What is genderqueer?

Genderqueer is a gender identity that’s built around the term “queer.”

To be queer is to exist in a way that may not align with heterosexual or homosexual norms. Although it’s typically used to describe a person’s sexual orientation, it can also be used to express a nonbinary gender identity.

A “queer” gender may fall outside of, fall in between, or fluctuate among the binary gender categories of man and woman. People who are genderqueer often experience their gender as fluid, meaning it can shift and change at any given time. Genderqueer can also describe a position of questioning one’s gender identity during a particular period of time or in an ongoing way.

Not only is it one of the most common identities under the transgender umbrella, younger generations are increasingly identifying as genderqueer. GLAAD’s 2017 Accelerating Acceptance survey found that 1 percent of the overall population of 18- to 34-year-olds identifies as genderqueer.

In order to really make sense of what genderqueer means, it’s important to remember that gender isn’t always black and white.

There are two parts to our genders. Gender identity is how you identify yourself, whether as a man, woman, or something else entirely. Gender expression is how you express and present yourself in terms of masculinity and femininity.

Although we’ve often been taught that man and woman are two completely separate categories, both gender identity and gender expression exist along a spectrum.

People can identify more closely with being male or female, or they may fall anywhere in between the two categories. Likewise, a person can identify more with masculine expression, feminine expression, or both. They may also identify somewhere in the middle, or they may switch between the two on any given day.

People who are genderqueer can present and express themselves in any number of different ways. A person doesn’t need to look androgynous or act in a way that is neither masculine nor feminine in order to be genderqueer, although they may do so if that feels right to them. It’s all about how a given person understands their own personal gender identity.

Genderqueer and nonbinary identities can and often do overlap with one another. And, there is some amount of debate about what the difference between the two really is.

Nonbinary tends to be used as more of a catchall for people who don’t identify with the binary categories of man and woman. Genderqueer often describes a particular experience under that umbrella, which may include feeling that one’s gender is fluid.

But for a long time, genderqueer identity has been open to anyone who “queers” gender. This means anyone who does things that are outside of the norm of their actual or perceived gender identity.

Many of us do things that aren’t considered “normal” for people of our gender identity, so under this second framework, genderqueer could actually be a much larger umbrella than nonbinary.

Because genderqueer incorporates queer, and because queer identity has specific political roots, there can be a particular political bent to identifying as genderqueer that someone who is nonbinary may or may not share.

As always, it’s up to each person to determine which of these terms works best for them.

“I identify with the term genderqueer more so than gender fluid or gender nonconforming, or even really with nonbinary, though I do use that term sometimes when talking about my identity,” Jay said. “I prefer genderqueer because it feels like it leaves it open to interpretation daily, which is how I feel about my gender. I feel differently day to day, so sometimes certain terms fit and sometimes they don’t, but genderqueer kind of always fits.”

There are any number of different identities that fall outside of the categories man and woman and potentially under the genderqueer umbrella.

Such identities include:

  • agender
  • bigender
  • pangender
  • gender fluid
  • androgynous
  • neutrois
  • demigender

People who are genderqueer may identify solely as genderqueer or as genderqueer and something else. For example, a person might identify as a genderqueer trans woman or a bigender androgynous genderqueer person.

Transgender people can also identify as genderqueer and vice versa. Some genderqueer folks choose to undergo social, legal, or medical transitions, including taking hormones, changing their name, or having surgery to affirm and express themselves in ways congruent with their gender identity.

Genderqueer people can and do use many different pronouns, including gendered pronouns like he/him/his and she/her/hers.

There are also pronouns that are more gender neutral. One of the most common is they/them/theirs. You might have learned in grammar class that using “they” as a singular pronoun is incorrect. But, we do it all the time in our everyday speech.

For example, if your friend gets a phone call and you don’t know who was on the line, you might ask, “Why did they call you?” Making the adjustment to using the singular “they” is as simple as that!

Some people have also created their own gender neutral pronouns. These include pronouns such as ze/hir/hirs, which you use in the same way you’d use he/him/his or she/her/hers.

Some genderqueer people prefer not to use pronouns at all, instead being referred to simply by name in situations where a pronoun might otherwise be used. Others may request that you use different pronouns based on how they’re feeling on a given day.

And, still others may be open to using any pronoun and ask that you switch between several different pronouns when referring to them.

The best thing to do if you’re unsure what someone’s pronouns are is ask!

According to a 2012 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s 2008 Transgender Discrimination Survey, genderqueer people experience more discrimination in certain areas than their transgender peers.

The report determined that 32 percent of genderqueer people had experienced bias-related physical assault, compared to 25 percent of all respondents. It also noted that 36 percent had postponed medical care for fear of bias, compared to 28 percent of all respondents.

There are a number of things that you can do to show your support for the genderqueer people in your life and help alleviate some of this discomfort. For example, removing gendered language from your vocabulary can be an easy first step.

If you aren’t sure what someone’s pronouns are or are addressing a group, swap in something like “folks” for a group of people or “friend” in place of “sir” or “ma’am.”

Other things you can do to prevent misgendering and affirm a person’s identity include:

  • Don’t make assumptions about how people identify. You may think you know how someone identifies based on their appearance or the way they behave, but you can never truly know until you ask.
  • Always ask! It’s important to ask people what their pronouns are and in some cases how they identify, especially if you’re uncertain. Make sure you offer up the same information about yourself when you do.
  • Don’t ask invasive questions about a person’s body or medical history unless they’ve given you permission to do so.
  • Be prepared for the possibility that your genderqueer friend’s pronouns and expression may change over time. Just be sure to check in with them and go with the flow!
  • Know that it’s totally fine to mess up. We all do. The best thing you can do if you use the wrong pronouns or make a mistake in how you treat someone is to apologize and move on.

More and more people are coming to understand themselves as genderqueer, and acceptance of transgender and gender nonconforming people is on the rise. It’s important that the general population learns more about genderqueer people and how to treat people who are genderqueer with sensitivity and care.

KC Clements is a queer, nonbinary writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Their work deals with queer and trans identity, sex and sexuality, health and wellness from a body positive standpoint, and much more. You can keep up with them by visiting their website, or finding them on Instagram and Twitter.