This is an open, emotionally uncharged/neutral, frank, matter of fact and honest message about me. It’s adapted from a message originally sent to my close family on International Trans Day of Visibility (Thursday 31 March 2016). Hence some of the assumptions made here about understandings of gender may not apply more generally, but given the huge variation in this respect and the indirect audience, I’ve left it in a fairly thorough form. It’s intended to be an aid for full and rich understanding of who I am and how I’ve come to identify myself in a way which would not be possible in speech. Be prepared to learn some stuff about who I am but be clear from the outset that who I am is who I have been: I’m unchanged, but I’d like how who I am is described to be more accurate (in short: don’t worry, just read). It may at times (particularly at the beginning) be quite dense and theoretical and there are probably words you won’t understand, but please do stick with it as it’s important, has practical implications and hopefully you’ll get at least some sense for it as it all unfolds, so please do read it in full.
So over the last few years and particularly the last 12-18 months I’ve been delving more into gender – gender theory, conceptualisations of gender identity and expression and so on. Maybe a year ago I really began to question my own identity and took on a tripartite system of labels: man (as a reflection of my socially-conditioned ways which at the time I didn’t reject), agender (as in without gender or not having gender; largely for political reasons in my case) and genderqueer (this term should become clearer later). I never really announced this – I was honest about it as and when and if it came up and changed my Facebook pronoun(s) and details (but no one takes any notice of that unless they are a new contact), but never went out of my way to tell people. That was mainly a political “why should non-normative people have to state their non-normativity any more than normative people have to state their normativity?” decision, but I’ve come to realise gender is not quite the same as sexuality in this regard. The issue with not announcing a realignment of gender labels with reconceptualised gender identity is that other people’s beliefs and assumptions about our gender are fed back to us very visibly on a regular basis. These assumptions arise particularly in third-person pronouns, “he said this; here he is; he helped me do this” and statements like “the boys are here; he’s a nice lad; what a gent you are; that’s my boy; well done son” (and also systematically/institutionally: forms with two options for gender; gendered toilets; gendered clothes shops or gendered areas within clothes shops…). By contrast, assumptions about sexuality are – at least in this culture in this age – much more rarely fed back to us. Yes, many people who are only attracted to people of the same gender do face presumptuous questions like for women “do you have a boyfriend?” or for men “do you have a girlfriend?”, but compared to assumptions about gender assumptions about sexuality raise their head far less often.
When the gender assumptions of others epitomised by such language use do not align with your conceptualisation of your own gender, a phenomenon called (gender) dysphoria is not uncommon. This, in essence, is a feeling of discomfort when misgendered (as in, when gendered pronouns or terms that don’t align with your identity are used to describe/refer to you), whether knowingly or not – it’s generally a very instinctive, emotional and very much involuntary reaction to misgendering, not a logical or rational one based on the intentions or knowledge of the utterer. For information, dysphoria is the etymological opposite of euphoria (side note: cis is the etymological opposite of trans). This feeling is not pleasant and for me over the last few weeks I have begun to feel this in a way I don’t think I did (at least not as much) before, and it has grown and grown. This is because I now identify solely as genderqueer/non-binary (and not as a man or agender). [I would bold the last sentence, as it’s the key message, but I wanted the stuff before to be read before rather than priming being triggered in any way by reading a bold sentence first.] Not all genderqueer/non-binary people identify as trans (for various reasons) but many do (for various reasons). I’ve come to join the latter camp of late: I do identify as trans.
I had been thinking about coming out to my partner and close family in the weeks leading up to it actually happening. I came out to my partner I think the day before close family in a more informal, conversational manner, but still in written form (for context, we are currently around 6,500 miles apart due to national immigration laws, with a 7/8 hour time difference). For me, it’s much easier to express all of this with some degree of articulacy and accuracy in writing, and to avoid my emotions about matters of identity destroying any form of articulacy I may have in (very) live communication. The use of this medium is not a devaluation of the message or the importance of it being heard, but just – as stated at the top – an aid for full and wholesome understanding and clarity, as well as a safeguard against the overwhelming emotions that come with live disclosure. So after failing to bring it up with my parents on Wednesday at the point of communication about confirmation of PhD funding, I realised Thursday was International Trans Day of Visibility and thought: what clichéingly brilliant timing.
Also, I’m not gay. I’m queer. Queer is a re-appropriated term, one that may offend some of the older generation given its offense-intending history, but to an increasingly less degree and it is now very commonly used as a form of self-identification. Queer is used for various different meanings, the most common of which I will highlight here:
- As a catch-all for all non-normative gender, romantic and sexual identities.
- As a catch-all for all non-normative (romantic and) sexual identities.
- As a specific (romantic and) sexual identity that I describe as cloudy and amorphous – one that lacks definition as to the characteristics (gender etc.) of whom the objects of attraction may be, potentially rendering such detail irrelevant and opening up the possibility of being attracted to anyone, or alternatively acknowledging the inequality of attractions for people of different characteristics. This is what my use of the term queer as applied to my own identity means – I have a tendency of being attracted more often to people identifying as men and who have some stereotypically feminine elements (in a Western paradigm) to their presentation, or people who queer gender, rather than people on the more stereotypically feminine side of the spectra, but I have been attracted to a very broad range of people and in reality have no boundaries, just tendencies.
Okay, back to gender. I realise you may be thinking: “but what on Earth is genderqueer/non-binary?”. I may have mentioned the non-binarity of gender before, but to most people probably only very briefly and at a very surface level (like “this is what I’m going to research”, then subject to funding), so now ends the narrative element of this message and begins the theoretical element.
I’ll draw briefly on some of the elements of the training my friend Kit and I provide on trans and non-binary identities. Firstly, binary conceptualisations of gender assume all people fit neatly into two categories: men and women. They don’t. Gender is not binary.
