This gender identity is not the same as non-binary or gender fluid.

By Karen Pallarito
July 29, 2020
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Whether you’re exploring your own gender identity or striving as a cisgender person (someone whose personal identity and gender matches their birth sex) to relate to people who don’t conform to society’s binary gender construct, it helps to understand the language around gender identity. This includes getting a handle on the meaning of "genderqueer."

What is genderqueer—and how does it differ from non-binary?

Genderqueer describes people who "characterize themselves as neither female nor male, as both, or as somewhere in between," according to Encylopaedia Brittanica. OutRight Action International, a New York City-based advocacy group for LGBTQ individuals, says that the term "refers to people who have a non-normative or queer gender. Genderqueer is often used to refer to people who reject labels and conformity to specific gender norms."

Genderqueer is similar to the term non-binary, which refers to people who fall outside of the male/female gender construct, states OutRight Action International. But as the organization points out, the language used to describe gender identity is constantly in flux.

Case in point: Los Angeles-based actor, writer, and producer Jacob Tobia (they/their) identified as genderqueer in 2008 as a teenager growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina. Tobia still embraces the term but tells Health that they feel “like a grandma in the [queer] community” because Gen Z kids grew up using the term non-binary.

In psychological literature, genderqueer and non-binary are thought of as synonymous, Jonathan Mathias Lassiter, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, tells Health. The difference, in his view, is that genderqueer tends to have a political connotation. “Typically, people who identify as genderqueer…want to dismantle gender as a construct altogether,” says Lassiter, co-editor of Black LBGT Health in the United States: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation.

What does it mean to be genderqueer?

Tobia, author of Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, is not a fan of rigid terms and definitions. When someone asks “What is being genderqueer?” they tell people to go to the Internet. But, continues Tobia, “if someone’s like, ‘What does being genderqueer mean to you?’ oh, well now, do you have time for a coffee?” That’s when the more nuanced discussion about people’s personal stories can begin.

To Tobia, learning the word genderqueer was “a chance to look at myself clearly in the mirror for the first time." They describe gender identity as a layer cake—and the more layers the better: “I’m trans, I’m non-binary, I’m genderqueer, and I’m gay.”

San Francisco-based illustrator Maia Kobabe, who in 2016 began posting autobiographical comic strips on Instagram titled GENDERQUEER, tells Health: “I identify as genderqueer and non-binary because of how I relate to my own body and my own sexuality." Kobabe's gender exploration via comic strips was a way of coming out to love ones who didn’t understand what identifying as genderqueer encompassed.

Genderqueer vs. gender fluid—what’s the difference?

“When we’re talking about genderqueer, there may be some people who identify as being fluid—oscillating between poles, if you will, embracing some of the masculine and the feminine,” says Lassiter. Other people who are genderqueer have a more fixed identity, he adds. Kobabe, author of the graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir, is one of those people who feels non-binary all the time: “I kind of hang out in this totally third zone.”

As for how the various descriptors line up, Kobabe sees genderqueer, non-binary, and gender fluid as “a three-leafed, overlapping Venn diagram” and imagines the folks who consider themselves “agender” being off to the side.

So how does genderqueer differ from gender expression?

Genderqueer is a gender identity; it’s how people internally identify how they think about themselves. “It’s who you know yourself to be,” says Tobia, while gender expression is “what you show to others.” That can encompass how you behave, what you wear, and what your hair and makeup choices look like.

For people in the transgender community (whose gender identity and expression differ from their sex assigned at birth), gender expression is often limited by discrimination. Tobia admits there are times when their gender expression is conventionally masculine for safety reasons. “When I’m flying, I’m not going to wear a skirt, even though I might want to wear a skirt because I feel cute, but I just don’t feel like dealing with other people’s reactions,” they say.

What do cisgender people need to know about being genderqueer?

One of the biggest misunderstandings, says Kobabe, is the idea that genderqueer people don’t exist, or that it’s fake or just a phase or an aesthetic choice. “There are people who really struggle with the idea that there’s something other than male or female,” Kobabe explains, pointing out examples throughout history of cultures that recognize and accept more than two genders.

If genderqueer individuals experience psychological distress, Lassiter notes, it’s because of the discrimination and prejudice they feel—not because they do not conform to a gender binary construct. “Once we understand that someone is genderqueer, that is only one part of them,” he says.

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