Many conversations about people who sit outside the gender binary surround the idea of gender fluidity—that our genders are ‘fluid’ in some way or another, rather than being fixed, like binary genders are presumed to be. The same fluid construct is also applied to binary trans people, who are sometimes treated as though they can or will ‘change back’ when they get bored. For those not familiar with the concept of fluidity in regards to gender, it’s about the idea that you transition between genders and your gender identity is not necessarily stable; at any given time you may feel more one than another, and you can move through multiple genders over the course of your lifetime.
There are some people outside the binary and on it, actually, who do identify as genderfluid and who have fluid self-perceptions of gender. But many of us do not, and framing us as fluid is incorrect. It doesn’t just erase our experiences of gender, it also devalues people who actually are genderfluid.
Some of this confusion seems to arise from the fact that many of us have not occupied a fixed gender over the course of our entire lives. I grew up as a girl. In high school I started feeling like I was not a girl but I didn’t have the language or understanding to describe my experiences and my identity. In college, I started identifying as genderfluid, moving between a female and genderqueer identity. Then I realised I wasn’t a woman at all, but for a long time I tolerated female pronouns. Then I stopped doing that, and I’m not entirely sure that my gender has finished forming itself; I have a lot of thoughts and things about gender that I am processing right now, that are not ready for public discussion.
This is not a fluidity. It is a reflection of struggling with gender identity and it’s a path many trans people, binary and otherwise, take during their lives. I know some genderqueer people who ended up on the binary by the end of their transition. I know some binary trans people who went through transition and realised that wasn’t right for them and they were another gender. To describe this as ‘fluidity’ is to erase the very real experience of gender conflict, a lot of which is created through external pressures that play a role in self-exploration and the inhibition of identity.
If you’ve spent your life living the gender you’re assigned, you may have questioned or explored your gender at some point, but you settled back into your assigned gender. You feel comfortable there and it is right for you. It is difficult for you to conceptualise what life is life when your assigned gender is wrong and you lack the tools to figure out how, and why. It is also difficult for you to understand what it might be like to have the tools you need to think about your gender, and to still not feel secure in your identity because you are pushed and pulled in many directions. Internally, externally. But this is not fluidity, even if it means you may move through several different gender identities before settling into the one that is yours.
I can’t speak to the experience of being genderfluid, but I can say that it presents very differently than the progressive exploration of gender some trans people experience[1. Others do not, and there is no right or wrong way to be transgender, to explore gender identity.]. When you move through a series of genders because you are trying to figure out who you are, it is not a comfortable thing. It is a runaway train that you are trying desperately to stop and you cannot and you spend a lot of nights lying in bed, terrified. You stare at the ceiling and wonder if you are wrong, because everyone tells you that you are wrong. You read and read and read and it’s not enough. You ask for help and no one can answer the questions that you need answered.
Genderfluidity is not necessarily comfortable at any given time, but in talking to genderfluid people, I don’t get the feeling that they are careering between genders or that they experience fear and an overwhelming sense of wrongness as they move through different genders. Which means that the kind of respect that needs to be accorded to them is different than the respect you need to offer to other trans people. Yes, you should always use the right pronouns and names at the right time, for all people. Yes, you should never question or challenge or belittle someone’s gender, try to claim that someone is faking or can’t pass.
When discussing people who do not identify as genderfluid, you need to operate in the awareness that our gender identities are fixed. We may experience turbulence at some point in our lives, but our core genders do not change; we have a history of being forcibly passed or assigned as various genders, and sometimes of not knowing what our genders even are, but this is not a state of fluidity. We do not float between genders, we do not feel equally comfortable in multiple genders. We have a coherent, whole gender identity that needs to be respected. When people say that genderqueer people are ‘fluid’ it reads to me as another iteration that nonbinary people are ‘fakers.’ That we are not real. That we can always change our minds if we want and become something else on a whim. That’s not actually how it works, and that’s not how we experience gender.
When we are forcibly passed as a gender we are not, it’s not fluidity, it is torment.