is navigating her father socially. They may be a non-binary person, with male and female identities, or some further understanding of themselves may manifest over time. I felt we were invited as an audience to recognise that ‘searching for truth’ is not the point of engaging with transgender people, but the most important factors are respect within the moment, and facilitation of what is needed for happiness and health. Which is not as complicated as critics might make it.

The mainstream media has responded positively to the documentary, although not all the conversations to have come out of it have been positive. For example, BBC Women’s Hour disappointingly attempted to create a very artificial ‘for vs. against’ debate’. Quite rightly, this inspired anger from transgender activist CN Lester, fed up of trans voices and narratives legitimacy being framed as a debate, as if each ‘position’ had equal evidence and importance.

Bottom line – this is a strong and sensitive documentary which I would recommend. Whilst obviously positioned within an American context (and the differences with the healthcare systems are important to consider), many people could learn from the compassion of some of the parents who recognise how important it is to become an advocate for their child. By challenging cisnormativity (the idea that identifying with the gender one is assigned at birth is ‘normal’ or ‘correct’), society is slowly dragged towards being safer and easier for those under the trans umbrella.

 

There’s been a fair bit going on recently. Transgender Day of Visibility was on 31st March, and the UK has seen the leader’s debates in the fretful warm-up to the general election. Therefore I wanted to write about something a little less serious, whilst still shedding some light on something not touched on much in mainstream outlets – LGBTQ comic book characters, which for me, shouts capes and spandex first and foremost. There’s been quite a few lists of favourite GSM (gender and sexuality minority) lists compiled by more expert comic book fans – but I’ll try and mix some slightly obscure and interesting examples with some well known classic heroes (and villains) who you might now see in a new light. So in no particular order then…

1. Mystique

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And pretty genderfluid too, but not in the way that normally means.

If (like me) your main familiarity with the X men was the film adaptations, or possibly the animated series of early ’90s morning kids TV – you’ve missed out on some seriously different character development. Amongst the most critical being the erasure of Mystique’s bisexuality. Besides originally being mother to the mutant Nightcrawler (that blue skin wasn’t coincidence) but also foster mother to Rogue (whaaat?), she was also over 80 years old by the millennium, with her shape-changing powers meaning her ageing is atypical also. As this article details, “Mystique’s character was not revealed as bisexual until The Uncanny X-Men #265, almost thirteen years after she originally debuted. This was due largely to the mandate by then Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief that there would be no GLBT characters in the Marvel Universe.” Mystique’s début was in 1978 by the way, so not exactly the pre-legal days of Batman and Superman. Progress is slow though, and slower for letters other than G and L.

2. Batwoman

Delicious irony, in that she was originally introduced as a ‘no homo!’ love interest device, because it didn’t look very hetero when Batman and Robin shared a bedroom, even in the 1950s.

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Whilst like many of the big names there have been various incarnations, parallel universes, and all-round confusing re-inventions, Batwoman was rejuvenated as a Jewish lesbian in a slightly obvious move of clunky tokenism in 2006.

3. Northstar

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Important due to being the first openly gay Marvel superhero – though again, due to the policy of the then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter preventing any openly gay characters (along with the Comic Code Authority), despite debuting in 1979, he was only allowed to be explicitly stated as gay in 1992. With the ability to travel at near light-speed (and the associated resilience and strength), Northstar also got married in Astonishing X-Men in 2012.

4. Extraño

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An early DC queer example premièring in 1988, Extraño, meaning ‘strange’ in Spanish, was painfully stereotypical, though more explicitly ‘out’ before Northstar. Referring to himself often as ‘auntie’, he was confirmed to be HIV positive – possibly from doing battle with an adversary called Hemo-Goblin, who, I kid you not, was “a vampire created by a white supremacist group to eliminate anyone who was not white by infecting them with HIV”. In their own way, the comic book industry tried to engage with important political issues new to the world in the 1980s.

 

5. Wiccan

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A powerful member of the young avengers, Wiccan predictably has powerful magical abilities. With a backdrop that involved standing up to homophobic bullying, and a romance with fellow hero Hulking, this meant the character was particularly well received.

