Explaining Genderqueer To Those Who Are Not

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?

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.

Ask Questions

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.

How do you explain it?

35 thoughts on “Explaining Genderqueer To Those Who Are Not

  1. Wow, that was REALLY well explained. I am reminded of a answer to the question: “What do blind people see?” “Well, of course being legally blind means you may have some sight, but the amount of vision varies widely. For totally blind people, try closing one eye. It’s like it isn’t even there, isn’t it? Now imagine that for both eyes.”
    Similarly, ask a woman “You don’t identify as a man, do you? Well, that is how I feel about being a man. And that is also exactly how I feel about being a woman too. I’m just a human.”

  2. great post. Explained so simply. Why I feel like a square peg in a round hole, or is that vice versa. And how I am going to explain it to my family, though “True selves…” is great.

  3. Thanks so much for this post. I’m dealing with this with my 12 year old and it’s hard for them to fully express what they are feeling, and it’s sometimes very hard for me to understand. Your articulate description of what it means to be gender queer is both both helpful and reassuring. Thanks”!

  4. Your whole story is really very inspiring, and I was just wondering, what was your life like pre-transition? How did you decide that you didnt want to fit into either gender “box”? Did you always feel as though you didn’t quite fit, or was it something that you sort of realized slowly as you became more self-aware? Recently I’ve struggled with my identity as female, and I’m not quite sure how to approach subject of my gender. I feel sort of boxed into my gender, like sharing my discomfort with anyone will exile me, leaving me alone in life. I know I’m not the only one to feel this way, I just have no perspective on anything like this.

  5. This was very well explained, but at one point you said “were born male” referring to the gender that was assigned to the person at birth. I think this is a problematic/wrong expression since you aren’t “born” neither female or male, they just assign you one of those two genders at the moment at your birth, and you only realise your gender might be different of the one you were assigned with once you start growing up and start to understand yourself and others and how gender works and is perceived by others and yourself. I would rephrase that by saying “if they were assigned male at birth, they see themselves as female”. Saying they were born a certain gender implies that gender is given by what’s between your legs, and that’s not the way it works – even though that’s how most people think it does. Gender is just a social construct, and it has nothing to do with biology or the shape of your genitals.
    (amab: assigned male at birth, afab: assigned female at birth)

  6. very cool. thanks for this! with ‘visibility’ ~ or, more likely, the media attention ~ of queer issues, more cis folks are asking ~ or demanding! ~ to know what queer is. ~ your piece is helpful! will share & hope those who are *truly* interested & caring will read. ~

  7. I’ve always identified as a cis woman, and came here to try and understand genderqueerness, but this bit makes me even more confused:

    “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.”

    I would love for men to treat me like a man. To be respected as a peer instead of some incomprehensible “other,” to be assumed competent without having to prove my qualifications, not needing to worry about creeps on the bus… and all while keeping my same body and style of dress? That sounds like a dream.

    I don’t mean to come off as combative, and I did come here to learn, so… what am I missing?

    1. It seems you are conflating sexism – and the gender roles we are boxed into because of it – with identity, and the social activities and roles that derive from that.
      Perhaps try another exercise: imagine men and women were equal in society, how would you feel about looking and being seen as a man?

      1. Thanks for the response. Honestly, I don’t know how different it would be. I think I could go either way. Does this mean that I’ve been I’ve been identifying the wrong way? I don’t mind being referred to as she/her, and I’ve always thought of myself as a straight woman. Can someone be genderqueer and cis at the same time?

        1. Genderqueer is a broad identity – some people feel they fit under the trans umbrella, others do not. It’s not another binary! It sounds like you are new to thinking about this, so just allow yourself to be open as you explore.

  8. So i think i am gender queer. But i dont know how to show that. I was born a girl but now i feel like a boy and girl but also i feel i dont want a gender. I go by he/she/they cause all of them suit me. I prefer he the most tho. I feel genderqueer is the right word for me. I just want to be happy in my skin.

    1. Late, but: if you feel that you don’t really want a gender at all, and if all those pronouns suit you, that sounds like you might be somewhere on the agender spectrum.

  9. Hm. Well, if one cannot explain how is it to feel male, how can one explain how is it to feel not male? And, if I enter a female bathroom, the only cause of me feeling uncomfortable is because women will be infuriated. If say it’s in a club where everyone is drunk or on a gas station is there is a long queue – who cares. If I’m in an environment which expects me to behave in some way – I behave as this environment expects, or prepared to face the consequences – it’s the right and productive thing to do. Mature people adapt to the environment and not try to adapt environment to them.

    1. How it is to feel not male… well, maybe if you are in a group of men and consistently feel like you are intrinsically different from them, like you’re just not the same as them, even if you’re great friends with them and fit into the group just fine.
      Or maybe if someone says “Good job, gentlemen!” and your first thought is: “But what about me?”
      It’s hard to define, but these things are often relative.
      So if you stepped into a ladies’ bathroom and everyone called you by a feminine name, talked about “the guys” while definitely not including you, expected you to sit down, offered you menstrual hygiene products and make-up tips, etc., that would not be a cause for discomfort? If so, that’s awesome for you – seriously.
      Mature people also set down limits for when an environment is so hostile to them that they cannot function properly in it. That is a right and productive thing to do. You can’t keep being productive if you’re letting the world slowly destroy you.

  10. I’ve been looking fo a way to explain my gender identity to my parents/extended family in a way that makes sense to them for the longest time, and this is perfect for my experience has been. Thank you SO much for writing it.

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