Another important point to understand is that gender is not sex. Sex is the biological – the physiological, the chromosomal etc. (though some would argue it’s just as socially constructed as gender, but we won’t go into that here) – whereas gender (in a popular but not uncontested model) is (primarily?) about two things: identity and expression. Identity being what you in your head understand yourself to be, and expression being how you project your gender through appearance, behaviour and so on. Gender identity and expression are usually socially conditioned and assigned at birth. (Side note: for people brought up to follow the gender norms of women, we say they were assigned female at birth (AFAB); for people brought up to follow the gender norms of men, we say they were assigned male at birth (AMAB).) However, the social conditioning of gender identity and expression does not make them unreal – we still have an inner sense of what it means (to us, individually, not broadly or universally) to be a man, woman or otherwise, and that’s a real thing just as any other potentially-but-not-entirely invisible elements of our identity are (like class or cultural background).
Biologically I’m male [update 13 October 2016: this is a simplistic view of sex and biology which I’d now avoid altogether1], and (at least currently and currently indefinitely) have no intention to pursue treatment to change my biological makeup. I was assigned male at birth, but I’m not a man. My identity is better labelled as genderqueer. My expression has been somewhat fluid and changing over time already, but it may (or may not) be more radically so. However, it’s important to note that my expression does not change my identity and there is not a set of clothes that I must wear, for instance, as a genderqueer queer person, much as there is not a set of clothes anyone must wear as a man or a woman (i.e. men can wear dresses and be no less men and women can wear baggy, straight-cut clothes and be no less women, even though such clothes are traditionally associated more with particular genders in our culture), and there is not a set of social traits I must adopt as a genderqueer person, much as both men and women should be free to like or dislike sport or sewing, be verbose and/or blunt without their gender being called into question (despite socially-reinforced cultural norms).
Essentially, I’m still me. I’m still Andy and I still don’t identify with the label “Andrew” (but perhaps even more so). I’m still a contentious, radically-oriented, social justice-pursuing, hip hop-loving, sleepy, overworked yet often lazy (for spoon-regenerative purposes; see spoon theory to get this non-metallic reference) human. But the label “man” just doesn’t fit that human anymore in a way that “genderqueer” does. I’m the same on the inside and the packaging on the outside may or may not change from time to time, but the label on it most definitely has.
Okay, I’ve veered back into the narrative and this is already very verbose. I’ll end on a few practicalities/further key points:
- Use “they/them/their” to refer to me in the third person, not “he/him/his” (side note: this is not grammatically incorrect and even if it was deemed so we must acknowledge the reality of constant language change – throughout our history and future – and that notions of grammatical acceptability are therefore historically and culturally situated [update 13 October 2016: the Baltimore Sun produced an excellent video on singular they and grammar]).
- Use gender-neutral terms to refer to me: Andy/child/sibling/partner, not son/brother/boyfriend/lad (not that I’ve ever identified as a “lad”)/boy. Gendered terms are more common than you might think, so you might trip up. If you are unsure about whether a term is gendered (like “guy”, for instance), ask, but don’t necessarily expect me to provide a definitive answer as it may sometimes be subjective (or I may not know!).
- If you trip up, correct yourself and move on. If you don’t notice and I correct you, accept the correction and move on.
- Use “Mx” or nothing at all as an honorific (title), not “Mr”. Preferably nothing, but “Mx” if something. “Mx” does not indicate gender (and by extension does not necessarily indicate non-binarity, but is generally used by non-binary people to avoid being assigned a binary gender of man or woman).
- Feel free to explain anything to anyone/pass this message on etc. My identity is not a secret – it was there to find on my Facebook profile already, this is simply the “you need to know this because it affects many minutiae of everyday life that all come together to form broad acceptance and inclusion”. It’s now public on my website.
- Don’t act surprised if I express my gender in ways either foreign to you or different from how I have in the past – just accepting however I choose to express it is massively encouraging and validating.
- Do ask questions if you’re confused, but be wary that sometimes it takes a lot to talk about matters of identity, to do them justice in live words and not get emotional about the whole thing, especially when you’re talking about non-normative matters that are not widely understood or even acknowledged. So sometimes I might not be able to answer. And if an answer confuses or surprises you, don’t turn the conversation into a debate – that can venture into the pretty or very invalidating. Ask further questions in a neutral manner and ideally not in group situations. The spotlight can be damaging to articulacy and composure.
- You may want to check out the gender unicorn for a further introduction to some of the concepts touched on above. (Though note there are many models and theories of gender and so on; this is only one.)
I’m sure there are many more things I should have covered that I’ve missed, but I’ll end it there for now…
Support is very important in validating (creating a sense of validity and acceptance) my identity and making it easier to live in a world in which binaries are just assumed and very rarely called into question. Support and following of the practicalities above will make me happy.
Okay, now the serious part’s over, here’s a gravity-breaking “it’s all cool” duck.
1 See, for example, the article It’s time for people to stop using the social construct of “biological sex” to defend their transmisogyny, the most relevant part of which I have quoted below.
Since “biological sex” is actually a social construct, those who say that it is not often have to argue about what it entails. Some say it’s based on chromosomes (of which there are many non-XX/XY combinations, as well as diversity among people with XY chromosomes), others say it’s genitals or gonads (either at birth or at the moment you’re talking about), others say it’s hormone levels (which vary widely and can be manipulated), still others say it’s secondary sex characteristics like the appearance of breasts, body hair and muscle mass (which vary even more). Some say that it’s a combination of all of them. Now, this creates a huge problem, as sex organs, secondary sex characteristics and hormone levels aren’t anywhere close to being universal to all people assigned a particular gender at birth.