What It Is, And What It Isn’t
In online profiles, personal ads, and the news, the term “genderqueer” is gaining traction. Just when you think you have an idea of what it means, somebody uses it meaning something else. What exactly is genderqueer? Even genderqueers would like to know the answer to that one. Still, there are some things genderqueer is definitely not, and there are some basic rules of etiquette to make your life easier, whether you’re a genderqueer yourself or only just realized “GQ” isn’t only a men’s magazine.
First things first: terminology! Nontraditional gender presentations come in quite a few flavors, and “genderqueer” is a more open playing field than most. Let’s look at some other non-normative gender terms to help clear things up:
• Transsexual. These are folks who wish to live as the opposite sex to that of their birth genitals. When you think of people who get sex changes, you’re usually thinking of transsexuals. This term seems to be fading with time, and is instead commonly referred to as...
• Transgender. This term formerly covered a lot of territory and included almost any individual who did not feel completely adequately defined by the gender assigned to them at birth by genital determination. It’s come to usually mean a person who wishes to live as the opposite sex. As a larger term than transsexual, transgender covers all those who live as the opposite sex, including those who have surgery and hormones, or just surgery, or just hormones—or no physical intervention at all and simply live as one gender while in the body of the other.
• Transvestite. These people enjoy dressing as the opposite sex, but continue to identify with their birth-assigned gender.
• Female-identified people who use male pronouns. Some women prefer to use male pronouns, or to be referred to as “Sir” in BDSM contexts, while continuing to identify completely as women. This sometimes harks back to a tradition in certain dyke circles of “reclaiming” male pronouns that have nothing to do with the individual’s gender identity.
• Sexuality. Genderqueer, or indeed any gender identity, is not based on sexuality. Straight, bisexual, lesbian, gay, queer, pansexual, and asexual people exist in every gender identity.
So what does it mean to be genderqueer? It’s a very individual thing, but for the most part, people who will call that their identity mean that they don't find any of the above labels compelling, nor do they identify strongly or solely with their birth gender or sex. “Genderqueer” is often the equivalent of the “Potpourri” category on Jeopardy! It’s where things that don’t fit in any other category hang out. People who consider themselves third-gendered, male and female, ungendered, pangendered (that’s me), or don’t find gender a compelling portion of their self-identity profile can all be found under the genderqueer umbrella.
Now that you know just how many ways someone can mean, “I’m genderqueer,” you might feel a little like a deer in headlights. How will you navigate our pronoun-rich, gender-referential social world without causing offense?
The Basics of Genderqueer Etiquette
Let’s say you’re speaking to someone who appears to be physically female but seems to “present” in a more male fashion. How do you tactfully find out whether you’re talking to a butch “she,” a transgendered “he,” or a genderqueer who might be “he” or “she” or any of the dozen “third gender” pronouns that are bouncing around the English language today?
• DON’T ask: “Would you prefer ‘he’ or ‘she’?” For genderqueers who don’t identify with either (or identify with both), this gets awkward. Also, don’t ask, “But what’s in your pants?” Just don't.
• Try: “What pronoun do you prefer?” If you’re speaking to a genderqueer or any other non-gendernormtive person, your awareness of their presentation will be welcome, even if their physical sex and preferred pronoun match.
• Also try: “Where are you on the gender spectrum?” My boyfriend—a genderqueer who is female-bodied and uses male pronouns in his personal life because, “they’re still wrong for me, but they’re less wrong than female pronouns”—came home one day ecstatic that a co-worker had asked him this question. It’s more intimate than simply asking about pronouns, so use with caution and be prepared for a discussion to ensue since the answer can be complicated.
• Observe and listen. Asking any of the above questions can be a minefield, as some people can and will get offended at the idea that their gender isn’t obvious. This isn’t just a gender-normative thing, either; some transsexuals will take the question as an undermining of the success of their transition. For this reason, the best, lowest-risk way to determine someone's pronouns is to pay attention to how their social circles refer to them. On Facebook, in round-robin e-mails, or at a party, you may end up hearing the person referred to in their preferred fashion. You can be proactive about this as well; if you spot one of their pals, you can always say, “Hey, I just met so-and-so. You know each other, right?” The answer will usually have a pronoun in it.
It’s My Party, And I’ll Discriminate If I Want To … Hey, Where Are You Going?
In the age of girls’ nights out, bachelor parties, women-only Sacred Goddess gatherings and men-only nights at the hot tubs, genderqueers are often playing the “Am I welcome?” game. It can be a difficult thing for any event organizer to figure out. If it’s a “safe space for women,” will some participants consider ladies with dicks a threat? If it’s a “gay dudes only” night, will a guy packing a silicone cock ruin the mood?
Whatever you decide, be abundantly clear in your invitations. It’s okay to say that something is “for female-bodied people only.” If your event is open to a broader crowd, it’s useful to say something like “This event is open to all self-identified men” so non-male-bodied men know they’re welcome.
One caveat: If you narrow your event to one physical gender only, be prepared for questions from genderqueers that may range from perplexity to anger. It’s of course always up to you whether to change the rules, but part of being a good planner is handling inquiries gracefully to preserve the reputation of your event.
If you’re attending an event and inviting along a genderqueer pal, it’s helpful to either ask about the gender rules ahead of time, or provide your pal with contact information so they can check it out themselves.
Discrimination Goes Both Ways (And Then Some)
Unfortunately, genderqueer etiquette isn’t as simple as making sure others treat genderqueer people courteously— it’s about all of us treating our genders with respect. It’s easy for genderqueers to focus on the invisibility of the identity, and even easier for that to translate to bitching about the “narrow-mindedness of gendernormatives,” or even the largely separate but much more visible transgender community which typically receives more sensitive handling from mainstream culture. Then again, transgendered people can find themselves unhappy with the “muddying of the waters” genderqueers present by often not choosing a gender “side,” making it harder for transgendered people to argue for the necessity of full gender transitions.
As we create more and more labels to distinguish one gender reality from another, it also becomes easy to pit the people of one label against the people of another. But we aren’t done creating new labels for genders yet, and there is no “One True Way.” Ultimately, the only way I can be exactly what I am without reservation or excessive social discomfort is for me to advocate for you to be just as free and comfortable with your own identity. That’s what genderqueer etiquette is all about: equality of respect for every gender.