I Know You Are, But What Am I? Living Outside the Gender Binary

I identify as genderqueer. I sometimes also identify as a woman. These two identities could be seen as conflicting, since “genderqueer” is often used to describe people who fall outside the gender binary, and who may have an ambiguous gender presentation. Some people, in fact, might argue that I can’t have it both ways, that I am either one or the other, although I reject this view (obviously, since I claim both identities). The gender continuum has room for a lot of identities, and I shy away from anyone who specifies either/or when talking about gender.

My relationship with gender is complex. When I was thin, I often had an ambiguous gender. Well through high school, I was sometimes mistaken as male. I was told that I had checked the wrong box when filling out government forms, I was told I was in the wrong bathroom, I was referred to as a boy. To some extent, it could be said that I sometimes benefited from male privilege, in fact, even though I was a girl and identified as a girl.

In high school, I often dressed in drag. Sometimes I wore a binder. Sometimes I referred to myself as male. But I wasn’t really comfortable claiming a male identity. I definitely didn’t feel like a boy, and while I enjoyed playing with gender and exploring fluid gender identities, I knew that I wasn’t male, and felt, to some extent, like a pretender when I presented as male, used male pronouns. Having an ambiguous name allowed me to get away with it; away from home, I often and easily presented as male, so I had ample opportunities to explore a male gender identity.

But I also didn’t feel female, even though I also played with my femininity. I sometimes wore highly feminized garb and felt just as fake as I did in drag. By the time I reached college, I had settled into dressing fairly ambiguously, and I was usually read as female. Although when I did choose to wear something feminizing, like a skirt or a dress, I was often met with astonishment. “You look so pretty when you dress like a girl,” or “who knew you had a body like that?” College also introduced me to the transgender community, and I befriended a lot of trans men and women and learned about the fact that gender is a continuum, not an either/or.

I went through a brief period when I thought I might be a trans man, and I explored it a bit, but I realized that I fundamentally wasn’t male. I just wasn’t, although I still think it was valuable for me to think about it and to play with the idea. At the same time, I also realized that I wasn’t really female. I didn’t identify with women. Eventually, I started identifying as genderqueer, although I used female pronouns self-referentially and expected others to use those pronouns to refer to me.

In the last few years, I’ve come to a more complex understanding of my gender identity. I am, in some senses, a genderqueer woman. I reject the gender binary, I don’t identify as fully female or male, but I experience the world primarily as a woman. I might say that I have femme genderqueer or feminine genderqueer traits, if I’m allowed to say that. I enjoy wearing heels and costuming as a woman (and yes, I do think of it as costuming), and I enjoy playing with the female body that I have, but I don’t necessarily identify as a woman all the time. I no longer appear ambiguous because with fat came a number of clearly identifiable secondary sex characteristics, like broad hips and breasts. This sometimes saddens me, because I really enjoyed my gender ambiguity and the ability to present as male. In a way, becoming fat has forced me to own my female gender identity a lot more, which is a topic for another day.

A lot of people straddle the gender continuum, probably more than you think, if you’re not one of us. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has difficulty articulating my position, and there are times when I wonder if I am limited, severely, by language. Perhaps I would identify as a genderqueer person rather than a genderqueer woman, for example, if there were commonly-used gender-neutral pronouns that I could use to fit myself. Perhaps I would feel more comfortable identifying simply as genderqueer if I didn’t feel like the feminist movement is often hostile to the other-gendered; if I abandon my identity as female, I will thereby be excluded from a lot of feminist spaces, and that angers me.

Since I can pass successfully as an ordinary woman, I maintain the charade because it allows me entrance into spaces which would be barred to me otherwise. Since the world perceives me as female, I face a lot of the same problems that cis women do, and those experiences are obviously a big part of why I became interested in feminism and why I consider myself a feminist. I also benefit from cis privilege in many ways, even though I don’t always think of myself as a cis woman. It’s kind of an interesting position to be in: I am denied many things because of my physical sex and gender presentation, so I seek common ground with people who are also denied those things, but many of those people don’t actually think that we share common ground if I don’t believe I’m a woman.

Perhaps I should start rejecting the identity of a woman if I don’t really feel very much connection with it, and join the rest of the people who float in a transitional space between genders and social movements. Sometimes I feel like the Great Pretender, using my apparent cis privilege to enter spaces so that I can make my voice heard. And, the fact is, that while I identify as genderqueer, people usually read me as female, and I’d rather claim a female identity than have it thrust upon me. The secondary sex characteristics I have been dealt are clearly playing a role in my perception of my own gender.

There’s a clear need for more trans-inclusiveness in feminist spaces and feminist dialogue. I think that things are rapidly changing, but not changing fast enough, and I wonder how many people currently identifying as women at least part of the time would claim a gender identity they felt more comfortable with if they understood that they would still be accepted in feminist spaces. I wonder how many people in the feminist movement might realign their position on the gender spectrum if they understood that there is a gender spectrum, and that you don’t have to choose one side of a dichotomy.