6. Alysia Yeoh

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Although not a superhero per se, Alysia is important as the first major transgender character in a mainstream comic (in 2013), as the roommate of Batgirl. Whilst there has been a few aliens who can morph gender around, psychics inhabiting bodies of different genders, and shapeshifters, this is the first time a transgender person (of colour no less, she’s Singaporean) had been naturalised and involved realistically.

7. Loki

Another huge character in no small part because of film franchises, and also with a complex, multi-incarnate history, Loki has a history of bisexuality and gender fluidity that has been promised to be explored more.

8. Sailor Uranus

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Although more well recognised from anime than from manga (comic book style serialisation in Japan), the Sailor Moon franchise was chock full of lesbianism, with Sailor Uranus having a relationship with Sailor Neptune. This was quite obvious in the originals through their flirtations – but in typical LGBT erasure/censorship, when translated for a US audience, the characters were positioned as cousins. Due to failing to remove all of the flirting however (either through sloppiness or a wish to actually be somewhat faithful to the original), it was accidentally implied not only that they were lesbians, but incestuous lesbians. Great job, conservative America.

9. Xavin

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Whilst we’ve already looked at Alysia as a sensitive and important example of transgender in comics, Xavin is something else. Quite literally, being a non-human known as a skrull who don’t experience gender in the same way. Xavin assumes male, female, and skrull forms. The character raised interesting interpretations of gender as for Xavin, this could be changed as easily and with no more personal significance than an outfit choice.

BONUS: The Young Protectors

Click to read the comic in full, for free!

Now this is something special. With an interesting, diverse cast of characters and a compelling plot, this young-superhero based comic has a gay-driven storyline, without reading like any kind of seedy knock-off. There’s a great balance between character development and action, and I only find it a shame there isn’t a more extensive serialisation to get one’s teeth into. And I’m not alone either. The creator’s Patreon backing is pretty huge. Well deserved, given the entire story is free to access.

As someone who works on non-binary gender identities without unequivocally being an in-group member (though as previously discussed, it’s a little bit complicated), this is an important issue for me. There’s a long and unpleasant history, and not just relating to gender, of people speaking over the voices of groups they are not members of. Of speaking for or about people in ways those people did (or do) not like. This article is not a debate about whether this is a problem or not: it is. Recognition of privilege is something that everyone has a moral imperative to engage with – in part to simply avoid being an ignorant arse who doesn’t recognise hardships others face that they don’t, but also because oppressions are intersectional, which is best illustrated by the comic below – originally posted by Miriam Dobson here.

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However, whilst it’s a good rule of thumb to listen to in-group members telling you things about their group, especially when you’re not a member of that group, there are additional complexities that are worth recognising.

People within marginalised groups disagree.

This should be pretty obvious. Any population big enough to be associated with a social oppression (be that people of colour, queer people, trans people, women, etc.) is going to contain vast swathes of differing opinion. This raises two important points, that may seem a bit contradictory. Firstly, marginalised people can be wrong about things that pertain to the group they’re a member of. Secondly, issues can easily become complex enough that claiming there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ becomes simplistic or troubling all on its own. It’s important to add that the *possibility* of error on the part of a marginalised person doesn’t mean it’s okay for someone to use this to conveniently dismiss claims they don’t like. Especially those claims that come from direct experience. Experiences of different people can contradict, and don’t respectively erase each other. It’s a complex world we live in.

People new to marginalised groups don’t magically become experts immediately. Some never do.

I heard one transgender activist put it this way: ‘coming out is like saying you want to do a GCSE in maths, but then people start asking you advanced calculus all the time and expecting you to know the answer’. Each person is the authority of their own life. But that’s different to being equipped with an arsenal of political, academic, or activist language and nuanced understandings of what things can mean to different people. It’s different to an awareness of historical or cultural contexts, politics, precedents, or social structures. In some cases, it’s vital to remember that a marginalised person doesn’t need any of those things for their voice to still carry a weight and value that a non-marginalised person’s cannot – such as voicing experience. It’s also a problem to expect everyone to be an expert, as not everyone is or wants to be a scholar or an activist.

