Many of us were taught there are only two genders—man and woman—but the reality is much more complex than that. The concept of there being two genders is known as the gender binary. Gender, in fact, is not so black and white. People can identify as man, woman, a combination of both, no gender, or a gender that is neither man nor woman. Gender can be better understood as a spectrum. It is also not set in stone, and a person’s understanding of their gender may grow. For example, if someone identifies as a man right now, they may identify differently in a year.
Some people may feel their assigned gender at birth accurately reflects the gender they feel inside, but that’s not always the case. Someone who believes their gender at birth and their felt gender don’t match (e.g., a person assigned male at birth who is a woman) may identify as transgender. That also applies when someone was born male or female but identifies as neither, both, or a combination of man and woman. They may identify as “genderqueer,” “genderfluid,” or “nonbinary.” It’s important to note that not all genderqueer people identify as transgender, even though some of them do.
Why Genderqueer People May Not Identify as Transgender
Some genderqueer people do not feel comfortable identifying as transgender because of how the gender binary has been enforced upon transgender people (e.g., transgender women are expected to perform femininity to a T). The combination of a cissexist (discriminating against transgender people) society and a medical field that oversimplifies transgender people down to the surgeries they do has alienated nonbinary and genderqueer individuals from their own community.
Some people identify as genderqueer as an extension of being gay or bisexual since the concept of being heterosexual is integrated into being a woman or a man that to be attracted to the same or a similar gender is to not conform to gender norms.
Meaning of Genderqueer
The term “genderqueer” came from the term “queer,” so understanding what “queer” means will help us understand what a “genderqueer” identity is. The word “queer” encompasses all sexual orientations other than heterosexuality (being attracted to only a different gender). While the term “queer” is usually referenced when discussing a person’s sexual orientation, it can also be used to express a nonbinary gender. It’s important to note that “queer” is a slur that can be reclaimed by members of the community, but not all people are comfortable with the word and it is not an appropriate term to apply to everyone.
Nonbinary is an adjective that describes someone who does not identify as either completely male or female.
People use the term “queer” to describe those who are attracted to the same gender or don’t identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. People who identify as genderqueer may see themselves as being both men and women, neither men nor women, a combination of men and women, or falling completely outside these categories. Their gender does not fit neatly into binary categories. Some genderqueer people may also identify as genderfluid, which means their gender could shift and change over time.
Gender and Gender Expression
Gender is one’s internal sense of whether they are man, woman, neither, or both, and gender expression is how someone expresses their gender outwardly through their behavior and appearance.
One day a genderqueer person may express themselves as more masculine and another more feminine in the way they dress. Sometimes they may prefer to look androgynous (partly male and partly female in appearance).
The genderqueer identity is one of the most common among transgender individuals, with 29% of transgender respondents identifying as genderqueer in the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. The number of young people who identify as genderqueer is also increasing: One percent of 18- to 34-year-olds identified as genderqueer in a 2017 survey by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
Activists in the 1990s began using the term “genderqueer” in their circles as an all-inclusive word to include identities that are not exclusively man and woman. The term “genderqueer” first appeared in print in a political newsletter, “In Your Face,” where the author used the word to explicitly refer to “those of us whose gender expressions are so complex they haven’t even been named yet.”
Zines, activist flyers, and newspapers started using the word “genderqueer.” The internet later further popularized the term, and it spread beyond the LGBTQ movement to a much wider audience. By the 2000s, the term was used in publications like Time Out and The New York Times, which propelled it into everyday conversation.
Genderqueer people can use any pronouns. Some may use she/her or he/him in addition to other pronouns, and some may only use she/her and/or he/him. Some genderqueer people prefer they/them or neo-pronouns like xe/xem, fae/faers, and zie/hir, but some do not. Genderqueer individuals may also use other variations of pronouns, including, but not limited to, they/he, they/she, and she/hers. Some people don’t like to use pronouns at all and prefer that you only use their name.
The Importance of Using the Right Pronouns
Asking and correctly using someone’s pronouns is one way of showing your respect for their identity. When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected and invalidated.