I “got sir’d” the other day, as one of my commenters refers to it, and it was a tremendously empowering and refreshing moment for me. After being called “ma’m” and “Ms.” and “girl” all the time, after having a female gender identity forced upon me because I look female, being referred to as “sir” was extraordinarily liberating, and it set off a new round of internal speculation about my gender identity and where I belong.

One doesn’t come to a realization about gender overnight. The fact that I am thinking about this issue again probably means that there is going to be a shift in my gender identity, and more rambling posts like this as I explore things. Our social perception of gender identity is changing, and I find myself wanting to move right along with it, back into a space where I feel more comfortable. Where I feel like I belong. Out of this space I feel forced to inhabit.

8 Replies to “I Know You Are, But What Am I? Living Outside the Gender Binary”

  1. I’ve never really understood the point of gender.

    Like… there’s sex, which is biological. That’s a physical categorization, so I understand that.

    There’s also sexual orientation, which can manifest itself in a physically detectable way and is pretty clear: the sex to which you’re attracted. I can understand that — all it requires is introspection about whether men or women (or both, or neither) consistently exert sexual attraction for you.

    But… gender? What’s gender? “Whether one feels male or female”, I was taught, but who’s saying what’s male and what’s female, nonbiologically? I’ve never particularly felt that I was really a man with the wrong body, so I have no idea exactly what sort of thought process or conviction leads people to discover that they are transgendered… but then again, I’ve never felt particularly like a woman.

    I faintly recall various studies involving, oh, testosterone exposure in utero and its effect on the manifestation of typical male/female physical and personality-related characteristics. But there’s a fair number of women who were exposed to relatively high levels of testosterone in utero, and not all of them have identified as men; and vice versa with men exposed to less testosterone. I also faintly recall something about gay men having been exposed to lower testosterone levels in utero, yet they are gay men and don’t identify as straight women.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is: people have different personalities anyway, and we’re done with the paradigm that a romantic relationship must consist of one man and one woman. So what difference would gender make?

  2. This is a great piece! Personal, direct & powerful. Bravo for it.

    Please consider cross-posting it at sexgenderbody. It (and most of what you write, actually) would fit right in. It would also help you place your content in front of viewers that don’t know about your site.

    Either way, wonderful stuff.


  3. I spent over an hour and a half formulating a comment then realized I didn’t know where I was going with it and that I had written stuff which I felt was far, far more personal than I could comfortably divulge in a public forum. I thank you for the inspiration this post was in getting me thinking about those things again.

    I am biologically male. I’ve been mistaken for female more times than I can count. People who know me often assume it’s just because I like to keep my hair long, which is certainly true in some cases. Usually when a person mistakes me for female, they get very indignant when they realize their mistake.

    But I have worded this so as to obscure the point – that I don’t see it as a mistake.

    That is not to say that I am female, that is to say that I have no need for the distinction between male and female, and I honestly have trouble with the idea that anyone should need that distinction.

    I’ve always felt this way, long before I had any understanding of the social issues related to it or the words to say it. It’s left me with one outstanding question, I suppose – Why should the distinction matter? We’re all human.

  4. I tend to be a mix as well. On one hand female. More info to that is MTF TS (I fluctuate between TS, TG, trans-woman, or simply trans there). Then to further complicate things I have speculated if GQ is closer to the truth.

    I went to a performance art piece last year called ‘becoming dragon’. It raised some interesting points. A large part of it was asking what is gender, like what would it mean if someone said their gender was dragon?

  5. “people who fall outside the gender binary”… evryone falls out of this binary cause it doesn’t exist. Biologically we all are the result of different sex-factors (hormones, chromosomes, aso) that aren’t on the same line. Each of the biological factors can differ from the other, so biological sex isn’t a single line between “male” and “female”. In conclusion we are all individuals… some of us know we are “female” or “male”, others know that they are neither “female” or “male”. It’s all part of the nature.

  6. @Aoede:

    Even male and female are conceptually broken models for human development. The sheer variation between individuals outweighs the largely arbitrary lines created for sex classification. So even sex fails to be functional.

    But yeah, gender is a social thing and it has effects and those effects are felt. Many reject that, but do so in different ways. And some just have bodily instinct troubles (i.e. “these male parts hurt me in the brain, let’s get rid of them”). *shrug*

  7. Thanks for bringing that up, recursiveparadox; sex is not as simple as “boy bits or girl bits” but actually is determined by a lot of factors beyond genitalia and secondary sex characteristics.

  8. Wonderful piece that spoke to me. I have never really 100% felt like a woman and have caught myself ideating in terms of male gender on more than a few occasions which has given me my own fair share of deep reflection on whether I am transgendered or not.

    But I do not feel or desire to BE a man. I dress like a woman, have way-too-big of breasts to even think about hiding and quite honestly, I love them and wouldn’t want to. So I feel like I float in the middle. So confusing if I sit down to think about it! But just like you, I don’t really think of myself as transgendered at all. I like the concept of Genderqueer. It just fits better…

    I think it is my own middle of the ground way of being that helps me understand and be compassionate towards transmen and women…which has put me in a position of advocacy as an ally.

    Maybe if this becomes more of a kitchen table discussion in more homes around the US, more and more people will realize or “come out” as Genderqueer and in time society will realize genderization is just another way of over-simplifying our lives.

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