Whilst I would suggest most people don’t believe you need to be a member of a demographic to study a particular demographic, it’s a good rule of thumb that lived experiences trump theoretical awareness. Experiencing something doesn’t make someone an expert, but there’s a reason why many people who do experience an oppression do become experts – because they have a particularly powerful motivation to do so. We could of course ‘what does ‘expert’ even mean anyway?’ but that’s a different discussion.

Marginalised people can’t speak for all members of the group they occupy, because no-one can. But…

If a marginalised person says ‘we want this’ or ‘we experience that’, it is more likely to be a slight simplification, or a political statement with a particular purpose rather than something hugely problematic. Their social positioning to the political meaning of the statement is changed and charged by their in-group status.

Experiencing one oppression doesn’t mean someone is sensitive to other forms of oppression, necessarily.

You find racist gay people. You find homophobic disabled people. You find transphobic women. This can often have troubling implications, as if they’re highly politically motivated to fight for the rights and well being of their group, they’re almost certainly leaving someone out in the cold.

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Often, if a scholar does work on a particular group of people, and many members of that group take issue with what they’re saying, it’s extremely pertinent to listen to the actual people, rather than the theorist. This is illustrated rather perfectly not just by history (it was the highly qualified, expert doctors who decided that homosexuality and transgender were mental illnesses, no?) but also by the continued work hate speech of scholars polemicists such as Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys.

Ultimately, knowing who to listen to can sometimes be a complex ethical process, dependent on collecting and processing lots of information. But if in doubt (or even if not, in fact), listening to voices of experience is your best bet. The devil can be in the detail where contradiction comes up, but this only heightens the importance of education.

The enormous extent to which the binary gender system has been enforced – which claims everyone can only be male or female –  has left many people unaware of the existence of anything (or anyone) else. A lot of this has to do with a phenomenon that sociologists understand as the ‘medicalisation’ of sex. Differences in gendered behaviour (whether that be a man doing ‘women’s things’ or vice versa), sexual attraction, or clothing choice became understood as sicknesses, best left to the expertise of a doctor -when before you would’ve called for a priest, or even more likely, not actually been all that bothered. Anthropologists in the 19th century gave fantastical reports of ‘exotic’, ‘alien’ cultures. These social models regarding gender and sexuality were unintelligible to people bound by the western model: that you could be a man (who was attracted to women), or a woman (who was attracted to men). And that’s that. Such ancient and enduring social systems which involve a third gender (or more!) and other ways for understanding sexuality that aren’t readily analogous to ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, or ‘bisexual’ can be found all over the world, but it isn’t even these that I’m referring to in the title of this article. One doesn’t need to travel far to find hugely mainstream historical precedent for the concept of a third gender. How about one of the most important and influential civilisations in the western world? Ancient Greece.

I want to talk about a particular text, written by Plato. Student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle, it’s fair to regard him as a founding father of philosophy. The text is a collection of speeches by different important Greek thinkers, written to reflect  each man delivering his speech to the others at a drinking party. This is Plato’s Symposium.

One of the speeches was given by Aristophanes, who was a comic playwright. He asks why is it that when in love, many people report feeling ‘whole’, as if previously incomplete? The explanation, he says, is due to how mankind used to be.

Humans were, according to Aristophanes, originally beings with two heads, four arms and legs, and two hearts, who were very powerful. Each head (and corresponding genitals) could be male or female – so there were three possible sexes! Male, where both were men, female, where both were women, and ‘androgynous’, where you had one male and one female. These powerful double-people decided to storm Mount Olympus, so to stop them Zeus smote them, tearing everyone in half. Each person then desperately tried to find their original pairing – which positions the male and female double-people as gay men and lesbian women, with the third gender representing what we would now label heterosexuality. This comic illustrates perfectly.