You should never make assumptions about someone’s pronouns based on their appearance. If you are unsure about what pronouns to use, it’s OK to ask. It’s better to ask than to misuse someone’s pronouns. Alternatively, you can introduce yourself with your name and the pronouns you prefer. This can help create a culture where asking people about their pronouns is a natural part of introductions.
People who are genderqueer may identify solely as genderqueer or as genderqueer plus another identity like:
- Demigender: A partial connection to a certain gender
- Bigender: Switching between two genders or having two genders at the same time
- Pangender: Identifying as multiple genders at the same time or shifting between multiple genders
- Agender: Being genderless or having a gender identity that is explicitly not woman or man and is undefinable or undefined (they have a gender, but there are no words in the gender binary system to describe it)
Trigender, transgender, transmasculine, transfeminine, butch, femme, and androgynous are additional identities and can all be used simultaneously. Every preference, expression, and identity vary from person to person. Some genderqueer individuals may have surgery or take hormones to change their appearance, while others may not. Some adopt androgynous names and change their pronouns. It all depends on how the individual understands and expresses their gender.
Being genderfluid means not having a fixed, single gender. The gender of someone who is genderfluid may change over time (over days, weeks, months, or years). Different pronouns may be used depending on how the person views their gender at a particular moment in time.
Some people use nonbinary and genderqueer interchangeably. Nonbinary and genderqueer essentially mean the same thing, though different people may prefer one over the other (for example, some people do not identify as genderqueer because of the slur in the name). Nonbinary and genderqueer are umbrella terms that also can be used as specific identities. Both terms describe the same group of people: people who do not identify as solely women or men. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to decide which term fits their identity.
State and federal laws prohibit discrimination against transgender and genderqueer individuals in various settings, including offices, schools, and public places. Unfortunately, these laws don’t always translate into fair treatment for transgender and genderqueer individuals.
A study analyzing data from the 2008 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that genderqueer people faced discrimination and violence at similar, and sometimes even higher, rates than binary transgender people. Among the survey respondents who identified as genderqueer:
- 76% said they were unemployed
- 32% suffered physical assault
- 31% experienced harassment from law enforcement
- 36% reported forgoing health care treatment due to fear of discrimination
Another study highlighted the health disparities between genderqueer people and binary transgender and cisgender people. Genderqueer individuals in the study experienced more anxiety, depression, psychological distress, and eating concerns than binary transgender and cisgender individuals. They also more frequently reported self-harm and suicidality than the other groups, with approximately two-third having contemplated and nearly 50% attempting suicide.
The study authors said the reasons for these disparities could be others’ lack of knowledge about genderqueer experiences and pronouns, genderqueer people’s poor access to legal and medical resources, and systemic discrimination against this group of individuals.
Many organizations provide resources to help genderqueer people find others they can relate to as well as legal assistance and medical care.
Some of these organizations include:
- The National Center for Transgender Equality has online resources on genderqueer people’s legal rights, as well as information on how to file complaints of discrimination or mistreatment and how to find legal help
- The Trevor Project offers crisis intervention through a hotline and an online chat for LGBTQ people. They also run TrevorSpace, an online international peer-to-peer community for LGBTQ people
- The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund provides legal assistance to victims of hate crimes. It also offers free legal name change services through partnerships with law firms across the country
- Health Care Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality, previously known as the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA), helps genderqueer individuals find a health care provider who self-identifies as welcoming to LGBTQ patients through its free online provider directory. The listings include primary care physicians, specialists, and therapists. Providers in the system are members of the organization, but are not vetted by GLMA
- The It Gets Better Project connects genderqueer people with local resources near them through its online directory, which categorizes LGBTQ advocacy organizations by state
A Word from Verywell
For people who identify as genderqueer, discrimination is still unfortunately a part of their reality. But many organizations can help them find recourse for unfair treatment and navigate other everyday challenges, such as finding health care providers who understand and accept them. Connecting with others who also identify as genderqueer can serve as another source of support.
For those interested in supporting genderqueer people, work on learning about the appropriate language and vocabulary. Affirm the identity of genderqueer individuals by using the correct pronouns and names, and don’t ask invasive questions. Creating a safe space for genderqueer people can help us all become better allies.