From A to T: Advice for Trans and Gender Nonconforming Youth, Adolescents, Families, and Allies Words, Words, Words Part 1: Transgender and Genderqueer

Words, Words, Words Part 1:
Transgender and Genderqueer

Enjoying 'winter' everyone?

And now for another edition of:

From A to T: the semi-regular feature in which I address questions from youth and adolescents who identify as trans, transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, genderfluid, gender expansive, androgynous, agender, bigender, demigender or otherwise nonbinary, as well as from families, educators, school counselors, therapists or any other allies.

Today's topic:
Words, Words, Words:
What is 'transgender,' and what is 'genderqueer'?

Sometimes it's all about language. Today I'll start a sub-sub-blog... an ongoing, occasional and semi-regular feature examining some of the different terms in use by the trans and gender nonconforming community.

Trans, transgender, transsexual (not generally acceptable anymore), genderqueer, genderfluid, bigender, agender, demigender, androgynous, two-spirit, 'gender unicorn,' and countless others... the terms are evolving faster than their Wikipedia entries. For outsiders, it can be confusing. (Even for insiders.)

But labels convey who we are. They help us define our identities, capturing in a single word or phrase the many nuanced aspects of our selves. They make it easy for us to relate ourselves to those around us, and to find community. But they can also trap us within the bounds of the generally accepted meaning of the term itself.

It's important to remember something from Communication Theory: two people using the same word don't necessarily mean the same thing. "I have an apple" could refer to a Red Delicious, a Granny Smith, a Braeburn... or a laptop computer. It's necessary to make clear that everyone in the conversation has the same understanding.

Yet again, the obligatory pseudo-legal disclaimer: These are for general guidance only. I'm a therapist, but probably not your therapist. Please use the better judgment I know you have, and decide for yourself if my comments work for you. If you need more specific information, seek out a therapist or doctor.

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Question 42: Everyone now is genderqueer. I was just getting used to 'transgender' and 'transgendering.' What does it mean???

'Transgender' is the most common term used nowadays, having gradually replaced 'transsexual' since the '90s. Some felt the latter was stigmatizing and derogatory: a medical term to diagnose us, or a pejorative to shame us.

'Transgender' is primarily used as an umbrella to describe the community as a whole and anyone who feels or expresses a gender other than that of their birth, while a smaller number of people think of it as referring only to someone who changes their gender from something relatively binary to something relatively binary (i.e. 'male' to 'female') and those who have 'fully transitioned' (whatever that may mean) with hormones and surgery. 'Trans' is shorthand, but generally used only by those within the community.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: 'transgender' is not a noun or a verb, but an adjective. One is not 'transgender,' nor does one 'transgender.' They are a 'transgender person' who 'changes their gender.')

But not everyone feels 'transgender' fully captures who they are, so some have been using 'genderqueer' to describe those in a subset of the 'trans experience.' As a term it is about twenty years old, started by activists looking to expand the possibilities of gender identity. And like many of the other words, genderqueer also has more than one possible meaning.

Some use it to refer to anyone who understands or expresses their gender in nonbinary ways. This is another umbrella term, covering all people who don't clearly identify as 'male' or 'female.'

But for some of us the term is far more political. I identify as genderqueer, and to me it means that I am actively 'queering' gender: playing with norms, problematizing them, forcing my gender in others' faces and demanding it be recognized. Dressing as I do is comfortable for me, but also it is intentionally provocative. If I, as a genderqueer trans woman, wear a shirt, tie and vest despite having undergone 'male-to-female' transition, what does that suggest about my own gender or how our society understands gender? If someone transmasculine dons a dress and cosmetics, does that invalidate his?

Maybe instead genderqueerness highlights that the norms we have all come to accept in society, that 'men' are to dress a certain way or that 'women' are to dress a certain way (never the twain to meet), are artificial. Maybe what those of us who identify as genderqueer are demonstrating to the world is that gender is far more broad and nuanced than we otherwise might believe, and that the traditional understandings we have internalized are breaking down. For the better. Maybe we, as the trans and gender nonconforming 'community,' can lead our world into a deeper understanding of gender as a facet of the human experience.

And so when a stranger first calls me 'sir,' then stumbles, unsure what honorific to use, I smile.

Does that help?

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Time to say goodbye for today. Feel free to email questions at Laura@LauraAJacobs.com so I have material for future columns.

You can find information about me as a psychotherapist, speaker, writer and activist at my website: www.LauraAJacobs.com.

Here in New York City there are no complaints about the lack of snow, though we are well aware that global warming will someday have its' revenge. (I drove the convertible top-down on Christmas Eve.) Have faith; spring is coming.