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This importantly demonstrates how a two gender system hasn’t always had the total monopoly one might assume it has. Whilst this doesn’t say anything about the thoughts had about gender by the everyday ancient Greek, it simply shows there was recognition of a third gender through stories, and there wasn’t any strangeness or moral failure or sickness associated with it. The same culture gave us Hermaphroditus, the neither-male-nor-female divine child, and root of the word hermaphrodite, often historically used to describe intersex people.

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Whilst the identity labels are new (the word ‘homosexual’ only being created in the late 1860s for example), all evidence shows that the rich human variation of gender identity and sexuality have been around for as long as people have  thought about themselves and who they are.

 

I like the word liminality. It’s a bit obscure, but really useful in certain contexts. Originally in reference to rituals observed by anthropologists, liminality is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage […] when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete”. To be liminal positions you on the border of the definition of something, or on both sides. There is an uneasiness and a complexity to defining where liminal things sit, without a sense of ‘hm, yes, but…’.

It might be pretty easy for some people to see how this relates to sexuality and gender. In the familiar cultural process of coming out, be that as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, or anything else, there can be a period in which you’ve at least vaguely got to grips with accepting a label, but you haven’t told anyone. Maybe you don’t want to. Maybe it’s too scary, or dangerous, or complicated. So say if, like me, you came out as a gay guy. you feel that that’s what you are, so you don’t identify with ‘straight’ any more. But no-one else knows this, and if asked ‘are you gay’? there would definitely have been contexts where I would’ve said no. I was transitioning, getting to grips with things. My visibility as gay (and I’m not referring to my style of dress or other aspects of presentation) was nil. I wasn’t even out and proud in some contexts whilst not in others, so the identity label as gay didn’t hold any public significance to me at all. Because of my personal, internal processing of myself I didn’t fit as straight, but I wasn’t yet ready to take on a ‘gay identity’, and wasn’t ‘positionable’ as such by anyone. I was liminal.

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Some might argue that regardless of my self-awareness or comfort, I was always gay. I don’t think this is the case. There would’ve been times that I would’ve been very distressed or disturbed if someone had tried to convince me of this. Of course this is a product of heterosexist cultural factors,  which make camp, queer, or variant children prime targets not only for bullies but for social disciplining of adults and society alike (“boys don’t cry”, “only girls wear pink!”). Also to think about labels pragmatically, in the case of sexuality and gender, it can really foul things up when you try and force an essentialist definition of labels – that is, “if you do X, you are Y, end of story” – rather than considering how and why people label themselves the way they do.

Regarding gender, things can be more complicated, and non-binary people experience particular challenges. Because gender is socialised as very much ‘one or the other’, there is no way to obviously present as non-binary. Plus, there is no ‘one way to be’ non-binary either. Not that there is one way to be male or female, but because of how things are culturally coded, if pushed people can say ‘they have a masculine walk’, ‘that top is quite girly’, and conglomerate these things into an overall picture. People don’t even have to think consciously about it – made especially easy by the majority of people ‘doing’ their gender in ways that plonk them obviously into the categories of male or female.

Queer scenes  and spaces can mean that clothing and style choices especially can take on new significances, due to the knowledge and understanding people in these spaces tend to have, which means they read people in different ways. There are lots of different ways to have a ‘queer uniform’, but when you’re familiar with such spaces you might recognise dapper, AFAB individuals (or people you assume to be or read as AFAB) in jackets with bow ties, undercut hair dyed all kinds of colours. AMAB (again, assumed) people wearing makeup with an alternative style – who may not ‘appear’ to be gay men, but also not making it obvious that you should assume they are a trans woman and that you should use feminine pronouns. This highlights an important point that isn’t the one I’ve set out to make – that it’s dangerous to make assumptions about people’s genders (and therefore pronouns) and that presentation doesn’t necessarily tell you anything, especially in queer spaces.

