Beyond Male and Female: Creativity, Risks, and Resilience Among Genderqueer People in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey

Are you male or female? For many people, answering this question doesn't cause a moment's hesitation. But for genderqueer people, this question isn't so easy to answer, and survey research that offers only two gender options may overlook genderqueer people's experiences altogether.

Genderqueer people are those who identify their gender somewhere between male and female, reject traditional notions of gender, or reject the concept of gender altogether. The latest issue of the Harvard Kennedy School's LGBTQ Policy Journal presents new research focused specifically on genderqueer people and describes the risks and resiliencies of those who identify outside the male/female gender binary. This new article shows that genderqueer people have unique demographic characteristics and experiences of discrimination and violence when compared to transgender people who identify as "male" or "female."

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), a joint project of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, provided the opportunity for survey participants to identify their gender as "male," "female," "part time as one gender, part time as another," or "a gender not listed here." Most survey participants identified as "male" or "female," but over 800 (13 percent) selected "a gender not listed here" and chose to write in their own gender. "Hybrid," "either/or," "both/and," and "mosaic" are just a few of the ways these genderqueer participants described their gender.

The remarkable list of specific gender identities offered by genderqueer people in the study provides an important snapshot of the complexities of gender identity and self-determination among genderqueer people in the U.S. today. Many study participants responded to the question "What is your primary gender identity today?" by critiquing the question itself, entering such responses as "gender is a performance" or "gender does not exist." Others responded with a subversive or creative approach to living in a gender-polarized culture that generally sees only two genders, with such replies as: "birl," "jest me," or "gender rebel."

Compared with transgender survey participants who identified as "male" or "female," genderqueer participants were both younger (89 percent were under age 45, compared with 68 percent) and more likely to be people of color (30 percent compared with 23 percent). Particularly, genderqueer people were more likely to be multiracial than the others (18 percent compared with 11 percent). This means we should be thinking more about how race and age shape gender identity and expression.

Additionally, genderqueer individuals faced unique patterns of gender identity-based discrimination and violence. In some settings, genderqueer people experienced higher rates of physical assault and police harassment than their transgender counterparts in the survey. In other cases, they experienced similar or lesser impacts of discrimination. For instance, genderqueer people were less likely to have been fired from a job due to bias.

Understanding these nuances creates a host of policy implications, including around bullying and violence in schools. Genderqueer respondents reported being harassed in elementary and high-school settings at an alarming rate: 83 percent. Sixteen percent reported being sexually assaulted at school. As teachers and administrators think about how to create safer school environments, they should implement interventions that recognize the various ways youth express their gender and teach respect for diverse gender expressions.

Researchers should also be thoughtful about how to incorporate gender beyond the male/female binary. Surveys that only allow two gender options -- male or female -- will miss the opportunity to study the unique experience of transgender and genderqueer individuals. Researchers can learn from the structure of the NTDS survey instrument, which, by posing nuanced and open-ended questions on gender, was able to record and illuminate genderqueer people's creativity, resilience, and risks for discrimination and violence.

Through the creative project of self-determination and naming, genderqueer NTDS participants offered an important critique of the rigid social structures that force gender segregation in everything from baby blankets to developmental toys for children. Genderqueer people's experiences of violence suggest that standing outside these rigid gender structures is often met with significant backlash, and from many of the institutions and mentors that propose to nurture and educate children. As our understanding of gender identity and expression expands, we are challenged to reconfigure our policies and institutions to reflect the new realities of gender in our social world.

Jack Harrison, Jaime Grant, Ph.D., and Jody L. Herman, Ph.D. are co-authors of "A Gender Not Listed Here: Genderqueers, Gender Rebels, and OtherWise in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey," published in the 2012 Harvard Kennedy School's LGBTQ Policy Journal.