A couple of weeks ago, Slate columnist Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart (who I've mentioned before) contacted me on Twitter: “I'm doing an article on the genderqueer community and I could really use an AMAB. Would you be up for an interview?” Of course I said yes, so she sent me a few questions by email, to which I gave considered answers. As I never like these things to go undocumented, I'm reproducing it all here (for posterity). The questions are in italics. (AMAB stands for “assigned male at birth”, by the way.)
First, what do you identify as, and why?
Genderqueer and femme. The first as a general, inclusive identity; the second because I realized I was.
Describe your presentation.
Androgynous but clearly male. I mostly wear jumpers and jeans. So while my clothes are all off the women's racks, they're not overtly women's clothes, and no one much notices – or if they do, they don't say anything. I do get a lot of comments (from random people) about my (fake) furry coats (of which I have several) but not in a gendered way. People just say things like “great coat”.
When did you start ID-ing this way? Tell me a bit about your history.
I've identified as genderqueer for a long time. Femme (which is my main identity) came later, after a lot of reading. My history is as a life-long crossdresser (we mostly use the term “transvestite” in the UK). I spent a long time trying to understand what I was doing without reference to notions of "femaleness" (which aren't correct for me; I'm not trans in that way). Eventually I realized that femme fit me very well, though I came to that sort of by reflection: by reading about butch women, and in particular Leslie Feinberg's ‘Stone Butch Blues’.
In your own words, explain what genderqueer means as if I don't know much about the topic.
I use the word at its most inclusive; i.e. someone whose gender is "queer" (non-normative) in some way, without specifying how. For me that takes the form of "inappropriate" femininity. Explaining this stuff to people who don't know much about it is difficult because, in that case, they very often haven't thought much about gender at all. In the UK, I'd probably point to someone like Eddie Izzard, though I don't know whether he's ever used the label genderqueer for himself. (He identifies as a transvestite.)
Do you know or regularly interact with other genderqueer people, either online or in real life?
I know a lot of non-binary and trans (and non-binary trans) people online. How many identify as genderqueer, I couldn't say. I hardly ever interact with them offline since our trans group packed in.
Have you/will you be pursuing any kind of medical transition?
No and no. Or at least I can't imagine I ever will.
What are your thoughts on the gender binary.
That it's a false and oppressive construct (of the patriarchy).
Those were the initial questions, which were followed up a bit:
You said that you weren't trans "in that way" (which I understood to mean that you're not in any way female identified). Are you trans in any other way? Or, do you consider yourself cis? Do you feel that there's a grey area that cis and trans don't adequately cover?
I'm not female identified, no – so, as a male person in a binary sex system, I'm not trans (in that way), I'm cis. But of course the trans umbrella covers more than that. There are significant parts of me which the binary gender system genders away from me, so on those terms I am trans. On the other hand, I regard the binary gender system as an oppressive falsehood, and from that perspective I'm not trans because the gender border (that "trans" indicates a crossing of) doesn't really exist, so there's nothing actually to cross. But that latter is a theoretical/political perspective (derived from radical feminism); of course society mostly insists that the binary gender system is real.
Yes, there are always grey areas, people who fall through the cracks in any model of sex and gender. Personally, I'm both/either cis and/or trans depending on context, but neither feels exactly right. Yes, I am a male person in a binary sex system (in as much as sex is truly binary) and receive a fair amount of male privilege thereby, but "male" never feels like an adequate description. In particular, I dislike male pronouns, ticking the “M” box on forms, etc, being put in the discrete category "male". It always rankles. But I'm not non-binary either, so I'm stuck with it. I just wish I could append a “but” to that – male, but... – and have that “but” recognized.
Also, do you (or have you at any time in your life) experienced dysphoria?
Not proper dysphoria. I experience a kind of dysphoria when I can't express myself in a gendered fashion as fully as I might like. There's a quote from Ellen Grabiner (in ‘The Femme Mystique’): “It's when you push boundaries of gender that people freak out. Could I ever be brave enough to look as butch as I sometimes feel?” Equivalently, could I ever be brave enough to look as femme as I sometimes feel? Sometimes I feel very very femme, and I can't really express that. So yes, there's dysphoria there. But it's not full on, make this stop right now dysphoria. Butch Wonders wrote about this last year and identified it as dissonance/discomfort, rather than dysphoria. It's more a drip drip drip kind of thing, though that can become very severe indeed if it's not addressed. And reaching that “very severe indeed” stage is very common in my community – or at least it was; perhaps less so now with the internet.
And there you have it.
As it turns out, Vanessa only quoted my “history” answer, using it as one of a few examples of multifarious genderqueer identities. And that's fine. Her piece, ‘What the Heck is Genderqueer?’, is intended as an introduction for people who don't know what genderqueer is or means, and I'm happy to help and be part of that – even if the proper answer is that it means all sorts of different things.
Take, for instance, a point she makes lower down: “[M]any of the terms associated with genderqueerness end up referring back to masculinity or femininity in some way, which is a bit tricky if the ideal is to move beyond the gender binary entirely.”
Yes, it's tricky; it's always tricky. How do we describe our gender issues so that they make sense to other people, including ourselves? Very often we end up referencing normative notions of gender, even when we regard those as erroneous (or at least incomplete). If this seems like classic doublethink, well, okay, so it is. We're stuck in an oppressive culture that posits binary gender as the sole reality and we have to deal. For me, genderqueer is one reaction (of many) to that, a practical response, a political response, a quiet (or not-so-quiet) resistance, a way of working around the gender system, or expanding the terms of it – or simply a way of hacking out space in which to... live.
“[T]he fact is that some people feel constrained by a culture that insists that they be either male or female, with all the expectations, assumptions, and stereotypes that come along with choosing one of those identities. (...) [A]ccommodating genderqueer individuals really isn’t so difficult. It comes down to listening to what they say about themselves, accepting that this is true for them, and not making a fuss about it.”
Or as Paris Lees put it in DIVA magazine: “Don't be an asshole.”