The reason why I needed to set all that up in order to get to some personal reflection is this – I don’t really identify as gay anymore (gender, I’ll come back to). This is partly a conscious, social decision in that I don’t strongly identify with a movement that has become predominantly cisgender, white, middle class, and increasingly apolitical or, unrecognising of its comparative privileges. Racism, sexism, transphobia, body shaming, and homonormativity are all common enough for me to find alienating. Secondly, my queer relationships have made me critically engage more. I can be attracted to and engage romantically and sexually with trans men, trans women, binary and non-binary people. Does any of this mean I can’t identify as gay? No, absolutely not (or you’d be back to not only ‘if you do X you are Y’ but also ‘if you do X you CAN’T be Y’ which is shitty and breaks down very easily). But I feel much more of a resonance with the label ‘queer’. It’s a word that doesn’t pin a person down. It leaves ambiguity, in a way that I find to be confident, defiant, and mischievous.  It also doesn’t require me to have a clear cut understanding of my sexuality. I’ve thought about it to the point of exhaustion and came out now so long ago that I’ve in some ways stopped caring. The bottom line is that I’m not straight and things are a bit wibbly-wobbly-sexy-wexy.

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With gender (more complicated!) I’m more cautious. I will readily accept the descriptor of cisgender – I was assigned male at birth, I present as such and I don’t experience gender dysphoria. But my relationship with my gender isn’t entirely straightforward, as I’ve never liked the word ‘man’ or being identified with it, though not to the preference of being positioned into another category. The best way I can articulate it is that I don’t think I ‘feel’ gender very strongly. I don’t feel like I strongly identify with masculinity or femininity – much of the time. Sometimes I lean one way or another – or another, in that I might put on a shirt to ‘play up’ masculinity a bit because I know my partner likes it, I can enjoy expressing myself through drag (in a way that is more important and personal than simply ‘fun dressing up’), or I might feel like expressing myself in ways that aren’t so readily within the binary – for instance wearing foundation, mascara, and a red lipstick with my otherwise typical jeans and jacket, which I have only had then inclination and bravery to do publicly once. With pronouns I don’t have strong feelings about ‘he/him/his’ (perhaps paradoxically?) but I will also happily embrace singular they.

My muted experience of gender doesn’t feel like a nullness – I don’t feel that I am agender or neutrois. Could I be some flavour of demigender  – perhaps demi-agender or demifluid? I’m not sure. However, I am unwilling to position myself as not cis. This is in part due to the fact that I possess cis privilege. Even were I not to simply situate myself as a guy (I really detest referring to myself as a man enough that I don’t even want to write it!), I don’t experience fears and oppressions as a result – it’s entirely something internal (well, until I wrote this) and I wouldn’t want to appropriate or co-opt the personal and political struggles of transgender people. Maybe it’s that I don’t feel I’m ‘non-binary enough’ to dare to use another label. It’s also important that given the nature of my scholastic engagements that I wouldn’t be read by trans people as ‘strategically identifying’ in order to gain access to spaces or conversations, which would be disgustingly underhanded. There are also discourses of people being accused of identifying in particular ways out of an adolescent desire to be a ‘special snowflake’. This has been a very poisonous attack on non-binary people. However, when levied against particular otherkin community members – such as to internet subculture fame, the person supposedly identifying as a dragon who was upset about not being able to eat their mother’s diamonds – it may be seen as a reasonable criticism of younger people detracting from the legitimacy of transgender people’s struggles.

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I am lucky. I’m not shying away from a non-binary identity for fear of violence, or rejection, or even because of how difficult it would be to explain something to people I don’t really understand myself. I don’t identify as other than cisgender because I worry about what that would mean politically, and I’m not certain that I’m not. Ultimately what I am pretty sure about is that I’m queer, and occupy a blurry, uncertain borderlands regarding my identity. I still am liminal, in a new way to before. There can be a great deal of pressure for people to ‘know’ who/what they are. However there is no objective, absolute knowledge of the self! More important is well-being and happiness, which are my priority in preserving even as my life-long journey of self-exploration continues.

