Two nights ago I dreamed that I had recently started dating someone; I will call her Amy. Amy and I seemed to be hitting it off, but I was anxious, because I had yet to disclose my gender identity. While I was trying to find the least awkward way to disclose that I was a woman, Amy got kidnapped by the Joker. At that point it seemed prudent to put revealing my gender identity on the back burner.
While I am sure this dream has something to do with my current relationship anxieties (I am a queer woman who looks like a man, as far as most people are concerned), I think it is more a reflection of anxieties I had before coming out as a woman. You see, in the preceding years I had identified as genderqueer. Genderqueer people are trans folks who fall outside the gender binary; they are not men or women, male or female. Though I would now disclose my gender identity before dating someone, this was not easy to do when I thought I was genderqueer. After all most people are not familiar with the concept of genderqueer. I often had to have ongoing conversations with the people I was dating, because I was not sure they understood; often they did not. In more than one relationship I was afraid that once my partner got it she would want to leave me. (As for the Joker, I have no idea what he was doing in my dream. I welcome your speculations.)
This seems as good a time as any to share some of the experiences I had when I thought I was genderqueer. I do not claim that my experiences make me an authority; only genderqueer folks are authorities on being genderqueer. Rather, I am writing about the difficulties genderqueer people face for much the same reason cisgender folks should write about the difficulties genderqueer people face: It should not always be genderqueer folks who shoulder the burden of educating us. (As my aim is to help, please let me know if I get something wrong.) Also, in the past people have used the narratives of people like me—trans women and trans men who at one point identified as genderqueer—as “proof” that genderqueer people are confused about their gender identities. Of course, all it demonstrates is that I, a trans woman, was confused about my gender identity. There are also people who spend quite some time identifying as trans women or trans men before coming out as genderqueer, but for some reason no one ever presents this as evidence that trans women and trans men are confused about our gender identities. My experiences might give me a perspective on what it is like to be genderqueer that cis folks do not have, but it would be wrong to cite them to dismiss the first-hand accounts of genderqueer folks.
Without further ado here are some of the experiences I had:
When I started identifying as genderqueer, I stopped using my legal name and started using a gender neutral name. Much as is the case now, I met a lot of people, including people who undoubtedly considered themselves liberal or progressive, who were persistent in asking me what my legal name (or, as they liked to say, “real” name) was. However, I also got this from people who I felt would have gotten it, had I been a trans woman or a trans man. One person I had expected to be an ally made it a matter of contention, arguing that the name I had used before was just as gender neutral, and continued to call me by my legal name. As you might imagine, it is very disconcerting to wonder if you have a fight ahead of you any time someone asks, “What’s your name?”
I once announced to someone that I had started dating a genderqueer person. The first thing she wanted to know was whether my new partner was assigned female at birth or assigned male at birth.
When someone would propose splitting into groups based on gender, I would invariably be asked to join the men’s group and never asked to join the women’s group. On one especially infuriating occasion I was asked to join a men’s group aimed at helping men fight urges to abuse their partners at a time when I was in a relationship with someone abusive.
As for the abusive ex, she was a feminist who, though she claimed to be sensitive to trans folks, drew heavily from second wave feminism when she wanted to justify inequalities in our relationship. In one of the incidents that opened my eyes to how crucial it was that I leave her, she sent me an e-mail written entirely in the third person, in which she referred to me as a man throughout.
At a later point I joined a chat room that offered support to abuse survivors. When one of the chat moderators asked me what my gender was, I told her I was genderqueer. She asked, “Could you find a nicer way to say that?” I felt like asking, “Could you find a nicer way to say you are a woman?” But because I felt I needed the support the chat room offered, I remained silent.
I think that the first four of these experiences arise mainly from the fact that in many people’s minds genderqueerness is not real. Like trans women and trans men, genderqueer folks face an oppressive gender construct that does not acknowledge that someone can have a gender that no one assigned to them at birth. But genderqueer people face another difficulty: The same oppressive gender construct does not admit of any category outside male and female. Even when binary-aligned folks do acknowledge (to some extent) that genderqueerness exists, we tend to separate genderqueer folks into two categories—“male genderqueers” and “female genderqueers”. If we want to make our spaces trans-inclusive, it is not enough to acknowledge that some people have gender identities that are not aligned with the sex assigned at birth. We must also resist attempts to split what is whole.