 

In case you didn’t know, Facebook allows for a user to fill in their own gender identity, rather than be forced to select ‘male’ or ‘female’. This is great news for everyone, including many people who ARE male or female. But what is meant by many genders can leave some people puzzled.

gender options

Oliver Haimson et al. has gathered some data which shows what people who use the custom gender option actually define themselves as:

facebook gender options

 

Whilst the numbers total over 100%, that’s due to there being no restriction on how many gender identity labels a person can hold. It’s a good graph to get a rough sense of the identity categories that people are using. There’s also many categories where the differences may not be clear. What’s the difference between transgender and transsexual? What’s the difference between ‘trans’ and ‘trans*’?

Of course, the meaning of a label can differ depending upon who you’re talking to – different terms resonate differently with different people, and two people’s understandings may easily contradict, so there is never going to be an easy ‘factual’ list that can be referred to. Identity is a highly personal thing, and can only be defined by an individual. This post simply acts as a guide to give some basic explanation of these categories. Some labels may seem to overlap completely in one person’s eyes (say, trans man and trans male) whilst highlighting an important difference to someone else. I’ll be grouping some identities together due to similarity, but it’s important to bear this in mind and that of course, much variation can exist between people who may identify with the same gender identity. I’ll also explain some of the differences between some of the labels.

It is important to remember – gender identity is not sexuality! A person of any gender identity may associate themselves with any sexuality (though of course some may be more common than others. Whilst a cisgender man would not identify as a lesbian, a transmasculine person may have a more complex relationship with this identity for example).

This list is not intended to be authoritative or exhaustive. No-one knows your gender identity better than you yourself! If anyone wishes to expand or add in the comments section, please feel welcome.
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 Genderqueer/Non-binary

Often used as umbrella categories, these terms both refer to gender identities other than simply ‘man’ and ‘woman’ – people who exist outside of the gender binary. Neither tells you much about a person’s gender besides that they’re not (exclusively) male and not (exclusively) female. Some genderqueer or non-binary people may embrace or express masculinity, femininity, both, neither, a mix, or vary depending on time, place, or people – regardless of the gender that person was assigned at birth. The possibilities are practically endless.

Gender fluid/Bigender

Being gender fluid can mean that a person sometimes identifies as male/man, sometimes as female/woman, or sometimes as androgynous other non-binary identities. Similarly, people identifying as bigender may experience two differently gendered personas, typically ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ which may change. Whilst not frequent enough to come up on the Facebook chart, the identity of trigender may be used by people who can change between male, female, and non-binary identites too. Note that someone may potentially have more than two gender identities and still identify as bigender – a person cannot ‘identify wrongly’. It is simply what a person feels fits with their sense of themselves.

Agender/Neutrois

Sometimes also described or understood as ‘neutral’ or ‘null’, some people may experience these identities as an absence of any gender, or, subtly different, as a neutral gender identity that isn’t male or female. This doesn’t tell you anything else, such as whether a person identifies as transgender, or has any wish to engage with a transition.

Gender nonconforming/Gender variant

These gender identities are quite self-explanatory, and broad. These labels don’t share information about the person’s relationship with maleness, femaleness, masculinity or femininity – but that their gender expression may not fit with cultural expectations of their gender assignation. Someone identifying as gender nonconforming or gender variant may identify as trans, or may not.

Two spirit

A non-western gender identity, two spirit is an umbrella term for gender identities associated with the cultures of some indigenous North Americans, such as the Oglala Lakota (note: I say ‘cultures’ rather than culture to avoid conflating different tribes and groups, which are distinct). There isn’t a simple way to generalise, though historically two spirit people often engaged in work or cultural practices not associated with their assigned birth sex. Called ‘Berdaches’ (a problematic term no longer used, and considered a slur) by western anthropologists, two spirit people may identify with both male and female gender roles and thus be recognised as a third gender within indigenous American cultural contexts.

Transmasculine/Transfeminine

A transmasculine person identifies more with maleness than with femaleness, but may not necessarily identify entirely as ‘a man’ (some however, might – and use this label as an indicator of their position regarding masculinity). Likewise a transfeminine person vice-versa – identifies more with femaleness but not entirely as ‘woman’. In accordance with the ‘trans’ aspect of this identity, transfeminine people are assigned male at birth and transmasculine people are assigned female at birth.

Androgynous/Androgyne

This is an identification with the mixture of masculine and feminine presentation so as to be a mixture of the two, and ambiguous in gender presentation. The terms can be used quite broadly, however.

Other

What can be said here? Other. Something else. Gender unknown space unicorn. Being deliberately vague is often a deliberate political decision.

Neither

Not male or female. If you know the person well you may know more detail (though you probably shouldn’t ask out of idle curiousity). The individual themselves may not have a clearer definition than this – sometimes it’s easier to know what you aren’t than exactly what you are, and that’s completely fine.

Intersex

Intersex people, by arbitrary medical definitions, may not physiologically fit into the gender binary in one way or another (most commonly, through having what are termed ‘ambiguous genitalia’ at birth). Intersex infants may be surgically altered without their consent, in order to assuage the  gendered anxieties of parents and doctors. Some people who may be ‘diagnosed’ as intersex may identify as men, women, or other gender identities, whilst some may feel their intersex status is something they identify with.

Pangender

Whilst pangender may imply an identification with all genders, more usefully it can be understood as fluidly experiencing a multiplicity of genders. A FAQ can be found here – where it is also clarified that appropriation of gender identities from other cultures (such as two spirit, or hijra) isn’t okay.

Gender questioning 

This is the process of questioning or working out one’s own gender, and may not be a permanent identity – though there’s no set amount of time someone might do this for! A questioning person may not be sure of what they identify with, and might not come to an answer – which is absolutely fine.

Transgender/Trans/Trans Person/Transgender person/Trans woman/Trans female/Transgender female/Transgender woman/Trans man/Trans male/Transgender male/Transgender man

Transgender people are people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans is a shortening of transgender. The differences between ‘man’ and ‘male’, and ‘woman’ and ‘female’ may be something an individual has a solid opinion on, or they may feel unconcerned about the implied difference, or not see one. By specifying ‘person’ in a Facebook gender identity, someone may be iterating that whether they identify as male or female or otherwise isn’t something they want to share there.

Trans*/Trans* Person/Trans* man/Trans* male/Trans* woman/Trans* female

Some people use the asterisk to specifically highlight they are using ‘trans’ as an umbrella term, rather than to refer specifically to (binary identified) transgender people. There have been discussions both for and against the use of the asterisk, further indicating how personal comforts are a big part of identity label choice.

FTM/Female to male/MTF/Male to female

Often used by binary identified transgender people, these identity labels are used as a shorthand way of indicating the gender the individual was assigned at birth, and what they currently identify as. The terms don’t necessarily imply ‘I was a man and I am now a woman’ for example, as many MTFs would also say that they were always women, simply assigned incorrectly at birth based on their genitals. Thus the implication of having changed from one thing to another is something some trans people have a problem with, whilst others still find the identity label useful.

Transsexual/Transsexual person/Transsexual female/Transsexual woman/Transsexual male/Transsexual man

Transsexual is now quite an old-fashioned term, most associated with medical language and discourses of the mid-20th century. Many trans people don’t like the term or may find it offensive, but others may embrace it, particularly older trans people. The term is also typically used in a binary fashion.  Transsexual females/women are women who were assigned male at birth. Transsexual men/males are men who were assigned female at birth. Some people make a distinction between transsexual and transgender based on whether gender affirming surgeries have been undertaken, but this isn’t very common and can problematically create some artificial distinction between men and women who have certain medical procedures and those who don’t.

Cis/Cisgender/Cis female/Cis woman/Cisgender female/Cisgender woman/Cis male/Cis man/Cisgender male/Cisgender man

Cis is simply short for cisgender. Cisgender is the ‘opposite’ of transgender, and is used to indicate that a person identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. So if at birth the doctor exclaimed ‘it’s a girl!’ and that person grew up to say ‘yes, I identify as female’ – that person is cisgender. Some individuals have claimed this is a slur, which is nonsense – the term exists as a neutral way to talk about people who are not trans, without positioning cisness as ‘the normal’ gender identity, or that ‘man/woman = cis man/cis woman’, which is the product of cissexism.

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